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Recognition of an outstanding physicist: Lise Meitner and the Max-Planck Medal

14th December 2018 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

In 1949, the German Physical Society (DPG) presented Lise Meitner with the Max-Planck Medal in recognition of her contribution to the field of nuclear physics.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in a laboratory at Emil Fischer's Chemistry Institute in Berlin. 1909, MTNR 8/4/1

Lise Meitner’s contribution to the field of nuclear physics and her part in discovering nuclear fission is undisputed. However, Meitner, who was the second woman with a doctorate in physics in Vienna and the first female professor of physics in Germany, was never awarded the Nobel Prize even though she was nominated for it nearly 50 times. It was her former colleague Otto Hahn, who was recognised with the Nobel Prize for their work on nuclear fission in 1944, but she received many other awards and, in 1992, a radioactive element was named Meitnerium in her honour.

Amongst the 21 scientific honours the Austrian-born physicist received was the Max-Planck-Medal. The medal is the highest distinction of the German Physical Society (DPG) and is given to researchers for outstanding achievements in theoretical physics. Lise Meitner, the first and, so far, only female honorary member of the Society, was presented with the award alongside Otto Hahn in 1949.

Lise Meitner lecturing at the Max-Planck-Medal award ceremony

Lise Meitner giving a lecture at the award of the Max-Planck Medal, which was presented to her by the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. Bonn, September 1949.  MTNR 8/4/14 (Hans-Hermann Meurers, Koblenz)

Lise Meitner at the Max-Planck Medal award ceremony

Lise Meitner sitting in the front row of a lecture theatre with Theodor Heuss, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, at the award ceremony. Bonn, September 1949. MTNR 8/4/14

The medal, which Meitner and Hahn received in recognition of their work, is held at the Churchill Archives Centre. The Lise Meitner collection contains a large number of the honours and awards that she obtained throughout her lifetime. Her papers were deposited at the Archives Centre by her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, after her death in 1968. Sir John Cockcroft, nuclear physicist and first Master of Churchill College, had contacted Meitner before her death about the possibility of collecting her papers. Cockcroft’s intention was to preserve her papers alongside collections related to the development of atomic energy, radar and the Maud committee.

Front of Max-Planck Medal Back of Max-Planck Medal

The front and back view of Lise Meitner’s Max-Planck-Medal, held at the Churchill Archives Centre. MTNR 1/31 (courtesy DPG). 

Thanks to Cockcroft’s early acknowledgement of Meitner’s contribution to the field of nuclear physics, her collection forms a vital source for research related to this particular aspect of the physical sciences. The papers further reveal the interaction of science and politics in the mid-twentieth century. Due to her Jewish heritage, Lise Meitner was affected professionally as well as personally by historic events of the twentieth century, in particular the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, as she had to flee the country in the 1930s and was forced to leave her work, well-respected position, and many of her friends in Berlin. As a female scientist working in a predominantly male environment, her papers additionally tell of the prejudices she had to overcome but also of the joys she found in her profession.

Through documents, photographs and artefacts, such as the Max-Planck Medal, the Lise Meitner collection sheds a light on the physicist’s professional as well as private life. The papers are open for consultation by researchers visiting the Churchill Archives Centre.

More information

To find out more about the collection, visit our online catalogue for the Meitner papers:

Meitner Papers 

For further enquiries and in order to book a visit to the Archives Centre, do get in touch with us:

Contact the Archives Centre

Lise Meitner symposium — 28 January 2019

In honour of Lise Meitner, the Churchill Archives Centre is holding a one-day symposium in January 2019. The symposium will feature three panels that will explore Meitner’s life and work as well as her scientific achievements and her political legacy. You can find out more here:

Meitner symposium

— Julia Schmidt, Archives Assistant

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