Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who was the first woman to be accepted as a student by Max Planck, and the first to obtain a permanent position at a German research institution (the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin).
She worked with a German radiochemist and noted moustache cultivator named Otto Hahn for decades, with a short break for the first half of World War I, during which she was working as a combat radiographer. Together they tackled the mysteries of the infant science of nuclear physics in the '10s, '20s and '30s, and occasionally beefed with the French husband-and-wife team of Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie like scientific proto-rappers.
Meitner was so charmingly absent-minded that Richard Rhodes reports an incident in which a colleague introduced himself at a conference and said they had met once before, and she replied, "I don't recall—are you sure you're not confusing me with Professor Hahn?" Who, let's just bear in mind, was a large man with a renowned moustache.
Unfortunately she was also born Jewish, though she converted to Lutheranism in 1908 and seems to have been so irreligious in general that it never had much significance to her—until the Nazis took over Austria in 1938 and it suddenly became... pressing.
She fled to the wilds of Sweden, in the borderlands with Norway, where it seems she knew a grand total of one person, and did her best to carry on her work and her correspondence with Hahn from there, despite having bigger things to worry about, like not starving or freezing to death.
That winter, Hahn, the chemist, discovered that when he bombarded uranium with neutrons, a whole mess of atoms of lighter elements inexplicably appeared. Meitner, the physicist, realized why it was happening: the uranium atoms were breaking apart into smaller fragments, which would perforce be atoms of lighter elements. This was the discovery of nuclear fission, a scientific phenomenon that would prove somewhat significant in the next little while.
In recognition of the revolutionary importance of this discovery, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry...
... to Otto Hahn.
Let me just reiterate that Lise Meitner was living in Sweden at the time, in order to stay out of the hands of the Nazis that Hahn, being safely classified as an Aryan, didn't have to worry about and was, in fact, still working for at the KWI in Berlin. And yet the Royal Swedish Academy couldn't be bothered to know or recognize that she was the one who had deciphered Hahn's discovery—who had made it mean anything—to him and the rest of the world.
Amazingly, she never seemed to hold it against him. Never really seemed to hold anything against anyone, at least in public. Late in both their lives, Meitner did write Hahn a scathing letter about his failure to resist the Nazis more than he did, but—in her usual retiring style—never sent it, and he never saw it. It was found among her papers after both of them had died, within a few months of each other, in 1968.
Nineteen years later, the Nobel people admitted that passing her over for the 1944 prize may have been an error. Even then they declined to correct it, however, for the same reason that Rosalind Franklin never got one for the work of hers that Watson and Crick stole to "discover" the structure of DNA (of which I have ranted before): Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Anyway, yeah! Lise Meitner. Next time some dude comes out with that tired old rhetorical question about "what have women ever discovered," well, nuclear fission, yo.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
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Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.