Celebrating Two Women In Science - Marie Curie And Lise Meitner

Physicists at Seventh Solvay Physics Conference
Corbis via Getty Images

Since IUPAC approved the elemental name Oganesson in 2006, there are officially 118 elements on the periodic table.  Only 19 of these are named after people, and of these 19, only two are named after women — Element number 96 Curium, named for Marie Curie, and element number 109 Meitnerium, named for Lise Meitner.  

Both women were physicists, and curiously, both women were born on November 7, eleven years apart.

There was no pathway for a woman at the turn of the 20th century to become a physicist.  In fact, the number of women who take up physics today is still surprisingly low. And yet, Curie and Meitner not only became physicists but earned a permanent place at the table — the periodic table, that is. 

Both Curie and Meitner grew up in Europe at the end of the 19th century, before World War I.  Though some careers would open toward women during the war if only because of the shortage of civilian manpower, there was no such need at the turn of the century.  As such, European universities excluded women, as did high schools which served as university preparation grounds.

One characteristic that allowed these women to rise beyond their “accepted” station was having strong parents who believed in educating their daughters.  When in 1897, the University of Vienna opened its doors to women, Lise’s parents provided her a tutor to prepare her for the college entrance exams.  

In Poland, Marie Curie, along with her sister Bronislawa, attended the Flying University, a school that educated Polish women under the Russian radar.  When Bronislawa wanted to pursue a medical degree in Paris, the two sisters made a financial pact in which Marie would work as a governess to support her sister’s studies, after which Bronislawa would support Marie’s.  

Marie eventually earned degrees in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Paris.  After marrying Pierre Curie, the two of them became research partners.

The two Curies received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel, for their discovery of radioactivity.  

When Pierre was tragically killed by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906, leaving Marie a single parent to their 9-year-old and 2-year-old daughters, Irene and Eve respectively, Marie took over Pierre’s teaching position, becoming the first woman to have such a position at the University of Paris.  

Madame Curie not only went on to earn a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry (1911), but their daughter Irene Joliet-Curie later received her own Nobel Prize in chemistry too.

To this day, Marie Curie is the only woman to have received two Nobel Prizes, and the only person — male or female — to earn Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.

Lise Meitner, too, was one of the first women in Europe to attend university, becoming the second woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna.  Being ahead of her time — jobs in Vienna for French teachers were abundant while jobs for female scientists were nonexistent — she moved to Berlin, where she could work as a scientist as long as she didn’t get paid.

Over the course of her 30-year career in Berlin, Meitner became the first female full professor at the University of Berlin and eventually received a commensurate salary.

Curie and Meitner were pioneers not only for women in science but in the burgeoning field of radioactivity.  Each discovered new radioactive elements, though not the ones they are named for.  

Marie Curie along with her husband Pierre discovered the elements Polonium, which she named after her Polish homeland, and Radium.  

Lise Meitner, along with her research partner Otto Hahn, discovered the element Protactinium.  Their most notable discovery, however, was nuclear fission, the splitting of an atom into two roughly equal parts, the very stuff that powered the atomic bomb.  

They also each worked as mobile x-ray nurses during the first world war though for opposite sides — Curie for the Allies and Meitner for the Germans.

Unlike Marie Curie, however, Lise Meitner never received popular recognition. Meitner was well-known and respected by her contemporaries, however.  Albert Einstein referred to Lise Meitner as “our [German] Marie Curie.”

Why Lise Meitner’s name never made it to the popular lexicon probably had less to do with her gender, and more to do with the coming winds of war.  

Marie Curie never lived to see the second world war — she died soon after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Meanwhile, Meitner, a Jewish scientist in Nazi Germany, experienced it firsthand, fleeing in 1938 at the height of her career. 

Within months of her escape, her 30-year collaboration with Otto Hahn resulted in the discovery of nuclear fission.  The contribution to this crowning achievement by a Jewish woman was inconvenient to a propaganda machine bent on promoting Aryan science.  As a result, the discovery was attributed to Otto Hahn alone, and he alone received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Though Lise Meitner received numerous other awards after the war, she never won the elusive Nobel, despite being nominated 48 times. 

A Saturday Evening Post article dubbed her the “Jewish mother of the bomb,” a moniker which she could not shake, even though she adamantly refused to have anything to do with the bomb.

Still, when honored in the United States in 1946 as Woman of the Year by the National Press Club, Harry Truman remarked, "So you're the little lady who got us into all of this." 

Far ahead of their time, Marie Curie and Lise Meitner pioneered a pathway for women in science.   

Today in the US, women earn over half of all bachelor’s degrees in science, 44% of master’s degrees, and 41% of doctorate degrees and make up 44% of the scientific workforce, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.   Women’s median annual salary in the sciences, however, is $66,000, in stark contrast to men’s median annual salary of $90,000. 

Despite their role models, women’s participation in physics remains markedly lower than in other sciences. Women earn only 19.3% of all the bachelors’ degrees in physics, 22.1% of master’s degrees, and 19.3% of doctorate degrees. And, they make up just 19% of the physics workforce.  

Of the 616 science Nobel laureates, only 20 have been women.  According to physicist Olga Botner, “The number [of women in science] has been increasing steadily over the years, but the number of nominations rather reflect the percentages as they were, say, two or three decades back in time.”  

Women who pursue science still have a long uphill battle before them, but, for those who heed the call, there may just be a place at the table —  the periodic table, that is — for them.

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Since IUPAC approved the elemental name Oganesson in 2006, there are officially 118 elements on the periodic table.  Only 19 of these are named after people, and of these 19, only two are named after women — Element number 96 Curium, named for Marie Curie, and element number 109 Meitnerium, named for Lise Meitner.  

Both women were physicists, and curiously, both women were born on November 7, eleven years apart.

There was no pathway for a woman at the turn of the 20th century to become a physicist.  In fact, the number of women who take up physics today is still surprisingly low. And yet, Curie and Meitner not only became physicists but earned a permanent place at the table — the periodic table, that is. 

Both Curie and Meitner grew up in Europe at the end of the 19th century, before World War I.  Though some careers would open toward women during the war if only because of the shortage of civilian manpower, there was no such need at the turn of the century.  As such, European universities excluded women, as did high schools which served as university preparation grounds.

One characteristic that allowed these women to rise beyond their “accepted” station was having strong parents who believed in educating their daughters.  When in 1897, the University of Vienna opened its doors to women, Lise’s parents provided her a tutor to prepare her for the college entrance exams.  

In Poland, Marie Curie, along with her sister Bronislawa, attended the Flying University, a school that educated Polish women under the Russian radar.  When Bronislawa wanted to pursue a medical degree in Paris, the two sisters made a financial pact in which Marie would work as a governess to support her sister’s studies, after which Bronislawa would support Marie’s.  

Marie eventually earned degrees in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Paris.  After marrying Pierre Curie, the two of them became research partners.

The two Curies received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel, for their discovery of radioactivity.  

When Pierre was tragically killed by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906, leaving Marie a single parent to their 9-year-old and 2-year-old daughters, Irene and Eve respectively, Marie took over Pierre’s teaching position, becoming the first woman to have such a position at the University of Paris.  

Madame Curie not only went on to earn a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry (1911), but their daughter Irene Joliet-Curie later received her own Nobel Prize in chemistry too.

To this day, Marie Curie is the only woman to have received two Nobel Prizes, and the only person — male or female — to earn Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.

Lise Meitner, too, was one of the first women in Europe to attend university, becoming the second woman ever to receive a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna.  Being ahead of her time — jobs in Vienna for French teachers were abundant while jobs for female scientists were nonexistent — she moved to Berlin, where she could work as a scientist as long as she didn’t get paid.

Over the course of her 30-year career in Berlin, Meitner became the first female full professor at the University of Berlin and eventually received a commensurate salary.

Curie and Meitner were pioneers not only for women in science but in the burgeoning field of radioactivity.  Each discovered new radioactive elements, though not the ones they are named for.  

Marie Curie along with her husband Pierre discovered the elements Polonium, which she named after her Polish homeland, and Radium.  

Lise Meitner, along with her research partner Otto Hahn, discovered the element Protactinium.  Their most notable discovery, however, was nuclear fission, the splitting of an atom into two roughly equal parts, the very stuff that powered the atomic bomb.  

They also each worked as mobile x-ray nurses during the first world war though for opposite sides — Curie for the Allies and Meitner for the Germans.

Unlike Marie Curie, however, Lise Meitner never received popular recognition. Meitner was well-known and respected by her contemporaries, however.  Albert Einstein referred to Lise Meitner as “our [German] Marie Curie.”

Why Lise Meitner’s name never made it to the popular lexicon probably had less to do with her gender, and more to do with the coming winds of war.  

Marie Curie never lived to see the second world war — she died soon after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Meanwhile, Meitner, a Jewish scientist in Nazi Germany, experienced it firsthand, fleeing in 1938 at the height of her career. 

Within months of her escape, her 30-year collaboration with Otto Hahn resulted in the discovery of nuclear fission.  The contribution to this crowning achievement by a Jewish woman was inconvenient to a propaganda machine bent on promoting Aryan science.  As a result, the discovery was attributed to Otto Hahn alone, and he alone received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Though Lise Meitner received numerous other awards after the war, she never won the elusive Nobel, despite being nominated 48 times. 

A Saturday Evening Post article dubbed her the “Jewish mother of the bomb,” a moniker which she could not shake, even though she adamantly refused to have anything to do with the bomb.

Still, when honored in the United States in 1946 as Woman of the Year by the National Press Club, Harry Truman remarked, "So you're the little lady who got us into all of this." 

Far ahead of their time, Marie Curie and Lise Meitner pioneered a pathway for women in science.   

Today in the US, women earn over half of all bachelor’s degrees in science, 44% of master’s degrees, and 41% of doctorate degrees and make up 44% of the scientific workforce, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.   Women’s median annual salary in the sciences, however, is $66,000, in stark contrast to men’s median annual salary of $90,000. 

Despite their role models, women’s participation in physics remains markedly lower than in other sciences. Women earn only 19.3% of all the bachelors’ degrees in physics, 22.1% of master’s degrees, and 19.3% of doctorate degrees. And, they make up just 19% of the physics workforce.  

Of the 616 science Nobel laureates, only 20 have been women.  According to physicist Olga Botner, “The number [of women in science] has been increasing steadily over the years, but the number of nominations rather reflect the percentages as they were, say, two or three decades back in time.”  

Women who pursue science still have a long uphill battle before them, but, for those who heed the call, there may just be a place at the table —  the periodic table, that is — for them.

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