Berta Karlik, discoverer of astatine isotopes and its existence in nature as a product of natural decay processes

Berta Karlik

She was an Austrian physicist. She worked for the University of Vienna, eventually becoming the first female professor at the institution.

Berta Karlik was born January 24, 1904 in Vienna, Austria, to an upper-class family and was home-taught for her elementary education. While being taught at home she learned to play the piano as well as speak and write French, Dutch and English.

She bucked the norms for a woman at the time and studied math & physics at Vienna University, graduating with honors and earning a scholarship from the International Federation of University Women to study abroad – she performed research at London’s Royal Institution and Paris’ Curie Institute.

From 1919 to 1923 she attended the Reform-Realgymnasium and upon graduating in 1923.  After receiving her degree in Physics, Karlik accepted a teaching position at the Realgymnasium in Vienna, where she was a former pupil, and she was accepted as a regular student to the Philosophical Faculty at the University of Vienna until 1928 when she received her Ph.D.

In 1930 Karlik found a job at a laboratory run by William Henry Bragg in London. Here she worked on crystallography and used X-rays to study the structure of crystals. Karlik's knowledge of radiophysics attracted the attention of noted crystallographers Ellie Knaggs and Helen Gilchrist. The same year that she formed a group with these two women is the same year she first visits Marie Curie's lab in Paris which was the start of her long correspondence with various other female physicists.

Berta Karlik y Lise Meitner

While Karlik occasionally sent letters to Marie Curie she kept regular correspondence with other notable physicists such as Ellen Gleditsch and Eva Resmtedt, two of the Curie researchers, as well as Lise Meitner, with whom Karlik was quite close during her life. Throughout her life she would meet with Meitner who worked with the team responsible for discovering nuclear fission.

In 1931, after studying in Paris and London she returned to Vienna and started working at the Institut für Radiumforschung (Institut for Radium Research) in Vienna. From 1937, she was allowed to give lectures, and slowly advanced in the hierarchy of the institute.

Berta Karlik y Traude Bernert

During Second World War, while at the Institute for Radium Research, she and her colleague Traude Bernert discovered the first naturally-occurring astatine (they were studying another radioactive element that decayed into it), but other researchers found their way to it synthetically. A group of scientists working independently at the University of California, Berkeley was able to create astatine “unnaturally” by bombarding atoms of the element bismuth with alpha particles (a type of radiation).

She became provisional director of the institute in 1945 and official director in 1947 upon discovering the existence of the chemical element 85 astatine, whose main use is in radiotherapy to kill cancer cells. Due to this discovery Karlik was awarded the Haitinger Prize for Chemistry from the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1947.

And while astatine is what Karlik’s best known for when people do know about her, it’s not all she contributed to science. She also studied radiation therapy and, while at the Royal Institution, she developed crystallographic methods for studying hydrocarbons and co-wrote a book on crystallography data tables.

Simultaneously she joined a group on seawater research headed by the Swedish physicist Hans Pettersson. Mixing knowledge of oceanography and radioactivity, Karlik helped to bring up concerns about the biological issue of uranium contamination of seawater.

Berta Karlik was the first woman to be full professor ("ordentliche Professur") at the University of Vienna in 1956. She retired in 1973 but worked at the institute till her death in 1990.

Karlik was inducted into the Academy of Sciences in 1973 and became its first female full member. Other honors include the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Haitinger Prize and the Prize of the City of Vienna. She was a founding member of the Austrian Physical Society and a member of the planning staff of CERN, and she advised the government about the peaceful use of atomic energy and helped found the International Atomic Energy Commission.

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