How Have Female Scientists Been Treated Differently?

In 1907, nuclear fission pioneer Lise Meitner was told she couldn’t work in a Berlin chemistry lab in case her hair caught fire.
In 1907, nuclear fission pioneer Lise Meitner was told she couldn’t work in a Berlin chemistry lab in case her hair caught fire.

The world was almost a very different place because of physicist Lise Meitner's hair. As a woman in early 20th-century Germany, Meitner was denied access to the main chemistry laboratory at the University of Berlin because her hair supposedly could have caught fire, so instead she was told to work alone in a small basement lab.

Luckily, her trailblazing work only required some basic equipment -- as well as a working partnership with chemist Otto Hahn. Despite their differences -- she was Jewish, Austrian, and a woman, while he was a German, affluent, and a man -- the two began a collaboration that lasted for decades and culminated in the discovery of nuclear fission. It was a great achievement for anyone, but was made even more astonishing by the fact that one of its discoverers was paid poorly for most of her career and was still living in single student housing in her 40s.

The bias against Meitner didn't stop there. When the Nobel committee handed out the Chemistry Prize in 1944, only Hahn was named on the award. In fact, despite being nominated 19 times for the Chemistry Nobel and 29 times for a Nobel in Physics, Meitner was never honored. Nevertheless, most of the scientific community has come to see Meitner as one of history's greatest scientific minds.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry:

  • John B. Goodenough was 97 years old when he earned the prize for his work on lithium-ion batteries in 2019.

  • As of 2020, only seven of the 185 Chemistry Prize winners have been women.

  • Two Chemistry Prize winners, Richard Kuhn and Adolf Butenandt, were not allowed to claim their winnings under a directive from Adolf Hitler.

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    • In 1907, nuclear fission pioneer Lise Meitner was told she couldn’t work in a Berlin chemistry lab in case her hair caught fire.
      In 1907, nuclear fission pioneer Lise Meitner was told she couldn’t work in a Berlin chemistry lab in case her hair caught fire.