Devotion to Their Science

Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity

MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM
GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt809w2
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  • Book Info
    Devotion to Their Science
    Book Description:

    A Devotion to Their Science includes biographical essays on twenty-three women who worked in atomic science during the first two decades of the twentieth century, including Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Irène Joliot-Curie, and a host of lesser-known women scientists whose life stories have never before been told. The biographies highlight the lives and work of these women, noting their contributions and the challenges they faced and overcame. Taken together the essays record their collective experiences, highlighting the support network that developed among them and the reasons women were more predominant in this field than in other sciences in the early part of this century.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6658-3
    Subjects: Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
    Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley

    For the better part of a decade I have played a game with students in the “women and science” course I teach at Concordia University. During the first class, I ask them to identify three Canadian women scientists and three from other parts of the world, write the six names on a piece of paper, and put the paper into a envelope. I keep the sealed envelopes until two weeks before the end of term; then I read them out for the class and a student writes the names on a board. Unfortunately, the list is brief and repetitious, “Marie...

  6. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xv-xx)
  7. PART ONE THE OVERVIEW
    • 1 Early Years of Radioactivity
      (pp. 3-11)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      In this introductory chapter we summarize the immense progress in our understanding of matter and radiation between about 1880 and the 1940s. This period in scientific history marked the transition in emphasis from individual professional and amateur scientists to the research schools that we recognize today. As well, research was no longer a simple striving for knowledge but a need for priority in discovery, reflecting the intense nationalism of the age.

      At the outset of this period the vision of matter was very simple. Ernest Rutherford, who became one of the leading researchers in the field, summarized the situation well:...

    • 2 Pioneer Women of Radioactivity
      (pp. 12-28)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Between 1900 and 1910 about thirty women were active researchers in the study of radioactive phenomena. In those days, for a woman to have graduated with a degree in science was a feat in itself. For these particular women, the focus of their lives became the study of the nature of the atom. Many of them depended on their supervisors, mentors, and colleagues for encouragement and support in their work.

      When one reads about the history of research in radioactivity, women are rarely mentioned.¹ Yet many women participated in the venture to discover the secrets of the atom. In fact,...

  8. PART TWO THE FRENCH GROUP
    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 29-30)

      This group of researchers was led for the most part by Marie Curie (chapter 3), and it is with her life and work that we begin this section of the book. Curie was unique in that she really belonged to an earlier generation than the other women in this compilation. In the first few years of their work Marie and Pierre Curie had few collaborators, but after Pierre’s death and the explosive growth of studies in radioactivity, the Paris research group grew. The first woman whose work with Curie is on record was Harriet Brooks (chapter 11), but in view...

    • 3 Marie Curie: Time Only for Science and Family
      (pp. 31-50)
      HELENA M. PYCIOR

      Biography seeks not merely to recount the details of a subject’s life, but also to grasp the thematic patterns that governed that life. Although by no means a complete biography of Marie Sklodowska Curie,¹ this essay seeks to analyze the thematic patterns most closely associated with her successful combination of the roles of scientist, wife, and mother, and then widow and single parent. The essay is divided into three main chronological parts. The first, covering Curie’s early years, emphasizes the importance of her parents as role models, as well as the development of a close relationship, built on shared dreams...

    • 4 Ellen Gleditsch: Professor and Humanist
      (pp. 51-75)
      ANNE-MARIE WEIDLER KUBANEK and GRETE P. GRZEGOREK

      Ellen Gleditsch was one of the few women in this compilation to reach the top of her field, achieving a professorship at a university. Her life was full of travel, interaction with other atomic scientists, and work for international organizations. During the Second World War she was active with the Norwegian resistance. Yet despite her contributions to radioactivity research and her major role as a Norwegian scientist and humanist, her name is almost unknown, even in her homeland.

      Gleditsch was born on 29 December 1879 in Mandal, a small town on the North Sea in southern Norway.¹ She was the...

    • 5 May Sybil Leslie: From Radioactivity to Industrial Chemistry
      (pp. 76-81)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      May Sybil Leslie worked with both Curie and Rutherford. While her own research into radioactivity contributed no major findings, she is known for the industrial chemistry research that she performed during the First World War. During this period, she rose to the position of Chemist in Charge of an industrial chemistry laboratory. Later, she attained the rank of lecturer at the University of Leeds - a major accomplishment for a women until quite recently, let alone in Leslie’s time.

      Leslie’s life began with great promise. Born on 14 August 1887 at Woodlesford, Yorkshire, she was awarded a West Riding County...

    • 6 Catherine Chamié: Devoted Researcher of the Institut de Radium
      (pp. 82-86)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Most of the women researchers at the Laboratoire Curie stayed for only one or two years. Apart from Irène Joliot-Curie, the one other exception was Catherine Chamié, who spent about thirty years there, becoming a significant figure in the operations of the institute.

      Chamié’s early life is a reflection of the turmoil that engulfed Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century. She was born into an affluent family on 13 November 1888 in Odessa, Russia.¹ Her father, Antoine Chamié, was a Franco-Syrian notary from Damascus while her mother, Hélène Golovkine, was Russian. Catherine completed her school education in Odessa...

    • 7 Stefania Maracineanu: Ignored Romanian Scientist
      (pp. 87-91)
      MIRUNA POPESCU, MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      As we look back in time, it is difficult to appreciate the challenge that faced the young women scientists who decided to leave their homelands to pursue research with one of the stars of radioactivity. Stefania Maracineanu travelled west from Romania all the way to Paris to work with Curie. Her work was outside the mainstream of research in radioacitivity, but during the 1930s her results were quite controversial.

      Most of the women who devoted their lives to the study of radioactivity relied on correspondence and visits for mutual support and encouragement. Maracineanu, however, seems to have been isolated from...

    • 8 Alicja Dorabialska: Polish Chemist
      (pp. 92-96)
      STEPHANIE WEINSBERG-TEKEL

      Alicja Dorabialska was another of Curie’s protégées. Her contributions were recognized in her native country of Poland, but she was completely unknown in the rest of the world as almost all of her eighty-one publications appeared only in Polish journals. Dorabialska’s life was remarkably similar to that of Ellen Gleditsch; both were promoted to professorships against strong opposition and both were active in the resistance during the Second World War.

      Dorabialska was another of the women who devoted their whole lives to science. She was born on 14 October 1897 in Sosnowiec, Poland,¹ a small mining town with copper, iron,...

    • 9 Irène Joliot-Curie: Following in Her Mother’s Footsteps
      (pp. 97-123)
      E. TINA CROSSFIELD

      Until Irène’s marriage in 1926, the lives of Irène Joliot-Curie and Marie Curie were so tightly entwined that to tell the story of one is to recount the life of the other. Both women achieved a high level of education and shared a Nobel Prize with their scientific husbands. A competent scientist in her own right, Irène’s brilliant collaborations with Frédéric Joliot contributed to developments in atomic fission, nuclear medicine, and France’s post-war energy self-sufficiency. Her personal role as mother, teacher, cabinet minister, and peace advocate enabled Irène to lead an exceptional life despite her courageous battle against radiation disease....

    • 10 ... And Some Other Women of the French Group
      (pp. 124-126)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-C ANHAM

      The preceding chapters have looked at some of the women who worked with Marie Curie in the early years. There were many more. In addition to the seven women mentioned so far, the Paris group always contained a significant proportion of women researchers. Most of these women left little record of their lives and vanished into obscurity once they’d left the Institut Curie. One particular example was Lucie Blanquies, who worked in the Curie laboratory in the early years from 1908 to 1910,¹ yet we have been unable to trace what became of her. We know from her publications during...

  9. PART THREE THE BRITISH GROUP
    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 127-128)

      Ernest Rutherford was the key figure in the British school and it is with his name, rather than with a geographic location, that we associate this group of individuals. We have uncovered considerable information about four of the women who worked directly with Rutherford. The first of these is the Canadian physicist Harriet Brooks (chapter 11), Rutherford’s first graduate student. Brooks worked with Rutherford in Montreal from 1898 to 1901 and again from 1903 to 1904. She spent 1902-03 with J.J. Thomson at Cambridge and part of 1906-07 with Marie Curie in Paris. Following in Brooks’s footsteps, the American Fanny...

    • 11 Harriet Brooks: From Research Pioneer to Wife and Mother
      (pp. 129-137)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Next to Marie Curie, Harriet Brooks performed some of the most important work in the very early days of radioactivity. She was a talented scientist who worked with the three greatest names of the time, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, and J.J. Thomson. Typical of the women researchers, however, Brooks had low self-esteem, and despite Rutherford’s encouragement she eventually abandoned her research work in favour of a life as wife and mother.¹ In this Brooks was an exception since most of the pioneer women never married. It is easy to forget the pressure they must have been under to conform to...

    • 12 Fanny Cook Gates: A Promise Unfulfilled
      (pp. 138-144)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Gates was an adventurous spirit, and her life typifies the career challenges of the gifted academic woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. From her birthplace in the United States she voyaged to Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Britain. Most of her life was spent teaching physics at Goucher College but she passed many summers at other institutions pursuing research. Gates’s work in the field of radioactivity was accomplished through research positions with Ernest Rutherford and J.J. Thomson. In her later years, she took a powerful but scientifically marginalized position as dean of women at the University of Illinois.

      Born...

    • 13 Jadwiga Szmidt: A Passion for Science
      (pp. 145-151)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Yet again we tell the story of a woman who devoted her life to physics, and, like so many others, she had to voyage far from her native country to become involved in the forefront of atomic research. Jadwiga Szmidt was one of three women who worked with both Curie and Rutherford, the others being Harriet Brooks and May Sybil Leslie. After returning to Russia, she joined the famous physics research group of loffe. As with most of the women in this compilation, details of her life are sparse, but we do have various items of correspondence from which we...

    • 14 Ada Hitchins: Research Assistant to Frederick Soddy
      (pp. 152-155)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Although many of these pioneer women played significant roles in their supervisors’ success, few received credit for their contributions. In the several accounts of Frederick Soddy’s career, it is rare to find any acknowledgment of the work of Ada Hitchins, though she worked with him for fifteen years, latterly as his private research assistant, and was instrumental in the discovery of element 91, protactinium.

      Frederick Soddy had very few assistants throughout his career and Hitchins was the only one to stay with him for an extended period.¹ Born at Tavistock in Devon, England, in 1891, Hitchins was the daughter of...

    • 15 ... And Some Other Women of the British Group
      (pp. 156-160)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Though Rutherford was the central figure of the British group, the research workers were more diffuse than those of the Paris-centred French group. In this chapter we will briefly look at women who worked with some of the other major figures of the British school, scientists whose fame has now dwindled but who were Nobel laureates around the beginning of the twentieth century: Charles Barkla, William Ramsay, Frederick Soddy and J.J. Thomson.

      Charles Glover Barkla, who received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1917,¹ had an all-male research team until the First World War. When his team was drafted into...

  10. PART FOUR THE AUSTRO-GERMAN GROUP
    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 161-162)

      As we mentioned in chapter 1, Stefan Meyer can best be considered as the “father” of the Vienna group, Vienna having been the central European research Mecca in the early days of radioactivity. Lise Meitner (chapter 16) was introduced to the study of radioactivity by Meyer in about 1906. Even after Meitner moved to Berlin to work with Otto Hahn, she kept in touch with the Vienna women and also developed links with Gleditsch and Ramstedt of the French group. Stefanie Horovitz (chapter 17) followed in Meitner’s footsteps at Vienna, though Horovitz was directly associated with Otto Honigschmid. Marietta Blau...

    • 16 Lise Meitner: The Foiled Nobelist
      (pp. 163-191)
      SALLIE A. WATKINS

      Next to Marie Curie, Lise Meitner is the best known of the early women atomic scientists.¹ Her doggedness enabled her to survive the anti-women bias of many of the scientists in Berlin. Her years of work in the field of radioactivity culminated in a flash of inspiration: what had been thought to be a nuclear fusion process involving the heavy elements was, in fact, nuclear fission. Unfortunately, it was her longtime colleague, Otto Hahn, who ultimately received the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

      The twelve-month span from November 1878 through October 1879 was a halcyon year for physics, marking the...

    • 17 Stefanie Horovitz: A Crucial Role in the Discovery of Istopes
      (pp. 192-195)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Stefanie Horovitz is another individual who must have led a fascinating life but about whom very little information has survived. Her research concerned a study of the atomic weights of elements, a somewhat tedious field of work. However, it was the results of her studies that provided firm evidence for the existence of isotopes. Sadly, she was killed by the Nazis in Warsaw during the Second World War.

      Horovitz was one of three women from Poland who made significant contributions to the study of radioactivity, the others being Curie and Dorabialska. Horovitz was born in Warsaw on 17 April 1887....

    • 18 Marietta Blau: Discoverer of the Cosmic Ray “Stars”
      (pp. 196-204)
      LEOPOLD E. HALPERN

      Of all the forgotten pioneer women atomic scientists, Marietta Blau is among the most deserving of recognition. Her development of a photographic method for the study of cosmic rays played a major role in this field and in the wider study of particle physics, while the discovery of the Blau-Wambacher “stars” produced on photographic plates exposed to cosmic radiation¹ initiated the study of nuclear fragmentation. Her work, spanning forty-five years, resulted in over sixty-five publications related to aspects of radiation and to the improvement in photographic emulsions. To those in the field of nuclear physics, Marietta Blau’s research was quite...

    • 19 Elizaveta Karamihailova: Bulgarian Pioneer of Radioactivity
      (pp. 205-208)
      SNEZHA TSONEVA-MATHEWSON, MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      As discussed earlier, the University of Vienna was a magnet for many of the pioneer women in radioactivity: Meitner began her studies there in 1901, Horovitz in 1907, and Blau in 1915. The next woman to follow this path was Elizaveta Karamihailova, or Elizabeth Kara-Michailova, as she called herself in English. She was born on 3 September 1897 in Vienna.¹ Her father, Dr Ivan Karamihailov, was a famous Bulgarian surgeon, while her English mother, Mary Slade, came from Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire. Karamihailova spent her childhood in Vienna but the family moved to Sophia, Bulgaria, in 1909, settling in a spacious...

    • 20 Elizabeth Róna: The Polonium Woman
      (pp. 209-216)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      The expert on the separation of polonium-210 from radioactive ores was Elizabeth Róna, and her skills were put to use in the Second World War. Starting as an organic chemist, she worked in the field of radioactivity for most of her life. Though she was not involved in any great discovery, she worked with some of the biggest names in the field. She held positions in seven different countries and performed research until she was eighty-two years old.

      For an adventurous life, few could equal Róna. Born in Budapest on 20 March 1890,¹ her mother, Ida Mahler, had little influence...

    • 21 Ida Tacke Noddack: Proposer of Nuclear Fission
      (pp. 217-225)
      FATHI HABASHI

      Ida Noddack (1896-1978) was a geochemist, not a nuclear scientist, but she startled the top nuclear physicists and radiochemists of her time by proposing the concept of atomic fission. Ridiculed by the most eminent chemists and physicists at the time, she was later proved to be correct. In his autobiography Otto Hahn wrote: “Her [Noddack’s] suggestion was so out of line with the then accepted ideas about the atomic nucleus that it was never seriously discussed.”¹ She is best known as the codiscoverer of rhenium, the last naturally occurring element to be identified. She was twenty-eight when she made this...

    • 22 ... And Some Other Women of the Austro-German Group
      (pp. 226-228)
      MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

      Some of the women who worked in scientific research seemed to vanish; perhaps they married or returned to their families, or took on a profession more “suitable” for a single woman such as school teaching. Among the Austro-German group, one of those who completely disappeared from the record was Hélène Towara, who spent the summer of 1914 working with Kasimir Fajans at the University of Karlesruhe, Germany. Towara was born on 21 March 1889 in Maikop, Russia, to Greek Orthodox parents; her father was a merchant.¹ She obtained an advanced high school diploma from the Moscow Commerce Institute. As we...

  11. 23 Epilogue: The End of an Era and a New Generation
    (pp. 229-234)
    MARELENE F. RAYNER-CANHAM and GEOFFREY W. RAYNER-CANHAM

    This compilation encompasses the work of women researchers in radioactivity who were born before 1900. Thus, we have looked at the lives and work of women who entered academic life at a time when the universities were just opening up to them, particularly in the sciences. Though most of their research was accomplished in the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, some of our subjects, such as Blau, Joliot-Curie, Meitner, and Róna, continued their work into the 1940S and beyond. Yet as a group they represented a unique generation - perhaps we might call them the “innocent”...

  12. Appendix: DATES OF SELECTED EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF ATOMIC SCIENCE (1895-1940)
    (pp. 235-236)
  13. Contributors
    (pp. 237-238)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 239-302)
  15. Index
    (pp. 303-307)