Women scientists from around the world in the pages of Cracking the Elements
When I was searching out colourful chemistry stories for my book Cracking the Elements, I kept running into something a bit weird. In standard accounts of the development of the periodic table, there were almost ridiculous numbers of people called William and Henry.
I didn’t discount any of these fine men. I ended up including nine Henrys and sixteen Williams – not to mention three William Henrys for good measure – in the book’s chapters, alongside many other women and men who don’t always get as high a billing as they might.
But it brought home to me a historical reality: it simply cannot be true that being called William or Henry makes you good at chemistry. The explanation for excesses of Williams and Henrys in textbooks is that until recently, only people with the privilege of being European and male had the means to make scientific discoveries, or to record them in such a way that we remember their names at all.
So to celebrate Women’s History Month in March, here are stories from Cracking the Elements about women who shed light on chemical elements, their properties and significance. Some are familiar, but many others were new to me as I researched the book.
Marie Curie is my cover star. It was the publisher’s proposal to have Dmitri Mendeleev on the jacket – and clearly he is a pioneer of the periodic table. But because Marie Curie has two element discoveries (radium and polonium), an element named after her (curium), and two Nobel Prizes in different sciences, I made the argument that she would be a worthy alternative.
Marie Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie also have the distinction of being the only mother-daughter Nobel Prize-winners (overall, the family won five Nobel Prizes between them). In 1934, Irène and husband Frederic blasted aluminum atoms with alpha particles, creating radioactive phosphorus, a story you find in chapter 4. The discovery showed how to create radioactive sources for medical use, and they won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.
The Curies make it seem almost straightforward to achieve scientific success and recognition without the benefit of William or Henry in your name. But other examples tend to show the opposite.
Cecilia Payne was the first person to realise that the Sun is mostly made of hydrogen and helium – a discovery that went against all standard thinking in 1925. Payne’s PhD supervisor Henry Russell was so sceptical, that she didn’t publish her findings, and when he finally concluded that she was right, his publication gained much of the attention. In the book’s introduction I have a big picture of Payne, who eventually became head of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University.
Early women chemists whose contributions have traditionally been overshadowed include Katherine Jones, who lived in London’s Pall Mall, and built a laboratory in 1676 to share with her celebrated brother Robert Boyle. The siblings appear in chapter 1. There’s also Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, who worked alongside her husband Antoine Lavoisier while he discovered the role of oxygen in combustion, as discussed in chapter 10.
But even lesser known is Scottish chemist Elizabeth Fulhame, who published a respected scientific paper in 1794 disputing current theories of combustion and earning herself the distinction of being the first solo female researcher in modern chemistry.
You can read a tale of lost credit for an element’s discovery in chapter 11 where we meet Traude Bernert, Berta Karlik and Yvette Cauchois. Cauchois and her colleague Horia Hulubei spotted a new element in traces from decaying radon particles, in 1936. Karlik and Bernert later saw it in decay chains of uranium. But credit went to a US group (men, although no Williams/Henrys) who synthesised the element in 1940 and called it astatine. They benefited from a proposal that the right to name an element should go to those able to reproduce their findings.
Lise Meitner is recognised today through element 109, meitnerium, but in her lifetime experienced exclusion based on the fact that she was Jewish. After co-discovering the element protactinium and becoming Germany’s first female physics professor, she was forced to flee the Nazis in 1938. Chemist Otto Hahn, still living in Germany, brought her a mysterious reaction to study, and through its mathematics Meitner discovered nuclear fission. Hahn, however, included no mention of Meitner when he published the chemistry of fission in 1939, and in 1944 he controversially won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Read the story in chapter 5.
Among all the chemistry in Cracking the Elements there is also plenty of physics. Maria Goeppert Mayer, who appears in chapter 6, proposed in 1950 that the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom are arranged in shells. The maths behind such an arrangement won her the Nobel Prize in physics in 1963 and underlies work that still progresses today – looking for stable elements beyond those yet discovered. Researchers including Yuri Oganessian and colleagues at the Joint Institute in Dubna, Russia, hope to create new, long-lasting elements beyond the current heaviest, oganesson, number 118 (more about my trip to meet him here).
The exploration of some elements led me into unexpected areas. Sulphur, which is element 16 and appears in chapter 10, is responsible for the intense yellow of striped rocks in China’s Rainbow Mountains. But it is also the reason that garlic smells as it does – a primeval sense, and yet a young science. Linda Buck won the 2004 Nobel Prize in medicine for her work, along with Richard Axel, on our olfactory system.
Tales about carbon could fill an entire book of their own, and in chapter 8 I told the well-known story of the discovery of the structure of DNA with reference to the famous photograph 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin in the early 1950s. But there was also Kathleen Lonsdale, who had proved using x-ray crystallography that the 6-carbon ring called benzene was flat, back in 1928. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who was training in x-ray crystallography at the same time, later unravelled the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and then insulin. She received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for this work in 1964. In industrial carbon chemistry, Stephanie Kwolek made her mark by inventing kevlar, the organic polymer responsible for saving lives as the material of bullet-proof vests.
There are other women in Cracking the Elements – woman of iron Inge Lehmann, star-scientist Margaret Burbidge, Nobel Prize-winners Youyou Tu and Ada Yonath, balloonist Sophie Blanchard, Marie Curie’s right-hand woman Marguerite Perey who discovered element 87, francium, Ida Tacke who co-discovered element 75, rhenium, Jane Marcet who inspired Michael Faraday, yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, Lene Hau who works on slowing light down to walking pace, and geologist Mary Fowler. She wrote one of my favourite textbooks when I was at college. Today, although we have a long way to go to make science globally inclusive, more names than ever are recorded in history.