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Meitner, Lise

berlin hahn fission soon

[miyt ner] (1878–1968) Austrian–Swedish physicist and radiochemist: co-discoverer of nuclear fission.

Meitner studied physics in Vienna under and in Berlin . Soon she was attracted into radiochemistry, and worked with in Berlin in this field for 30 years.

Despite her talents she was a victim of more than one prejudice, being both female and a Jewish Protestant. In academic Vienna she was regarded as a freak; she was only the second woman to obtain a doctorate in science there. In Berlin, could not allow women in the laboratory, although he welcomed her 2 years later when the State regulations changed. In 1912 she began working with Hahn at Berlin-Dahlem, but the war soon interrupted their work. His leaves from the German Army sometimes coincided with hers from nursing duty in the Austrian Army; however, some radio-chemistry involves long gaps between measurements; and so they were able to continue some of their work and announce a new radioelement, protactinium, at the war’s end. In 1918 she became head of physics in the Institute, and continued her work on radioactivity.

In the 1930s she and Hahn worked on uranium bombarded with neutrons, initially not realizing that fission was occurring. By the late 1930s her Jewishness was a threat to her safety, and friends (including Hahn ) helped her escape through Holland to Denmark and then to Sweden. In Stockholm a cyclotron was being built; although aged 60 she learned Swedish and built up her research group again. Hahn sent her the results of his work on neutron bombardment of uranium, begun with her and F Strassmann (1902–80), but which he had erroneously interpreted. She discussed the work with her nephew who was visiting her. They shaped their joint and novel ideas on ‘nuclear fission’ into a paper, which was actually composed over a telephone line since he had by then returned to Copenhagen.

She declined to work on the atomic bomb, hoping that the project would prove impossible, and did no more work on fission. In 1960 she retired to live in England after 22 years in Sweden.

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