The Enrico Fermi Historical Museum of Physics and Study and Research Center remembers a male or female scientist who has suffered discrimination or persecution due to their Jewish origins.
This year, as part of the Manhattan Project Conferences, we dedicate this day to Lise Meitner.
Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise Meitner moved to Berlin in 1907 to further her studies in Physics, in a period in which women still struggled to cross the threshold of the University.
It took her decades to gain acceptance as a scientist, despite her cutting-edge research and the results she achieved together with her friend and colleague Otto Hahn. Then, finally, after the First World War and years of hardship and precarious employment, she was the first woman in Germany to obtain the title of Professor. In addition to her title, she is assigned the directorship of the Physics Institute of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, while Otto Hahn is the director of the Chemistry Institute. She can finally consolidate research projects, purchase instruments, and attract students.
Lise Meitner is a woman in her academic career when, in 1933, the Nazi Party came to power and the racial laws were promulgated. Although baptized, her origins are Jewish. In July, she was prevented from teaching, and the appeals of the great physicist and colleague Max Planck at the Ministry, the protests and threats to abandon Otto Hahn’s academic staff were of no avail.
Lise resists for a few years; her Austrian nationality, for the time being, protects her from more severe repercussions. But in 1938, with the invasion of Vienna by German troops, any hope of being able to remain in Germany was lost.
In July 1938, Lise organized her escape from Berlin, leaving her colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann to continue the project undertaken years earlier based on the results of Enrico Fermi’s experiments. To help her, Otto gives her a diamond ring that belonged to her family. The journey is long and full of obstacles, but he finally arrives in Sweden. Here, she finds refuge at the Nobel Institute for Experimental Physics through the physicist Manne Siegbahn, but she is not offered the opportunity to continue working. You have neither tools nor collaborators at your disposal.
Otto and Lise continue to write to each other. At the end of 1938, he asks her for help in interpreting the results of an experiment that she doesn’t understand… Studying Otto’s notes, Lise understands that something unheard of has happened in the Berlin laboratory. The nucleus of the atom was split in two. But recognition for this discovery would only come after the war. The 1945 Nobel Prize will go only to two chemists: Hahn and Strassmann.
Lise Meitner’s story is about falls and rises, of stubbornness and dedication. Doubly discriminated against because she was a woman and because she was Jewish, she had to start over several times. Here, we have told her life in a few lines, but we recommend two books for further information:
Robert Marc Friedman, Remembering Miss Meitner: A one-act play
Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner. A Life in Physics, California University Press