At that time, few women every studied sciences like physics and chemistry at any level.  Elementary and high schools were not coed.  Many girls never went to school, and the others went to school only to learn the “ladylike” graces and skills that a “good wife” should have. 

-Lewis D. Eigen

It is common knowledge that in the nineteenth century (1869) Dmitri Mendeleev constructed the Periodic Table of Elements in which he listed all the known elements of his time in a systematic chart based on common chemical properties. In the decades that followed new elements were discovered, the Table was almost completed, filling in all the gaps. The last stable element to be discovered was a rare-earth element. This was in 1925.

This brings us to Ida Eva Tacke Noddack (born: 25 February, 1896). She was a gifted chemist who, with her husband Walter Noddack, discovered a new element (atomic number 75) in 1925. This was a significant achievement. For this she received the prestigious Scheele Medal from the Swedish Chemical Society in 1934.

Many elements are named after regions: Scandium (Scandinavia), Germanium (Germany), Polonium (Poland), and Strontium (a village in Scotland), and Berkelium (Berkeley) are examples. Rhenium was named by Ida Noddack –after the Rhein region where she was born.

The Noddacks also thought they had discovered yet another element in naturally occurring rocks. It was believed to have the atomic number 43, and they named it, Masurium. For quite a few years papers were written on this element. However, it eventually became clear that this is not a naturally occurring element. It is the radioactive product of nuclear fission (as in artificial fission). In this sense it is a human-produced element. So it is called technetium: a name which etymologically signifies something artificial.  Technetium  is the only element that has no stable isotope: that is to say, the half-lives of all its isotopes are much smaller than the age of the earth: hence have not survived.

In recent years some historians of physics have argued that the credit for this discovery must go to some Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segrè.

In 1934, Enrico Fermi published a paper in which he reported that he and his co-workers had  bombarded some nuclei with neutrons, causing transuranic elements to be formed. Upon reading this, Ida Noddack wrote a paper entitled “On the Element 93”  in which she doubted if Fermi was correct in his claim. In the course of her critical assessment she noted: “It is conceivable that in the bombardment of heavy nuclei with neutrons, these nuclei break up into several large fragments which are actually isotopes of known elements, but are not neighbors of the irradiated elements.” Unwittingly, she was describing here one of the most important types of nuclear reactions: nuclear fission. But Ida Noddack’s paper was largely ignored.

The phenomenon of nuclear fission was actually discovered some five years later by Otto Hahn. Some have criticized the fact that he made no mention of Noddack in his paper. It is not clear if he was unaware of her paper, or simply chose to ignore it. The eminent nuclear physicist Emilio Segrè recalled in his autobiography: “We (meaning he and Enrico Fermi) 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.”

The Noddacks stayed in Germany during the dark years of Nazi rule. In 1942, they became professors at the University of Strasbourg (Alsace had been annexed by Germany once again, during World War II) where they may not have continued with their scientific research because their publications suddenly stopped. It is not clear what they were doing during these years.

Ida Noddack was the first woman to address the Society of German Chemists. In 1925, this was an unusual honor. She was not yet thirty years of age then. In her later years the Federal Republic of Germany awarded her the High Service Cross.

In the world of science there are two ways in which one may be ignored or remembered: The report of an interesting observation (discovery) may not be taken seriously; and the enunciation of a new insight or idea may go unnoticed. Sometimes, one has to wait for a sufficient lapse of time, memories of fellow scientists, and probing by historians of science before the discoverer or the originator of the idea gets full credit, or that credit may be taken away.

Ida Noddack’s insight into nuclear fission was ignored, and her claim to the discovery of Technetium has been called into question. Thus, aside from the knowledge and insights that science brings, matters relating to who first made the discovery, their nationality, and legitimacy also become matters of interest or importance. With all that, the names of some worthy discoverers are seldom remembered. Not may physicists, let alone the general public, would have even heard of Ida Noddack.

February 26, 2016


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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