Person

Women of the Manhattan Project: Lise Meitner

Black and white photo of a woman sitting in a chair with a bookshelf behind her.
Physicist Lise Meitner co-discovered nuclear fission.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Quick Facts
Significance:
Co-discoverer of nuclear fission
Place of Birth:
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Date of Birth:
November 7, 1878
Place of Death:
Cambridge, England
Date of Death:
October 27, 1968
Place of Burial:
Bramley, Hampshire, England
Cemetery Name:
St. James Parish Church

Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise Meitner enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1901 and became only the second woman to earn a PhD in Physics from there in 1905. After receiving her PhD, Meitner moved to Berlin, Germany to work with physicist Max Planck and chemist Otto Hahn. Meitner and Hahn would work together for over 30 years; in 1918 they co-discovered the element protactinium. 

In 1922, Meitner became the first female full professor of physics at the University of Berlin. In 1926, Meitner began her research on nuclear fission. In 1938, with Nazi Germany seizing power, Meitner fled Berlin, first to the Netherlands and then Stockholm, Sweden. That same year, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann developed evidence of nuclear fission, but it was Meitner and her nephew, physicist Otto Frisch, who theorized that the process resulted from the uranium nucleus splitting in two. Meitner and Frisch were the first to call the process “fission”, and in 1939 they published a scientific paper explaining the process. 

In 1942, Meitner was invited to work on the Manhattan Project but adamantly refused, stating “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” After the war, Meitner continued to avoid any connection to her research and the atomic bomb. 

In 1944, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Otto Hahn for his work on nuclear fission; Meitner and Frisch’s contributions were not recognized. After the war, Meitner continued living and working in Sweden, traveling throughout the United States to give lectures. Recognition for her scientific contributions included the Max Planck Medal in 1949 and the Enrico Fermi Award alongside Hahn and Strassmann in 1966. Lise Meitner died in England in 1968. 

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Last updated: January 11, 2023