Swedish-Austrian physicist, born in Vienna. Her exact date of birth is uncertain, as records from the Jewish community where she was born give the date as November 17, 1878, however all other documents give her date of birth as November 7, 1878, which was the date she herself observed for her birthday. She was the third of the eight children of Philipp and Hedwig Meitner, who all, including the five daughters, remarkably, eventually received advanced education. Lise finished the limited schooling available to Austrian girls at the time at the age of 13, because at the time Austrian women were not allowed to attend universities. She had shown a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and physics even at that time, however, her choices as a Jewish woman in Austria at the end of the nineteenth century were very limited. For a time she taught French at a finishing school for middle-class girls, but her heart yearned for higher learning. Fortunately for her, times were changing, and at the time women were beginning to enter the Universities, and finally, in October 1901, she entered the University of Vienna, where, anxious to make up for lost time, she took 25 hours a week in courses of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and botany. It was during this time that she decided to enter into experimental physics, as classroom lectures bored her, but laboratory work held endless fascination.
In her second university year she began her physics education in earnest, taking up subjects in mechanics, electromagnetism, acoustics, optics, and kinetic theory. All of these subjects, were, however, taught by only one man: the famed theoretical physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, whom Lise Meitner would fondly remember as her favorite teacher, the one who gave her the energy to pursue a career in physics. Years later her nephew Otto Frisch would write: "Boltzmann gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost." She completed her studies in 1905 with excellent marks, and tried to begin a career in research. However, she had no idea where she could do that, and teaching did not really appeal to her.
The suicide of her mentor Ludwig Boltzmann in 1906 further strengthened her resolve to remain in the field of physics. At the time she had immersed herself in the new and growing field of radioactivity. Eventually, she went to the University of Berlin in 1907 to study under Max Planck. There, she met the chemist Otto Hahn, who would be her collaborator for almost 30 years, and she doing the physics and he the chemistry for their research into radioactivity and nuclear physics, forming a team that would compete with other pioneers such as Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot. Among their most famous discoveries was the new element protactinium.
After James Chadwick had discovered the neutron in 1932, the community of nuclear physicists knew at once that this would be an important tool in unlocking the secrets of the atom, and Hahn and Meitner were not slow to recognize this fact. After Enrico Fermi had shown in 1934 that radioactive isotopes could be produced by irradiating various elements with neutrons, Hahn, Meitner, and their other collaborator Fritz Strassman set out performing experiments of their own. By 1938, they began to find very mysterious results with their experiments on neutron bombardment of uranium.
Because of her Jewish descent, Dr. Meitner had to emigrate during the Anschluss (Nazi annexation of Austria) in 1938, and settled in Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm. Because she had not been asked to join Siegbahn's group there and not given resources to start her own group, she settled with corresponding with Otto Hahn in Germany regarding their previous experiments. In November 13, 1938, Hahn secretly met with Meitner in Stockholm and she suggested that Hahn and Strassman perform certain tests on the byproducts of their uranium-neutron experiments. Much to their astonishment they found barium in the results, which Lise Meitner explained, with the help of her nephew Otto Frisch, as the nuclear fission of the uranium, using Niels Bohr's liquid drop model of the atomic nucleus. Their paper appeared in the February 11, 1939 edition of Nature, and soon after Niels Bohr hastily made his way to the United States with news of their discovery, just months before World War II broke out, where its military possibilities were immediately recognized, and eventually led to the Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear energy.
This discovery of nuclear fission required Meitner and Frisch's insight into physics as much as Hahn and Strassman's chemical work, which is why many believed that Otto Hahn should have shared the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with his longtime collaborator Lise Meitner. However, her separation from her colleagues and scientific and actual exile led to the Nobel committee's failure to understand her part in the discovery. Hahn later rationalized her exclusion and others further buried her role in that pivotal discovery. The mistake of the Nobel committee in excluding her has of this writing never been corrected, but partially rectified when she received the Fermi Prize in 1966 along with Hahn and Strassman. The new element with atomic number 109, meitnerium is named in her honor, while hahnium for element 105 has not yet been officially adopted as a name for the element.
After the war she was a visiting professor at the Catholic University in Washington D.C. and later lectured at Bryn Mawr College. She died on October 27, 1968, a few months after Otto Hahn.
"Lise Meitner: A Battle For Ultimate Truth", http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/meitner.html
Chapter 1 excerpt of Sime, Ruth Lewin, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, University of California Press, 1966.
"Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassman", http://www.chemheritage.org/EducationalServices/chemach/ans/hms.html