Lise Meitner was born on 17 November 1878 in Vienna, the third of eight children of Hedwig Skorvan and Philippe Meitner. Due to a clerical error, her birth date was recorded as 7 November. The young Lise grew up in a liberal, intellectual family environment strongly influenced by music and culture. Her relationship with her parents is very close and warm. Her father, a lawyer, was very progressive. Philippe Meitner's thoughts on health led him to forbid his daughters to wear corsets. Educationally, he insisted on an equal education for all his children. The five daughters of the family received a higher education in a society where school normally ends for girls at the age of fourteen. The Austrian university, which had opened its doors to women in 1897, received Lise in 1901, where she took courses in physics with Ludwig Boltzmann, among others.
With no prospect of a research job in Vienna, the young woman thought of moving to Paris to work with Marie Curie. Finally, she changed her mind and left for Berlin in 1907 to study under Max Planck. The German university was not yet open to women and Lise had to obtain the professor's permission to attend his classes. Planck, generally opposed to the education of women but open to "exceptions", accepted Lise Meitner, for whom he was later to be an important supporter. "...Außer meinen Eltern hat kein anderer Mensch einen so starken Einfluss auf meinen Lebensweg gehabt wie er. Die Studienzeit bei ihm war ausschlaggebend für meine ganze spätere Entwicklung." The young physicist was soon noticed. The chemist Otto Hahn, an assistant at the institute headed by Emil Fischer and keen to collaborate with a physicist, proposed that Lise Meitner work with him: this was the beginning of a thirty-year collaboration that focused mainly on radioactivity. They became renowned for their work, particularly for the discovery of protactinium in 1918. The young woman met many famous intellectuals, including Albert Einstein. She had suitors but never married.
Apart from her work with Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner carried out pioneering research in nuclear physics and made numerous discoveries in the field of fission. Although Lise did not actively contribute to the development of the atomic bomb, her research in this field was nevertheless important: "Natürlich hatte ich seinerzeit keine Ahnung, dass meine rein wissenschaftlichen Untersuchungen zur Konstruktion einer Bombe führen würden. Und als die Möglichkeit erkannt war, wünschte ich sehr, sie würden nicht realisierbar sein. Jetzt kann ich nur sehnlichst hoffen, dass die Menschen die Mahnung, die in einem so furchtbaren Zerstörungswerkzeug an sie gerichtet wird, nicht überhören werden."
Her Jewish background forced her to flee Germany in 1938 and she went into exile in Sweden from where she continued her research. Lise Meitner became a Swedish citizen in 1949. After the war, Lise Meitner confessed her regret at having remained in Germany after the advent of Nazism. She was also critical of those scientists who did not share the Nazi ideology but worked under Hitler's regime, including Otto Hahn, who she reproached for the futility of passive resistance and helping a few friends in the face of the scale of the crimes committed.
But the physicist did not break with Germany, even if she still had ambiguous feelings. She returned to Germany on several occasions but moved to England in 1960 to be near her family. The old lady died in Cambridge in 1968, shortly before reaching the age of 90. The inscription on her grave was written by her nephew Otto Frisch: "Lise Meitner, a physicist who never lost her humanity".
● Lore Sexl and Anne Hardy: Lise Meitner, Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag, 2002.
● Patricia Rife: Lise Meitner: ein Leben für die Wissenschaft, Claassen Verlag, 1992.