The Woman Behind the Atomic Bomb

When we think of the scientists who enabled the atomic bomb, we tend to think of men: Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller.  Less known is Lise Meitner, whose name has been buried in history by a combination of politics, jealously, and racial and gender discrimination.

Meitner was born on November 1, 1878 in Austria, when women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher learning.  She studied privately and later became only the second woman to earn a physics doctorate at the University of Vienna.  The famous physicist Max Planck, who normally rejected women from even attending his lectures, made Meitner his assistant.

In Germany, she collaborated with chemist Otto Hahn, where they jointly discovered the element protactinium.  But after Germany annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss, the Jewish Meitner was forced to flee to Sweden.  She continued to collaborate with Hahn in secret, which led to the discovery of nuclear fission.  While Hahn performed the experiments, it was Meitner who came up with the scientific explanation.  Nevertheless, when Hahn published his findings, he excluded Meitner’s name, given the anti-Jewish climate in Nazi Germany.

Their discovery spurred Einstein to write to U.S. President Roosevelt, resulting in the creation of the Manhattan Project.  Meitner was invited to join the effort, but declared, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.”  Nevertheless, she became known after the war as “the mother of the atomic bomb.”

In 1944, Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission.  Lise Meitner’s contributions were ignored.  Numerous scientists protested her exclusion; Hahn (after repeatedly downplaying her contributions) later recommended her to the Nobel committee 10 times without success.  The slight became known for years as the “Nobel mistake.”

After the war, Meitner was invited back to Germany to resume her scientific work.  But after she learned of the Holocaust and its effects, she decided never to return to that country.

In 1966, two years before her death, Meitner, Hahn and Fritz Strassmann jointly won the Enrico Fermi Award for nuclear fission.  Element 109, meitnerium, is named after her.  Her tombstone reads, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

In Meitner’s day, women were generally excluded from laboratories; the men were afraid that their long hair would catch on fire.  Today, Agilent is proud to recognize diversity in its workforce and its leadership team.  Darlene Solomon, Ph.D., serves as the company’s chief technology officer, while Shiela Barr Robertson serves as senior vice president of Corporate and Business Development.

Agilent and its employees actively participate in industry groups such as the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Women in Science.  Agilent has also partnered with the Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology in South Korea to help advance women scientists and engineers.


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