Lise (Elise) Meitner is regarded as the most significant woman scientist of the twentieth century. Meitner studied radioactivity and nuclear physics. She helped discover nuclear fission, a process that splits uranium’s atomic nucleus into two parts and creates a massive release of energy. This discovery pioneered nuclear reactors to generate electricity and the production of nuclear weapons in World War II.  


Although women typically were not allowed to attend college in the early 1900s, Meitner studied math and physics at the University of Vienna. She became the second woman to earn her doctorate in physics there. In 1926, Meitner was the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany. As a Jew in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Meitner was stripped of all her titles and positions and forced to flee the country to Sweden. 


Meitner was part of a research team that discovered nuclear fission in the late 1930s. Her male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery, but Meitner was not selected for the award. However, Meitner received several national honors and awards at the end of her life, including having radioactive element 109 (“meitnerium”) named after her in the periodic table.


Around 1908, Meitner and others in her family converted from Judaism to Christianity. Meitner had a strong interest in religion, and she was surrounded by many good people of faith.  


Meitner found a lot of joy and wonder as she studied science, and said that it “makes people reach selflessly for truth and reality.” She recognized the value of science and the gift of understanding ultimate truth and reality about the world.

Meitner with Cornell and Compton

Meitner with Cornell and Compton

Elise Meitner with actress Katharine Cornell and physicist Arthur Compton on 6 June 1946, when Meitner and Cornell were receiving awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews

Meitner and Hahn

Meitner and Hahn

Otto Hahn & Lise Meitner in the lab

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner, 1878-1968, lecturing at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., 1946