KEYWORDS: Women Scientists, Germany, Chemistry, Periodic table, Element discoveries, Collaborative Couples
SHE THOUGHT IT
Ida Tacke Noddack is the co-discoverer of Rhenium (Re), a chemical element with the atomic number 75. She, her husband Walter Noddack, and Otto Berg published their discovery in June 1925 and in the same publication they also mentioned the identification of element 43, naming it masurium¹ (p.128). Up to this day however, it remains disputed whether they should be given credit for the discovery of element number 43, that is now officially named technetium (Tc), or not² (p.378).
As for the discovery of Rhenium (Re) – one of the world’s rarest elements with an estimated abundance of about one part per billion³ (p.493) – Ida Tacke Noddack, together with Walter Noddack, and Otto Berg, was definitely the first to succeed in its identification which could also yield weighable amounts of the new element to prove its existence⁴ (p.101). Having completed the literature research, Ida Tacke and Walter Noddack had started the practical work that consisted in looking for the missing elements of the periodic table in manganese ore by means of what is known as wet chemistry⁵ (p.109). Particularly, Ida Tacke Noddack also used X-ray spectroscopy, a method she had been trained in at the Siemens & Halske laboratory. This method was of particular importance in identifying the new elements⁵ (p.110).
Besides her discoveries, Tacke Noddack’s view on the elements was part of a broader picture of the world. In a 1934 article, she suggested that the periodic table could provide scientists with new discoveries beyond the elements and could give insights into the structure of matter in general² (p.378). Moreover, Ida and Walter Noddack estimated the natural occurrence of all elements in minerals that can be identified in the earth’s crust while searching for the missing elements, and established themselves as geochemists⁵ (p.124).
It was in connection to the research in the field of geochemistry, that Ida Tacke Noddack put forward the theory of mineral Allgegenwartskonzentration (a mineral’s omnipresent concentration). This theory supposes “a threshold concentration for each element, beyond which the element could not be identified – the Allgegenwartskonzentration”⁵ (p.124). The theory allowed her to relate the relative abundance of the elements to hypothetical properties of the atomic nuclei and, consequently, to think of a different layout of the periodic table, in which isotopes might be the cause of the unknown features of periodicity² (p.373). By doing so, Ida Noddack had questioned the fundamentals of the periodic table and was addressing problems of scientific theories that had gained almost dogma-status² (p.383).
Her willingness to contradict established theories attracted harsh critique from the scientific community² (p.384), but allowed her profound insights, as shown in the 1934 response paper to Fermi. In this paper, she put forward the criticism that Fermi had misinterpreted his data and suggested that in his experiments he had split uranium instead of discovering a new element heavier than Uranium (U). By doing so, Ida Tacke Noddack had been pointing to nuclear fission⁶ (p.434). Commentators since have thought about the reasons for which Tacke Noddack’s breakthrough theory has not been given attention⁷. The lack of communication between the Noddacks and Hahn and Meitner, who went on to discover nuclear fission in the late 1930s, might be related to the ascribed positive attitude of the Noddacks to National Socialism⁸. The fact that scientists in Germany ignored Ida Tacke Noddack’s ground-breaking ideas on nuclear fission could be understood as a blessing because, otherwise, they would have allowed Germany to produce an atomic bomb before the Allies⁶ (p.434).
Although Ida Noddack constantly insisted on her ideas of fission, all prominent nuclear physicists ignored her hypothesis, which in the end prevailed and was eventually confirmed by Hahn and Meitner² (p.383).
Ida Tacke was born in 1896 in Lackhausen, near Cologne, in the German Empire. She was educated at the Technical University in Berlin-Charlottenburg where she was one of the first women to study chemistry and metallurgy⁹ (p.57). After graduating in 1918, she focused on research into fatty acids and obtained her university degree of Dr. Eng. in Chemistry in 1921² (p.374).
In the following years, Ida Tacke worked as a commercial chemist in the laboratory of AEG’s Berlin turbine factory² (p.374) and, later on, at Siemens & Halske⁹ (p.57). Since 1922, Ida Tacke kept in contact with Walter Noddack, a researcher at the Physical Chemistry Department of the University of Berlin. In 1924, she decided to quit her position in industrial chemistry to work as an unpaid collaborator for the Imperial Physical Technical Institute, where Walter Noddack was employed² (p.374). They married in 1926, and Ida Tacke took her husband’s name, becoming Ida Noddack⁹ (p.57).
In May 1925, Ida and Walter Noddack published about the discovery of elements 43 and 75, naming them masurium and rhenium⁴ (p.110). To prove their existence, Ida Tacke Noddack and her husband consequently engaged in obtaining weighable quantities of the new elements, collaborating with Siemens, the company for which Tacke Noddack had formerly worked and that showed an interest in Rhenium (Re), which is why they funded their research² (p.375). With further financial support from the German Scientific Energy Fund, the Noddacks travelled to Scandinavia and Russia, trying to purchase minerals that might contain Rhenium (Re)³ (p.104). They eventually succeeded in confirming the discovery of element 75—rhenium—but not of element 43, whose name would be changed to Technetium (Tc) and whose official discovery was to come a decade after³ (p.492).
Following the 1929 Wall-Street crash, Germany passed a new law in 1932, forcing married women to leave their positions in favour of their husband’s employment. However, Ida Tacke Noddack could escape this regulation by working as an unpaid collaborator² (p.375). In 1934, both Ida and Walter Noddack were invited to the Mendeleev Congress in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Ida Tacke Noddack gave a talk on modern methods used in the prediction of new elements⁴ (p.123). In the same year, she published a paper criticising Fermi’s supposed discovery of element 93, pointing instead to nuclear fission, but she found her hypothesis being neglected² (p.375).
Two years after the Nazis had taken power in Germany in 1933, Ida and Walter Noddack moved to Freiburg, where Walter Noddack got a full professorship and replaced Georg Hevesy, who instead had been forced to leave because of his Jewish background² (p.375). The move from Berlin to Freiburg resulted in a sharp decrease of Ida Tacke Noddack’s publications, whose most productive phase was, undoubtedly, during the 1920s and early 1930s⁴ (p.121-22). In 1941, they moved again, this time to the Reichsuniversität Strassburg (Strasbourg Imperial University, the Université de Strasbourg had gone into exile⁹ (p.59)), that would be established as a showpiece of Aryan supremacy by the Nazi government. It was under these circumstances, that Ida Noddack obtained and accepted her first paid academic position² (p.375).
In 1944, during France’s liberation from the Nazis, the Noddacks were evacuated and fled with their lab equipment back to Germany first, and then to Turkey, where they stayed for an extended period¹ (p.129). In the course of the denazification process after the end of the war, they had difficulties in finding employment. Only in 1946, Walter Noddack obtained a position at a technical college in Bamberg. In the same period, he founded a private Geochemical Institute in Bamberg, where Ida Tacke Noddack became, once again, an unpaid member of staff² (p.375).
In the following years, Ida Tacke Noddack also took part in experiments and clinical testing at the Hamburg Klinik both as a patient and as a chemist, as she had problems with kidney stones. She reported about the positive results obtained by a continual rinsing of the kidney with aqueous solutions of sodium and lithium salts of EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) ⁴ (p.122). After Walter Noddack’s death in 1960, Ida Noddack continued researching at the Geochemical Institute in Bamberg² (p.376).
In 1968, Ida Noddack moved to a retirement home near Bonn. In October 1969, then being the only chemist alive having discovered a natural element, she was invited by the USSR Academy of Sciences to the Mendeléev periodic table centennial held in Leningrad. Her illness prevented her from attending but her paper entitled “The Periodic System and the Search for Ekamanganese” was translated into Russian and read to the audience10 (p.225). This was Ida Tacke Noddacks last contribution to science and she died in the retirement home in 1978, aged 8210 (p.225).
Ida Noddack had very often in her life taken the role of a pioneer, criticising persisting concepts and proposing new ones⁴ (p.126) and still, a great part of her work has been largely dismissed11 (p.208). The possible reasons for this are million fold and likely to be found between gender bias and the scientific community not being ready for her progressive ideas7.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
After having resigned from AEG, and after having taken the unpaid position at the Imperial Physico-Technical Research Office in Berlin in 1925, Ida Tacke Noddack never acquired a position independently of her husband and fully dedicated herself to joint research¹ (p.128).
By marrying Walter Noddack in 1926, she became, what was then called a “wife-chemist”, meaning she no longer had any formal status and only had access as an unpaid collaborator to the research facilities where her husband and his associates worked¹ (p.128). However, she did not miss a chance to make it clear that she was not merely her husband’s assistant, but part of a coequal “Arbeitsgemeinschaft”⁴ (p.115), a form of cooperative work unit, where the professor-assistant hierarchy was out of place and where both were supposed to get equal credit for their achievements⁴ (p.8). Nevertheless, it was only after Walter Noddack’s death that she was recognised as a scientist in her own right. What seemed to have started as a joint venture in science of two people with equally valuable qualities and similar education, ended up providing her husband with a successful career and Ida Tacke Noddack with the status of an outsider⁴ (p.126).
Nevertheless, Ida Tacke Noddack earned various distinctions: in 1925, she was the first woman ever to be invited to speak at a meeting of the German Society for Chemists. In 1931, she and her husband received the Justus Liebig Medal from the same society in honour of their discovery of Rhenium (Re)⁹ (p.59). Furthermore, the Noddacks were nominated several times for the Nobel Prize (in 1932, 1933, 1935, and 1937), but they never received it. In 1934, they were awarded the coveted Scheele Medal of the Swedish Chemical Society² (p.375). Apart from that, they managed to secure various patents in relation to Rhenium (Re)² (p.375).
SHE SAID IT
Without doubting the possibility of the creation of “transuranic elements” by means of neutron bombardment of Uranium (U), I have emphasised in a critical review of Fermi’s research in 1934, that his technique of exclusion seems to be conducted only fragmentarily and that Fermi should have compared his new radio element with all the known elements. I said then verbatim: […] ‘It would be thinkable, that by bombarding very heavy nuclei with neutrons these break down into numerous large fragments, that are isotopes of known elements, but not neighbours of the bombarded elements’.
“Bemerkungen zu den Untersuchungen von O. Hahn, L.Meitner und F. Straßmann über die Produkte, die bei der Bestrahlung von Uran mit Neutronen entstehen” (1939), Naturwissenschaften, 27 (13): 212; (my translation).
Also now, after he (note Otto Hahn) has given proof of the fission of Uranium (U) through neutrons in bigger fragments, O. Hahn failed to quote my hypothesis expressed in 1934, that such a process could take place.
“Bemerkungen zu den Untersuchungen von O. Hahn, L.Meitner und F. Straßmann über die Produkte, die bei der Bestrahlung von Uran mit Neutronen entstehen” (1939), Naturwissenschaften, 27 (13): 213; (my translation).
When in 1935 or 1936 my husband suggested to Hahn by word of mouth that he should make some reference in his lectures and publications to my criticism of Fermi’s experiments, Hahn answered that he did not want to make me look ridiculous as my assumption of the bursting of the uranium nucleus into larger fragments was really absurd.
Cited by Rayner-Canham, Marelene F./ Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey (1997), A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity, Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation. p. 224.
THEY SAID IT
The gentlemen OTTO HAHN and FRITZ STRASSMANN have, as communicated to us, neither time nor desire to answer the aforementioned note [comment: referred to quotation 1 and 2 of SHE SAID IT]. They think to be even more able to relinquish on it, as the possibility of fission of heavy atoms into smaller fragments was discussed earlier by various others, without any experimental consequences to be drawn out of that. They leave the judgement whether the claims of Mrs. IDA NODDACK,, as well as the way of presenting them are legitimate or not to their colleagues.
“Anmerkung der Redaktion”, cited in Noddack, Ida (1939), “Bemerkungen zu den Untersuchungen von O. Hahn, L.Meitner und F. Straßmann über die Produkte, die bei der Bestrahlung von Uran mit Neutronen entstehen”, Naturwissenschaften, 27 (13): 213 (my translation).
We did not seriously entertain the possibility of nuclear fission, although it had been mentioned by Ida Noddack, who sent us a reprint of her work. The reason for our blindness, shared by Hahn and Meitner, the Joliot-Curies, and everybody else working on the subject, is not clear to me even today.
Segré, Emilio (1993), A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segré, Berkeley, University of California Press. p. 91.
The tough sound of her voice, her unsentimental way of expressing herself and her laconic irony round off the image of her work and personality.
Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker / Fachgruppe Geschichte der Chemie (1997), “Festkolloqium zu Ehren von Frau Dr.-Ing. Dr.h.c. Ida Noddack-Tacke an der TU Berlin”, Mitteilungen, Bd.13, p. 183.
In a 1966 radio interview Otto Hahn finally confirmed, after a long silence on the matter, that Ida was right: ‘die Ida hatte doch Recht’.
Santos, Gildo Magalhães (17 Sep. 2014), “A Tale of Oblivion: Ida Noddack and the ‘universal abundance’ of matter”, Notes&Records the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 68, p. 389.
PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS
1919: First prize department of chemistry and metallurgy, Technical University, Berlin
1925: First woman to give a major address to the Society of German Chemists
1931: Justus Liebig Medal, German Chemical Society, for the discovery of rhenium
1934: Scheele Medal, Swedish Chemical Society
1934: Honorary Member, Spanish Society of Physics and Chemistry
1963: Honorary Member, International Society of Nutrition Research
1966: Honorary Doctorate, University of Hamburg
1966: High Service Cross of the German Federal Republic
In Lackhausen, Ida Tacke Noddacks place of birth, a street is named after her. Since 2012, further streets have been named in her honour in Emden (Germany) and Ingoldstadt (Germany).
Ida Tacke Noddack dedicated her life to the discovery of new elements within the periodic table. Regarding her relationship to literature, sources suggest that she engaged in thorough literature review to prepare for optical spectroscopy and methods of wet chemistry in order to identify the missing elements⁴ (p.109). Ida Tacke Noddack’s review of 100 years of scholarly literature in the field, allowed the Noddacks to decide on procedures for their investigations and to eventually succeed in their attempts. Its significance does not emerge in the publications but it does in Ida Tacke Noddack’s personal recollections⁴ (p.116). The Universiteitsarchief Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven in Belgium holds a collection of Ida Tacke Noddack unpublished materials such as laboratory notebooks, work notes, correspondences, drafts and even objects⁴ (p.119).
Krämmer, Andreas (2012), Denkmal Ida Noddack-Tacke, Bürgerforum Lackhausen, Atlanta AG (sponsor), bronze bust, Lackhausen.
For Ida Noddack’s 110th birthday in 2006, a bronze plate was installed in her memory next to her parental home in Lackhausen, carrying the following text: “The worldwide famous chemist described and discovered in 1925 together with her husband Walter Noddack the rarely occurring chemical element rhenium and masurium (today technetium). Both scientists have been successfully active in various fields of chemistry: Photochemistry, Geo- and Cosmo Chemistry, trace elements in the living and non-living nature, dissolution of kidney stones by humans, X-ray Spectroscopy. In 1934 she found reasons for the fission of uranium nuclei through neutron bombardment”.12
WORKS BY IDA TACKE NODDACK
with D. Holde. (1921), Über Anhydride höherer aliphatischer Fettsäuren, Berlin, TeH., Diss.
with Noddack, Walter (1933), Das Rhenium, Leipzig, Voss.
Entwicklung und Aufbau der chemischen Wissenschaft (1942), Freiburg i. Br., Schulz.
Publications in scientific journals
This is a selection of the most relevant articles among Ida Tacke Noddack’s around 100, mostly joint publications in various scholarly journals.
with Berg, Otto / Noddack, Walter (1925), “Die Ekamangane”, Naturwissenschaften, 13(26), 567-574.
with Noddack, Walter (1930), “Die Häufigkeit der chemischen Elemente”, Naturwissenschaften, 18(35), 757-764.
“Über das Element 93” (1934), Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie, 47(37), 653-655.
With Noddack, Walter (1937), “Aufgaben und Ziele der Geochemie”, Freiburger wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft, issue 26. Freiburg im Breisgau, H.Speyer, H.f.Schulz.
“Bemerkungen zu den Untersuchungen von O. Hahn, L. Meitner und F. Straßmann über die Produkte, die bei der Bestrahlung von Uran mit Neutronen entstehen”, (1939), Naturwissenschaften, 27(13), 212-213.
Apotheker, Jan / Sarkadi, Livia Simon (eds.) (2011), European women in chemistry, Weinheim, Wiley VCH-Verlag.
Byers, Nina (11. Feb 2003), “Women in Physics in Fermi’s Time”, Department of Physics and Astronomy University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), <https://arxiv.org/html/physics/0302035> (last accessed on 21. Feb 2017).
Des Jardins, Julie (2010), Madam Curie Complex, The Hidden History of Women in Science, New York City, The Feminist Press.
Fölsing, Ulla (1999), Geniale Beziehungen: Berühmte Paare in der Wissenschaft, München, Beck.
Herrmann, Günter (1989), “Technetium or masurium – a comment on the history of element 43”, Nuclear Physics, Section A, 505(2), 352-360, <http://www.sciencedirect.com.uaccess.univie.ac.at/science/article/pii/0375947489903795?via%3Dihub> (last accessed on 21. Feb 2017).
Rulev, Alexander Yu/ Voronkov, Mikhail G. (2013), “Women in chemistry, a life devoted to science”, New Journal of Chemistry, 27(12), 3826-3832, <http://pubs-rsc-org.uaccess.univie.ac.at/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2013/NJ/c3nj00718a#!divAbstract> (last accessed on 21.Feb 2017).
Van Asche, Pieter (1988), “The ignored discovery of element Z=43”, Nuclear Physics, Section A, 480(2), 205-214 <http://www.sciencedirect.com.uaccess.univie.ac.at/science/article/pii/0375947488903934?via%3Dihub> (last accessed on 21. Feb 2017).
- Rayner-Canham, Marelene/ Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey (2001), Women in Chemistry, Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, Travis, Anthony S. (series editor), Benfey, O. Theodor (associate series editor), Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation.
- Santos, Gildo Magalhães (September 17, 2014), “A Tale of Oblivion: Ida Noddack and the ‘universal abundance’ of matter”, Notes&Records the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 68, 373–389, <http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/68/4/373> (last accessed 20. Feb 2017).
- Newton, David E. (2010), Chemical Elements, Edgar, Kathleen J. (ed.), Gale, Cengage Learning.
- Scerri, Eric (2013), A Tale of Seven Elements, Sacks, Oliver (preface), New York, Oxford University Press.
- Lykknes, Annette/ Opitz, Donald L./ Van Tiggelen, Brigitte (eds) (2012), For Better or For Worse? Collaborative Couples in the Sciences, Heidelberg, Springer Basel AG.
- Hargittai, Magdolna/ Hargittai, Istvan (2004), Candid Science IV, Conversations with Famous Physicists, London, Imperial College Press.
- Hook, Ernest B. (22. Aug 2003), “Gender bias and Ida Noddack”, Science, 301(5636), 1045ff. <link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A108197152/BIC1?u=43wien&xid=f53f9b78> (last accessed 9.Feb 2017).
- Hilscher, D. (July, 1989), “Discovery of Nuclear Fission in Berlin 1938”, Pramãna – J. Phys., 33(01), 1-12, <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02845906> (last accessed 20. Feb 2017).
- Hargittai, Magdolna (2015): Women Scientists, Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries, New York, Oxford University Press.
- Habashi, Fathi (1997), “Ida Noddack: proposer of Nuclear Fission”, in A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity, Rayner-Canham, Marlene F./ Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey W. (eds., senior authors), Philadelphia, Chemical Heritage Foundation, p. 217-225.
- Haines, Catherine M.C. (2001), International Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary to 1950, California, ABC-Clio Inc.
- Mayr, Claudia, “Ida Noddack”, FemBio Frauen.Biographiefoschung, V. <http://www.fembio.org/biographie.php/frau/biographie/ida-noddack/> (last accessed on 21. Feb 2017).