KEYWORDS: Periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev, Ida Noddack, Marie Skłodowska Curie, Marguerite Perey, Lise Meitner, Manhattan Project, Nuclear research


SHE Discovered It: Women’s Contribution to the Periodic Table

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the first waves of women’s movements swept through Europe and the United States³ (p.3). Starting in the mid-1860s, women were gradually allowed to enrol in several European universities³ (p.3). A number of those women made seminal discoveries in the years to follow, enabling a greater understanding of the nature of atoms and their properties. Women enriched the periodic table in various ways, but nevertheless most people can barely name one. What about those scientists’ work that has helped to model the periodic table, eventually leading to its actual outlay including 118 chemical elements⁴? This essay aims to shed light on female scientists’ major contributions to the development of the periodic table and the context of the elements’ discoveries.

The development of the periodic table represents a remarkable scientific advancement. Since the 1860s, the table, which was designed to sum up the whole field of chemistry, has proved to be of utmost importance and has been constantly evolving¹ (p.1). The assumption that the diversity of chemical elements could be explained in a systematic way was put forward by various scientists in the 19th century² (p.107, my translation). The first to effectively propose a solution to the chaos amongst elements was John Alexander Newlands (1837-1898) with his “Law of the Octaves”, which was, however, heavily criticised by the scientific community² (p.108, my translation). Dmitri Mendeleev (1834 – 1907) proposed his first version of the periodic table in 1869, entitled “The Relation between the Properties and Atomic Weights of the Elements”, explaining the principle of periodicity. He would go down in history as the “father of the periodic table”² (p.108, my translation). It has to be mentioned, though, that Lothar Meyer (1830-1895) fought to be recognised as the creator of the periodic table, claiming to have already devised it in 1868, but only publishing it in 1870 due to printing delays² (p.108, my translation). Setting aside the quarrel regarding who was first, doubtlessly the nineteenth century brought about major changes in science, the periodic table being a shining example of that.

By 1940, every element up to Uranium (U), atomic number 92, had been discovered and every gap Mendeleev had left open on the periodic table had been filled⁵. Still, scientists were to find out that beyond uranium lay a world of possibilities, which had first to be synthesised in laboratories in order to be analysed⁵. The periodic table of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a leading chemistry community and the United Kingdom’s professional body for chemical scientists⁶, officially ascribes the discovery of four elements that precede Uranium on the periodic table to women scientists⁷. These elements are: Rhenium (Re), Polonium (Po), Francium (Fr) and Radium (Ra)⁷.

In 1925, the chemist Ida Noddack (1896-1979), together with her husband Walter Noddack and Otto Berg, discovered Rhenium (Re)⁸ (p.230). They named the element after the river Rhine and published their discovery in a paper entitled “Die Ekamangan” (Naturwissenschaften 13 [1925]: 567)⁸ (p.230). Rhenium (Re) is one of the rarest elements in the world and was the last natural element to be discovered11 (p.491-492). In the same paper, the three scientists referred to the discovery of the element with atomic number 43, calling it Masurium, whose existence was disputed at the time. Technetium (Tc), element with atomic number 43, was eventually officially discovered a decade later, in 1937, by Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segre⁸ (p.230). However, in the 1980s, Technetium (Tc) was found in the ore the Noddacks had studied and in which they reported to have found Masurium and it was suggested that they would be considered the real discoverers of Technetium (Tc). A virtual experiment at the US National Institute of Science and Technology further proved that the data published in 1925 by Ida and Walter Noddack are consistent with the amount of the element with atomic number 43 in Columbite rock³ (p.58).

Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934), together with her husband, discovered  Polonium (Po) and Radium (Ra) and she also showed that radioactivity is a property of atoms—a finding that was to inagurate the Atomic Age⁹ (p.94). Pushed forward by the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen and the findings on the radiation-emitting properties of uranium salts by Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre had decided to further investigate the nature of radioactivity, a term first used in a joint paper by the Curies in 189810. In July and December 1898, the Curies published an article on the discovery of two new elements, namely Polonium and Radium, both not successfully isolated at that time10 (p.636). In order to isolate Polonium (Po), Marie and Pierre Curie had to purchase pitchblende by the tonne, slowly purify the ore and get rid of sand, clay and other materials in the ore, in order to eventually succeed in the isolation of the element, one that had never been seen before: Polonium (Po)11 (p.446). They continued the process of purification of pitchblende until the element, with atomic number 88, could be isolated too. It was named Radium (Ra) because of its intense radiation11 (p.480).

In 1939, Marguerite Perey (1909-1975), a nuclear chemist, discovered the radioactive element Francium (Fr)⁸ (p.242). She had been working as a junior laboratory assistant at the Radium Institute in Paris, where Marie Curie did research too, when she discovered actinium K, later named Francium (Fr), an element so rare that a cubic kilometre of the earth crust contains only approximately fifteen grams of it⁸ (p.243). Perey found out that ninety-nine percent of all actinium atoms decay into Thorium (Th) and the remaining one percent into the newly discovered Francium (Fr)11 (p.200). By the 1930s, and after Perey’s discovery of Francium (Fr), only two spots on the periodic table remained open: the one for an element with atomic number 43 and the one for an element with atomic number 8511 (p.199). Both elements were discovered in the 1940s11 (p.40).

During the same period, the German physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968), together with Otto Frisch, was examining data from Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, who had been lab colleagues before having been forced into exile by Hitler12 (p.6). When bombarding Uranium (U) with neutrons, Meitner found that Barium (Ba) could only be produced if the neutrons split Uranium (U) into two pieces. When describing this process, she became the first scientist to use the term “fission” in a nuclear context12 (p.6-7).

The Manhattan Project, which inaugurated the modern era of chemistry and allowed for a new layout of the periodic table13 (p.11), might never have happened had word of Meitner’s discovery not reached scientists in the United States in January 193914 (p.228). At Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists were working on the creation of the atomic bomb under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, women’s scientific knowledge was of crucial importance15 (p.123). Chemists there faced novel challenges in working with newly discovered radioactive elements and gradually understood the complex chemistry of Uranium (U), eventually succeeding in manufacturing fissionable uranium-235, Plutonium (Pu) and the atomic bomb itself12 (p.67). As Manhattan scientists developed ways to generate Plutonium (Pu), they also continued the search for new elements, achieving the synthesis of the elements known as Americium (Am) and Curium (Cm) in 194416. Curium (Cm) is a transuranium element, since it follows Uranium (U) in the periodic table, and was first produced in a particle accelerator at the Metallurgical Research Laboratory (MRL) of the University of Chicago, where research on the first nuclear bomb was conducted11 (p.159). The element was named after Marie and Pierre Curie, to give them credit for their early research on radioactive elements11 (p.160).

The new era of element discoveries following the Manhattan Project was initially driven by the Cold War and the University of California, Berkeley competed with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna in the discovery of new elements such as Rutherfordium (Rf), Dubnium (Db) and Seaborgium (Sg)⁵. The quarrels on who was first had to be settled by the IUPAC, the world authority on chemical nomenclature and terminology, whose current president is the Russian chemist Natalia Tarasova20. The GSI Helmholtzzentrum for research on heavy ions, a laboratory in Darmstadt, joined in the hunt for new elements in the course of time. These three laboratories, together with RIKEN, Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution17, are responsible for the latest discoveries of chemical elements in the seventh row of the periodic table⁷.

In the modern era of chemistry, collaborative research teams, rather than single researchers, discover elements18 (p.145). Meitnerium (Mt), atomic number 109, named in honour of Lise Meitner11 (p.528), for example, was discovered in 1982 by Peter Armbruster, Gottfried Münzenberg and colleagues⁷ at the GSI Helmholtzzentrum for heavy ion research in Germany19. Working in a team of collaborators differs substantially from isolated work and the very competitive, hierarchical and equipment-intensive climate associated with research in natural sciences tends to privilege the male gender18 (p.62). Women also seem to work more in teams than men do18 (p.144) and, due to the so-called “leaky pipeline”, the percentage of women in highest-level positions is generally reduced. Further, women often opt out of science after completing their PhD21 (p.3526).

All these factors have made women’s contributions very often invisible, and their discoveries obscured by terms like “and colleagues” or “and co-workers”, which is why we must dig deeper to identify those women’s faces and stories and honour their achievements. We must reveal their contributions in the various fields of science up to today and we must write about their contributions to come. We must make women scientists visible.



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Author: Bernadette Hofer
Release Date: 9 February 2016