Female Scientist Birthday Announcements: Radiation Edition

Happy birthday to Lise Meitner (136) and Marie Curie (147)!

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878. She obtained her doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 (she had to attend a private institution, since public institutes did not admit women at the time). In 1909, she began research with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm institute, and by 1926 she was a full professor at the University of Berlin. It was while working with Hahn that she and another scientist first articulate the theory of nuclear fission to explain how uranium would break apart into smaller elements after being bombarded with neutrons. In 1938, she fled from Nazi Germany into Sweden, eventually taking a position at the University of Stockholm. She worked in Sweden until 1960, when she retired to the United Kingdom. Lise Meitner died in 1968.

Marie Curie was born in Poland in 1867. When Russia outlawed lab instruction in schools, Marie’s father, a teacher, brought home lab equipment for his children to learn with. From a family that had become destitute after supporting Polish independence, Marie worked as a tutor and governess for many years before saving enough money to join her sister in Paris. There, she attended the University of Paris, where she gained two degrees in physics and chemistry, the first in 1893 and the second in 1894. In 1894 she also began working with Pierre Curie, whom she would eventually marry.Her work with uranium lead her to the discovery of radium and polonium; she also coined the term radioactivity.In 1906 he became the first female professor at the University of Paris, following the death of her husband. In 1903, she and her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physics; her second Nobel Prize, this one for Chemistry, was awarded in 1911. Sadly, after years of exposure to radiation, she died in 1934 of aplastic anemia. Although Dr. Curie never acknowledged the potential health risks of radiation, her papers are now considered too radioactive to handle without protection.

Though both these women were pioneers in radiation chemistry and nuclear physics, only one (Curie) was ever honored by the Nobel committee. Meitner was later honored when element 109 (meitnerium) was named after her. Both of these women had long and fascinated careers that I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and I encourage everyone to read up on them today.

Want to see your favorite female pioneering scientist acknowledged? Give me her name and birthday in the comments, and we’ll make it happen!

This post written by R. Eaton. Information sourced from Wikipedia.

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