Albert Einstein called Lise Meitner the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century; however, most people have never heard of her. Meitner was a pioneer in nuclear physics and a co-discoverer of nuclear fission in the early-mid 1900s, but her life story is much more than that. On April 9, Anthea Coster, a principal research scientist from the MIT Haystack Observatory, shared with hundreds of attendees Meitner’s story of resiliency, women in science, and her little-known place in history.
“I heard Dr. Coster speak about Lise Meitner last year at a conference and I just knew that this story had broad appeal for everyone — not just physicists,” said Jo-Anne Brown, assistant professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Who was Lise Meitner?
Born in Vienna, Austria in 1878, Meitner was the third of eight children of a Jewish family. In 1901, she entered the University of Vienna when she was 23 years old and quickly learned physics was her calling. She became the second woman to obtain a PhD in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 and went on to become the first woman in Germany to receive the title of professor in physics.
It was during this time she researched nuclear physics, eventually explaining observations of the process she named "fission." Despite her significant role, Otto Hahn alone received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.
In the early 1930s, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were taking power in Germany, Meitner was the head of the physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellshaft Institute for Chemistry. At this time many prominent Jewish scientists were dismissed or resigned from universities in Germany and left the country. Instead of leaving when a number of others did, she continued her research, not believing that the rise of Hitler would affect her.
Although she became a Lutheran in her late 20s, Meitner did need to make a dramatic escape from Germany after Hitler took power. And that’s the connection to Anthea Coster. Coster’s grandfather Dirk was a renowned Dutch physicist at the University of Groningen and was part of the influential group of physicists in Europe, including Meitner. In 1938, in what sounds like a spy novel, Dirk Coster travelled to Berlin to convince Meitner that she had to leave Germany to escape the persecution of the Jews. With one small suitcase, 10 marks in her purse and a diamond ring to be used as a bribe in case of emergency, Meitner and Dirk went by train to Groningen. At the Dutch border Dirk persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands and she entered the country. From there, Meitner went on to Sweden and eventually made her home in the United Kingdom, where she died in 1968.
During her engaging lecture, Coster shared family stories, photos and letters that depicted what life was like in Europe in the leading up to the Second World War.
The public lecture was a partnership between the faculties of Arts, Science and the Schulich School of Engineering. Watch a video of the event.