Science Moms: Lise Meitner

Aarya Venkat
5 min readMay 12, 2019

How many Scientific Fathers do you know? That is, men who developed major concepts like classical mechanics or relativity. How many are household names? Maybe Einstein, Newton, Watson and Crick, and Oppenheimer? All quite recognizable!

How many Scientific Mothers do you know? How many are household names? Definitely not enough! In this series, I highlight Mothers of Science, women whose extraordinary accomplishments furthered our scientific knowledge and laid foundations for the scientific research we conduct today.

We start with Lise Meitner, the mother of nuclear fission. Einstein called her the mother of the atomic bomb, as a parallel to Oppenheimer. She battled sexism, survived the holocaust, and granted the Allies their victory, yet unlike Oppenheimer, she is not a household name.

Lise Meitner was schooled in Vienna until the age of 14. Girls weren’t educated beyond this point in the 1800s, nor was there university education in Vienna to pursue for women at the time. Nevertheless, she persisted finding private educational opportunities to prepare for university.

The doors of the University of Vienna opened to women in 1901. Entranced with the subject of physics, Lise Meitner entered the university and had the incredible luck to study under Boltzmann. Five years later, in 1906, she defended her doctoral dissertation and joined the research lab of Max Planck.

Women weren’t even allowed to listen to the physics lectures of Max Planck. Yet not only did he make an exception for Lise Meitner, he also requested her to be his research assistant. By no means was Max Planck a feminist, but he recognized the genius within Meitner. Meetings at Planck’s house would consist of discussions between Planck, Einstein, Meitner, Otto Hahn, and other scientists.

Her research and publications on radiation led her to briefly work as an X-ray technician during WWI. Being exposed to the horrors of war imbued within her anti-war sentiments that would reflect during the next world war.

After the war, she returned to research and quickly discovered a new element (Protactinium) with Otto Hahn, a world-leading radiochemist. This discovery allowed her to enter a faculty position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the physics department and eventually become a full professor. Of course, this did not come without controversy, the Berlin press would belittle her lectures, suggesting she teaches ‘cosmetic physics’ instead of cosmic physics. In spite of this, She and Hahn continued working together on research that would eventually lead to the discovery of nuclear fission.

However, in 1933, precursors to the Nuremburg laws were enacted stripping all Jewish academics of their title and positions. No longer a professor, Meitner was able to hold onto a lecturer position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She continued to contribute (unpaid) towards the nuclear fission research she and Hahn were working on, until 1938, when she was forced to escape the impending holocaust, securing a position in Sweden. Half a year after she left, Otto Hahn was able to produce evidence of nuclear fission.

Meitner was recruited for the Manhattan project, however, her experiences in the first world war led her to refuse to use her research to build any kind of atomic weapon. She was among a small group of scientists that refused to participate in World War II.

For Oppenheimer, it took an incredible amount of courage to choose to develop the atomic bomb and fight. But I believe that it took just as much courage to refuse to build the bomb, even though it was her life under persecution.

For these reasons and for the transgressions of being a successful woman in science, Meitner was not named for the Nobel Prize for Nuclear Fission, even though her collaborator Otto Hahn was. This was one of the most controversial decisions the Nobel prize committee ever made; insight into how the Nobel prize committee (an all-male panel at the time) made their decision was released 50 years later revealing academic ignorance and sexist bias that clouded their judgement.

But Meitner was recognized by the rest of the scientific community as a pillar for modern nuclear physics research. She was given an excellent research position, where she continued to lecture and research at the Royal Institute of Technology until her retirement in 1960. She received multiple scientific honors and honorary doctorates. An element was named in her honor, Meitnerium. Maxwell Perutz, father of Haemoglobin, nominated her for the Enrico Fermi prize in 1966, which was flown and hand-delivered to her by Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, as Meitner was too frail to receive it herself (she was 87).

Three years later, Meitner passed peacefully and was buried with an inscription bearing “Lise Meitner: A physicist who never lost her humanity.

When I think about Lise Meitner, I think not only of her scientific achievements, but her strength to persist and endure injustice, a captain steering a boat on an ocean of sexism, whose wake generated a path for other female physicists. The scientific community has recognized her accomplishments, but her name still fails to be commonplace among laymen and that’s something we need to change. For her research and nobility, I see no reason why her name shouldn’t be as commonplace as Oppenheimer. Like a mother, she showed immense compassion, endured pain and immense effort, much of which went unrecognized (you know, like a mom). When we talk about Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, why don’t we talk about Lise Meitner alongside him? Why isn’t her name a household name like Oppenheimer, when these achievements belong just as much to her?

This mother’s day, let’s start recognizing important women in science, scientific mothers who challenged the status quo and contributed to groundbreaking research. Let’s make their names household names to inspire young women in STEM. Let’s use their stories to demonstrate what happens when you provide equal educational opportunities to underrepresented classes. Meitner is as big a scientist as all the greats, from Einstein to Fermi, so let’s educate people on how important she is. Let’s make her name a household name. Let’s build a world where people don’t struggle to name even one female scientist.

How many scientific mothers can you name? Maybe one more now?

Happy Mother’s Day!

For more information, check out Lise Meitner: Atomic Pioneer (1969).



Aarya Venkat

I am a Biochemistry PhD student who studies Biophysics and Computational Biology. Sometimes I write articles when I’m angry, like Prof Hulk.