Born in Vienna, Austria, Lise Meitner was the third of eight children of a Jewish family. She entered the University of Vienna in 1901, studying physics under Ludwig Boltzmann. After she obtained her doctorate degree, she went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck and work with the chemist Otto Hahn. She collaborated with Hahn for 30 years, each of them leading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Hahn and Meitner collaborated closely studying radioactivity, with her knowledge of physics and his knowledge of chemistry.
With the discovery of the neutron in the early 1930s, speculation arose in the scientific community that it might be possible to create elements heavier than uranium (atomic number 92) in the laboratory. A scientific race commenced between Ernest Rutherford in Britain, Irene Joliot-Curie in France, Enrico Fermi in Italy, and the Meitner-Hahn team in Berlin. At the time, all concerned believed that this was abstract research for the probable honor of a Nobel prize. None suspected that this research would culminate in nuclear weapons.
After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Meitner fled Germany for Sweden. She continued her work at Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm, but with little support, partially due to Siegbahn's prejudice against women in science. Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments and exchanged a series of letters. The experiments which provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin. This surviving correspondence demonstrates that Hahn believed nuclear fission was impossible until Meitner demonstrated to him that it had happened. Hahn later claimed that his chemistry had been solely responsible for the discovery.
It was politically impossible for exiled Meitner to publish jointly with Hahn in 1939. Hahn published the chemical findings in January 1939 and Meitner published the physical explanation the following month with her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch, and named the process "nuclear fission". Meitner recognized the possibility for a chain reaction of enormous explosive potential. This report had an electrifying effect on the scientific community. Because this could be used as weapon, and the knowledge being in German hands, Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner together jumped into action, persuading Einstein, who had the celebrity, to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warning letter, which led to the Manhattan Project. Meitner refused an offer to work on the project at Los Alamos, declaring that "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!" (Sime, 305)
In 1944, Hahn received a solo Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. In the opinion of many scientists, Meitner should have shared the prize. The omission may have been due to Hahn's public claims that the discovery was solely the work of chemistry. Speculation also persists that Nobel committee member Siegbahn's antipathy toward Meitner played a role. The omission was partially corrected in 1966, when Hahn and Meitner together were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award with Fritz Straßmann. On a visit to the USA in 1946 she received American press celebrity treatment, with the usual press inaccuracy, as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse". She was honored as "Woman of the Year" by the National Women's Press Club (USA) in 1946; received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society, 1949.
- Otto Robert Frisch, (ed.) 1959. Trends in Atomic Physics: Essays Dedicated to Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue on the Occasion of their 80th Birthday. New York: Interscience.
- Patricia Rife, Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age Birkhäuser, 1999
- Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0520089065