George Hevesy

Budapest, August 1, 1885 - Freiburg, July 5, 1966)

He was a Swedish physical chemist of Hungarian origin who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1943. In his research, he developed a method for studying living organisms using radioactive traces.

He was born in the city of Budapest, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today the capital of Hungary. His father, Louis, was a court counselor and his mother, Eugénie, was the Baroness de Schosberger. He studied physics and chemistry at the University of Budapest and the Technical University of Berlin in 1903, finally obtaining his doctorate from the University of Freiburg in 1908. Later he worked for two years as an assistant at the institute of physics and chemistry at the Technical University of Switzerland, before making a stay with Professor Fritz Haber, attracted by the work of Haber and Rossignol on the synthesis of ammonia. In 1910 he began a stay at the University of Manchester where he worked with Ernest Rutherford, until in 1913 he interrupted these studies to carry out, together with Frederic Paneth, the first experiment on radioactive tracers at the Vienna Institution for Radium Research. During his stay in Vienna he obtained the Venia Legendi from the University of Budapest.

In 1915 he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, and with the end of the First World War he taught as a professor at the University of Budapest, until he moved to Copenhagen (Denmark) in the spring of 1919, to plan his future responsibilities in the Niels Bohr Institute. In 1920 he settled in Copenhagen, only to return to Freiburg six years later as a professor of physics and chemistry.

George de Hevesy married Pia Riis in 1924 and they had one son and three daughters. In 1930 he was appointed Baker Lecturer at Cornell University in Ithaca (New York, United States), before returning to Copenhagen in 1934 to resume his work at the Bohr Institute for Theoretical Physics, an institution where he remained until 1952. In 1943 he moved to live in Stockholm (Sweden), where he was a member of the Organic Chemistry Research Institution. In 1949 he was elected Franqui Professor at the University of Ghent, (Brussels, Belgium) and after his retirement he remained an active scientific associate at Stockholm University.

His early research focused on the study of the chemical behavior of molten salts and his introduction to practical radiochemistry occurred at Rutherford Laboratories in Manchester. His work there, and later in Vienna and Budapest, was directed primarily towards the investigation and use of radium and other heavy isotopes. He also devoted himself to problems in biochemistry. Aided by the Dutch physicist Dirk Coster, he undertook in 1922 the X-ray investigations that would lead him, along with Coster, to the discovery of hafnium in a zirconium ore. He also made a comprehensive study of the properties of hafnium compounds and became interested in rare earth elements.

During the invasion of Denmark by Nazi Germany during World War II, Hevesy dissolved the gold medal of Nobel Laureates Max von Laue and James Franck with aqua regia to prevent the Nazis from stealing it. He kept the obtained solution on a shelf in his laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute and retrieved it after the war, returning the medals to the Nobel Institute, which passed them on to its winners.

He was one of the pioneers in developing the uses of isotope indicators in both the organic and inorganic sciences, and later, in Freiburg, he participated in the first experiments on the clinical use of radioactive isotopes. After his return to Copenhagen, he demonstrated the possibility of artificially forming new radioactive isotopes and subsequently introduced an activation analysis method based on neutron bombardment of the investigated element. This method served to replace X-ray analyzes with fluorescent X-rays, which he himself introduced during his stay in Freiburg. In the year 1934 he began his numerous investigations in the field of animal and plant physiology, using labeled atoms. These investigations were supported by generous grants from the Carlsberg Foundation, the Rask-Ørsted Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other institutions. His work in Sweden continued along the same lines, and he studied, among other things, the effect of X-rays on nucleic acid formation in tumors and in healthy organs, and iron transport in healthy and cancerous organisms; This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council and the Wallenberg Foundation.

In 1943 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on isotopes as tracers in the study of the chemical properties of substances. In 1958 he was awarded the Atoms for Peace award.

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