Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
An Austrian Jew and a woman, Meitner was constrained early in her career to
working without pay in a basement room in Berlin. For many years, she
collaborated closely with the chemist Otto Hahn; they even discovered a new
chemical element together. But Hahn later betrayed her friendship, failing to
keep her from being expelled from their institute after the Nazis had gained
power. Isolated in Sweden, she nevertheless continued to guide and interpret
Hahn's work, ultimately realizing that his results represented the splitting of
the atom—nuclear fission—in accordance with Einstein's equation
E = mc2. Hahn claimed the discovery for himself and accepted
a Nobel Prize for it without crediting Meitner. She later received informal
recognition for her role.
Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972)
The young Goeppert thrived in the stimulating environment of the university
town of Göttingen, Germany, where many world-famous physicists worked and
studied. Her intellect and abilities were encouraged by her supportive father
and many available mentors. She married a physical chemist, Joseph Mayer, but
due to rules against nepotism, she had trouble finding jobs at the universities
where he worked. During World War II, she was part of the Columbia University
team of the U.S. government's secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb.
In 1963 Mayer won a Nobel Prize for her work on the shell model of nuclear
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
Wu was born in China, where her father opened the first girls' school. He
advised her to always "Ignore the obstacles . . . just put your head down and
keep walking forward." In 1936 she came to the University of California at
Berkeley. She received her doctorate there and began working on the Manhattan
Project. She developed a process to separate fissionable uranium-235 from
uranium-238, a key step in accumulating uranium fuel for the bomb. Later, as a
professor at Columbia University, she conducted experiments that led to a Nobel
Prize—awarded to two male scientists who had requested her help. However,
Wu did receive other prizes and recognition for her important work.
What Does It Mean to You?
Each of these physicists had to overcome challenges to be recognized and
respected in her society. Do you notice some similarities in their stories?
What kinds of challenges face people today who wish to become scientists?
Now Check This Out!
Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics
by Ruth Lewin Sime. University of California Press, 1996.
Find out about Meitner's life and work, including her discovery of nuclear
Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous
Discoveries, 2nd ed.
by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. Birch Lane Press, 1998.
Learn about 15 women who have won or contributed significantly to a Nobel
Prize in science.
Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics
Explore biographies, photographs, quotations, and documents of 86 pioneering
women in diverse areas of physics, including those related to E =