Lise Meitner laughs as she shakes hands with her colleague Otto Hahn and congratulates him. The year is 1945, and Hahn has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But if you know her history, you can assume that it was a bittersweet laugh. Hahn was honored for his proof of nuclear fission, while Meitner played a crucial role in its first scientific explanation.
Quite a few believe that Lise Meitner should (also) have received this Nobel Prize. This - or one of the next years. In fact, the Austrian was nominated for the award, a total of 49 times: 19 times for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 30 times for the Nobel Prize in Physics. But every time she gets nothing, others are preferred to her.
Meitner, born in Vienna in 1878, was a pioneer as a woman in science right from the start. She is only the second woman to do her doctorate at the University of Vienna. This is followed by positions in Berlin at the Chemical Institute and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, where she works partly unpaid. There she also met Otto Hahn, with whom she would work closely - and very insightfully - in the decades that followed.
Meitner's talent for physics and chemistry is unmistakable, also for Max Planck, whose unofficial assistant she becomes at the Chemical Institute. Nevertheless, Meitner has to recognize again and again that as a woman she is far from being a full member of the research community. For years she was only allowed to enter the institute through the back entrance, because in Prussia women were only officially allowed to study from 1909. Nevertheless, the Austrian continued to rise, made discoveries together with Hahn and finally became the first female professor of physics in Germany in 1926.
Because of her Jewish origins, Meitner lost her teaching license after the Nazis seized power in 1933. In 1938 – after the annexation of Austria by the German Reich – she fled to Stockholm at the age of almost 60. Otto Hahn helps her to organize the illegal departure. She can continue her research at the Nobel Institute in the Swedish capital. She and Hahn continue to be in close correspondence.
In this way, her rooster also reports on a discovery he made in his experiments: During experiments with uranium, he observed a phenomenon that he cannot explain, the "bursting" of the uranium nucleus. He only tells Meitner about it. "Perhaps you could calculate something and publish it," he wrote to her at the end of 1938. Meitner set to work with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch. Together they calculate back and forth and thus lay the foundation for the proof of nuclear fission.
The discovery caused a stir in research, and the USA wanted to win over Meitner for their "Manhattan Project" to build an atomic bomb. The pacifist refuses, stays in Stockholm. However, she was denied the Nobel Prize for her significant contribution to this groundbreaking discovery for the rest of her life. Hahn, on the other hand, is awarded - Meitner probably fails not least because of the simple fact that she is a woman. "Hahn certainly fully deserved the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, there's really no doubt about that. But I believe that Frisch and I have contributed something not insignificant to the elucidation of the uranium fission process," she writes to a friend.
She is sure of the respect of her colleagues: Otto Hahn himself nominates his close confidante for the Nobel Prize, Max Planck even nominated her seven times. Each time without success. All the more ironic that Meitner was later awarded the Otto Hahn Prize. She maintained a close, friendly relationship with her research colleague until his death in 1968. She never held it against him that he was favored by the Nobel Prize Committee.
Sources: German Historical Museum / German Patent and Trademark Office / "Standard"