Elemental Women of Science

One thing I love about the human species is its general fondness for having entire days of celebration devoted to one particular thing – whether that be pancakes, friendship, or sleep (my personal favorite; March 14th, mark your calendars). This week, we celebrate National Periodic Table Day, because we’re a species made up of gigantic nerds who get sentimental about chemical elements. In tribute, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite elements, all of which have been either been discovered by women or named after them in honor of their work and legacy.

Foundational Work in Chemistry

Madame Lavoisier, pictured here with her scientific collaborator and husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Madame Lavoisier, pictured here with her scientific collaborator and husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Portrait by Jacques-Louis David. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

First off, it would be remiss of me to leave out at least one of the foundational scientists who laid the groundwork for modern chemistry as we know it. Among the most famous of these figures is Maria Anne Pierrette Paulze (later Madame Lavoisier), who has earned the title of the “Mother of Modern Chemistry”. Paulze worked in close collaboration with her scientific partner and husband, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, to help establish some of the foundations for the field of chemistry. I could go on for eons about Paulze and how her English-French translations, her sketching and engraving skills, and her mastery of chemistry and laboratory skills were essential to the development of 18th century chemistry. Scholars are now starting to realize that Lavoisier’s work, while formally uncredited to Paulze when published, was made possible thanks to her wits and work.

*Note: If you’re looking for a good read on Paulze, I found this article1 a delightful source of information. (There are versions out there that happily exist without a paywall.)

Radium, Polonium, & Curium

Marie Curie (Image credit: Nobel Prize.org)
Marie Curie (Image credit: Nobel Prize.org)

If there’s any place to start this list, it may as well be with the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win a Nobel twice, and the only person to win a Nobel in two different sciences.  If that wasn’t enough, she was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, as well as the discoverer of two elements on the periodic table: radium & polonium. Yes, it’s her, the one and only Maria Salomea Sklodowska (later known as Marie Sklodowska Curie), a Polish physicist and chemist who is widely known for her pioneering research alongside her collaborator and husband, Pierre Curie.

Despite the challenging access to education imposed on many women at the time, Sklodowska fought to actively pursue an education at the Flying University in Warsaw and later acquired scientific training in a chemical laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture near Warsaw’s Old Town. Once in France, she pursued her scientific education and began her research into the various magnetic properties of steels. Soon enough, she began pursuing ideas for her thesis research, through which she found herself studying the behavior and qualities of uranium rays. Her investigations led to a fundamental hypothesis suggesting that the observed radiation was originating from the atom itself, as opposed to complex molecular interactions. Her ideas also helped disprove the ancient idea that atoms were indivisible by nature. Together, both of the Curies not only established the foundations of a new field of science, but many of the scientists mentioned below were also colleagues or mentees of Marie Curie herself. Later, in 1944, when a group of scientists blasted Plutonium-239 with accelerated α-particles and managed to isolate a new element, they named it Curium in honor of the couple’s work on radioactivity.

Astatine

As the periodic table of elements started to assemble and grow, thanks to work by Dmitri Mendeleev and Niels Bohr, scientists began pursuing the discovery of what they called “eka-iodine” – an unknown element that would fit in the space right under iodine. Countless efforts to isolate and reproduce scientific findings, however, proved the element frustratingly elusive. A group of scientists2 at UC Berkeley attempted to synthetically create element 85 by bombarding bismuth-209 with α-particles using a particle accelerator. Their attempts resulted in an artificial radioactive isotope of element 85; however, the synthetic nature and questionable stability of the isotope made chemists reluctant to name it. A few years later in 1943, two Austrian physicists named Berta Karlik and Traude Cless-Bernert discovered element 85 naturally as a product of two decaying chains in the uranium series and consequently the actinium series. It was soon thereafter that the element was finally named astatine. Karlik received a multitude of awards over the course of her scientific career in recognition of her accomplishments, including the Haitinger Prize for Chemistry. Her other accomplishments included an appointment as Director of the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna, a full university professorship (the first woman in Austria to be so), and participation in UN-sponsored conferences regarding peaceful uses of atomic energy. She is also noted to have been a contemporary and scientific colleague of Madame Curie, who she met earlier in her career.

1950: Berta Karlik (left) pictured here with her colleague, Lise Meitner (right) (Image credit: Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)
1950: Berta Karlik (left) pictured here with her colleague, Lise Meitner (right) (Image credit: Deutsches Historiches Museum, Berlin)

Protactinium & Meitnerium

For Lise Meitner, the discovery of an element on the periodic table was just one of many impressive accomplishments very early on in her scientific career. Ever since she was young, Meitner was an absolute math and science nerd, propelling these interests into her pursuit of a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna (again, in spite of the limits on education that women faced at the time). A combination of fortunate opportunities and academic diligence guided her to the lecture hall of one Max Planck, in whose lab she found a place as a lab assistant alongside chemist Otto Hahn. In 1917, Meitner and Hahn collaboratively discovered the first long-lived isotope of protactinium, and as a result she was granted her own physics section at the Kaiser Wilhem Institute for Chemistry.

Soon after, she became the first female physics professor in Germany and consequently the head of the physics department, which is when she and Otto Hahn began their groundbreaking research into nuclear fission of heavy nuclei. Despite Meitner’s collaboration and other scientists’ nominations and support, it was actually her collaborator, Otto Hahn, who was solely awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission. Much of the scientific and general community have since disagreed with her erasure from the Prize and as such, many have also credited her in the discovery of fission and have granted her a number of posthumous honors. One such honor includes the official naming of chemical element 109 after her (meitnerium) in 1997. As pictured above, Meitner and Karlik were known to be close colleagues during their time, as well.

Rhenium

Ida Noddack standing in front of the X-ray spectrograph in her laboratory at the University of Freiburg (Image credit: University Archives, KU Leuven, Archive Walter and Ida Noddack-Tacke, nr. 51.)
Ida Noddack standing in front of the X-ray spectrograph in her laboratory at the University of Freiburg (Image credit: University Archives, KU Leuven, Archive Walter and Ida Noddack-Tacke, nr. 51.)

Interestingly enough, Meitner and Hahn’s work on nuclear fission was not entirely novel. Earlier before their experiments, German chemist & physicist Ida Tacke (later Ida Noddack) had already started contemplating scientific concepts that would lead to the exploration of nuclear fission in the 20th century. Her critical analyses of Enrico Fermi’s neutron bombardment experiments, which was published in her paper entitled “On Element 93”, suggested that:

“…it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element.”

While the paper was unfortunately ignored at the time, it is now largely recognized as one of the earliest mentions of the very idea of nuclear fission. In addition to this work, Ida and her collaborator (and later husband), Walter Noddack, had put great effort and time into isolating unknown elements 43 and 75. Historically, they were only able to isolate element 75 successfully and with reproducible results. The work involved processing a considerable amount of molybdenite and performing subsequent tests and experiments. Once confirmed, the isolated element was then named rhenium. Noddack was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry but unfortunately never won.

*Note: one article I ran across had the title “Ida, the element hunter?”3, which is possibly the most badass title for a chemist of that specialty.

Francium

Marguerite Perey (Image credit: Wikipedia)
Marguerite Perey (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Marguerite Catherine Perey began her scientific career at the young age of 19. She was a young French woman who was denied the opportunity to study medicine due to family troubles and financial hardship, and as such, she applied for scientific work at Marie Curie’s lab in her late teens. Once hired, she began work on isolating actinium from uranium ore, a process which led her to discover that her purified actinium was emitting large amounts of radiation. After experimenting on the purified actinium samples and running a number of subsequent tests, Perey soon realized she had discovered a brand new element. Naturally, she bestowed it with a name reminiscent of her home country, and thus the word “francium” was born. After her discovery, she pursued her PhD thanks to a swiftly awarded grant and soon after became the head of the Department of Nuclear Chemistry at the University of Strasbourg in 1949. There, she had already started to examine the biological effects of francium, hoping that it may yield some aid in cancer diagnoses. Unfortunately, she had been exposed to a great deal of radiation in her research, and passed away of cancer in 1975.

There is a phenomenal article in The New York Times from the great-great-niece of Perey, which I highly recommend reading. I feel it is one of the best narratives you can read about the incredible life and aspirations of such a foundational figure. Here’s an especially poignant snippet:

“There is a sense of grandeur in the idea that paying heavily is a means of advancing knowledge. But in truth, you can’t control what it is that you find — whether you’ve sacrificed your health for it, or simply years of your time.”

Elements 113, 115, 117, 118

Dawn Shaughnessy, PI of the Heavy Element Group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Image credit: Department of Energy)
Dawn Shaughnessy, PI of the Heavy Element Group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. (Image credit: Department of Energy)

And last but not least, we couldn’t part ways without mentioning the four most recent elements to be officially named and added to the periodic table: element 113 (nihonium), element 115 (moscovium), element 117 (tennessine), and element 118 (oganesson). The discoveries of these elements were made possible by successful international collaborations and diverse teams from the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (Dubna, Russia), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (USA), Vanderbilt University (USA), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (USA), and the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science (Japan). More information can be found on the IUPAC press release regarding the new name changes.

While I’m unfortunately not familiar with all the members of these teams, there is one scientist I’ve heard of from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Dawn Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy is the PI of the Heavy Element Group there, which is part of six element discoveries now, in collaboration with many of the other labs mentioned above. Her scientific career includes an appointment as group leader for a recent Experimental Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group, a prestigious mentor award from the Department of Energy, and a PhD from UC Berkeley in nuclear chemistry. If you’d like to find out more about the work she and her group does, she participated in a Reddit AMA a year back talking about the new elements and the research behind their discoveries.


Footnotes:

  • [1] Eagle, C. T., & Sloan, J. (1998). Marie Anne Paulze Lavoisier: the mother of modern chemistry. The Chemical Educator, 3(5), 1-18.
  • [2] Corson, D. R.; MacKenzie, K. R.; Segrè, E. (1940). “Artificially Radioactive Element 85”. Physical Review. 58 (8): 672–678. doi:1103/PhysRev.58.672.
  • [3] Santos, G. M. (2014). A tale of oblivion: Ida Noddack and the ‘universal abundance’ of matter. Notes Rec., rsnr20140009.

More Resources:

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