Only two women have ever received the Nobel Prize in Physics since the first prizes were awarded in 1901, Marie Curie in 1903, and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.
Marie Curie won her prize in physics, along with her husband Pierre, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel,” and Mayer won her award “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.” With the dearth of women in science, especially in physics — there is a statistical report by the American Institute for Physics that 20% of all those earning bachelors and Ph.Ds. in physics are woman — is it any wonder that very few women have received this seemingly elusive honor?
And yet, I’d argue, it’s not for lack of trying. The Nobel Prize database provides details of every nomination, including the identity of the nominator, made 50 or more years ago. Doing such a search reveals one female physicist whose name was nominated time and time again, year after year, by such luminaries and previous recipients as Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Louis de Broglie. That physicist was Lise Meitner.
Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist born in 1878, was the second woman ever to earn her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna. In fact, the University of Vienna did not even admit women into its programs until 1897, when Lise was 19 years old.
Lise Meitner, along with her lifelong research partner Otto Hahn, discovered the element Protactinium, atom number 91. She was a foremost expert in radioactivity at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, where she and Hahn, irradiated samples of uranium with protons, alpha particles and neutrons to uncover the secrets in its nucleus.
In the 1930s, she and Hahn were in a race to discover elements with atomic numbers greater than that of uranium, 92, known as the transuranium elements, against Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot in France and Enrico Fermi in Italy. Every one of these scientists received a Nobel prize for his/her contributions to science, everyone but Lise. Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie received the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their “synthesis of new radioactive elements,” and Enrico Fermi received the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for “for his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons.”
Lise Meitner’s Jewish heritage caught up with her, and she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in the dead of night on July 13, 1938. With nothing to her name but “10 marks in her purse,” she emigrated to Sweden. Though she continued to work with Hahn via letter and telegram up to and including the discovery of nuclear fission in December of that same year — she and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch in fact gave fission its name — she was essentially written out of the discovery, at a time when it was the German modus operandi to write non-Aryans out of everything — even Albert Einstein’s work on relativity was dismissed as “Jewish physics.” Otto Hahn alone received the 1944 Nobel prize in chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.” How much easier it was to write a woman out of the story I’ll leave to the reader to assess. But before you do, I want to leave you with some numbers.
Marie Curie was nominated 5 times for the Nobel prize. She received two Nobel prizes, one in chemistry and one in physics. Her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie was nominated 18 times and received the 1935 Nobel prize in chemistry. Enrico Fermi was nominated 38 times and received the 1938 Nobel prize in physics. Otto Hahn, Lise’s research partner, was nominated 39 times and received the 1944 Nobel prize in chemistry. Lise Meitner was nominated 48 times and never received a Nobel prize.
Here is a list of her nominations and those who nominated her.
|Date||Field||Nominator First Name||Nominator Last Name|