Ida Noddack and the trouble with element 43

An illustrated portrait of Ida Noddack

Source: Photograph © Ullstein Bild/Getty Images/Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Folio Art

The German chemist discovered one element and may have been the first to suggest nuclear fission – but her legacy is troubled, as Rachel Brazil discovers

‘We want a heroine or a martyr’ when we read about forgotten women scientists, says Brigitte van Tiggelen, the Science History Institute’s director of European operations. Ida Noddack does not fit that description. Her legacy is complicated by her work for the academic regime set up by the Nazi government in 1930s Germany, which likely clouded post-war judgement of her work.

But even before the war, Noddack’s insights were ignored and diminished by scientific contemporaries. As well as discovering the element rhenium, one of the last of the naturally occurring elements to be discovered, she suggested that bombardment of heavy nuclei could lead to their breakup, four years before the idea of nuclear fission was widely accepted. But disputed claims to have discovered the element technetium, as well as the barriers she faced as a woman, have left her uncelebrated and her story largely forgotten.