Ida Eva Tacke-Noddack, the three-time Nobel Prize nominee who first mentioned nuclear fission

Ida Eva Tacke-Noddack

Ida Tacke was born February 25, 1896, in Lackhausen (nowadays a part of the city of Wesel), in the northern Rhine region, the daughter of a varnish manufacturer. In 1915, she chose to attend the Technical University of Berlin because she was drawn to its long and demanding programs.

In 1918, she graduated from the University with a degree in chemical and metallurgical engineering, specifically in higher aliphatic fatty acid anhydrides. She was one of the first women in Germany to study chemistry, and she was a part of one of the first generations of female students in Germany. She obtained the degree of Dr. Eng. in chemistry in 1921. After graduating, she worked in the chemistry laboratory of the Berlin turbine factory of AEG, which is a company that is affiliated with General Electric in the United States.

Ida and Walter in laboratory

Ida met Walter Noddack, a researcher in the University of Berlin's Physical Chemistry Department, who in 1922 was invited to direct the German PTR (Physikalisch–Technische Reichsanstalt; Imperial Physical-Technical Bureau), where his project was to search for the remaining missing elements of the Periodic Table.

In 1924 Ida decided to work full-time as an unpaid collaborator at the PTR, helping Walter's research, and in 1925 they were able to announce the discovery of elements 75 (named rhenium, in homage to Ida's birthplace) and 43 (named masurium, honoring Walter's background in eastern Germany). In 1926 they were married.

In 1934 Ida published a paper criticizing Enrico Fermi's supposed discovery of element 93 as the product of nuclear fusion by the bombardment of uranium with neutrons. She suggested instead that Fermi's experiments pointed to nuclear fission. Leading German scientists considered Ida's suggestion inadmissible, even ridiculous. This criticism may have contributed to the opposition that still existed to the Noddacks' recognition as discoverers of masurium, which intensified after 1937 when Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segrè artificially produced element 43 in a nuclear reaction. Owing to the high levels of unemployment that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash, a new German law of 1932 had forced married employed women to abandon their positions in favour of men, so forcibly becoming housewives, a fate that Ida escaped because she still had the status of an unpaid collaborator. The Nazi takeover of 1933, however, had a profound impact on the couple's life and their scientific careers. One of the first consequences was their move in 1935 to Freiburg University, where Walter was appointed Full Professor of Physical Chemistry, a position formerly occupied by a Jewish scientist, Georg Hevesy.

Noddack and her husband-to-be looked for the then-still-unknown elements 43 and 75 at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt. In 1925, they published a paper (Zwei neue Elemente der Mangangruppe, Chemischer Teil) and called the new elements rhenium (75) and masurium (43). They named the elements rhenium in respect of Ida's birthplace, and masurium in honor of his. After scientists were skeptical of their results, the Noddack's began to perform more experiments to confirm their discoveries. Only rhenium's discovery was confirmed. They were unable to isolate element 43 and their results were not reproducible. These achievements led to Ida being awarded the German Chemical Society's prestigious Liebig Medal in 1931.

Element 43 was definitively isolated in 1937 by Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier from a discarded piece of molybdenum foil from a cyclotron that had undergone beta decay. It was eventually named technetium due to its artificial source.

Ida Noddack in laboratory

Ida Noddack was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry due to her discovery of rhenium and masurium. Noddack and her husband were repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1932, 1933, 1935, and 1937.  The two of them were also awarded the German Chemical Society's prestigious Liebig Medal in 1931. In 1934, they received the Scheele Medal of the Swedish Chemical Society as well as the German patent for rhenium concentrate.

In 1941 the Noddacks moved to the University of Strasbourg. Walter was appointed director of two institutes where most professors were members of the National Socialist Party, although Walter himself never was. Ironically, in this new situation, Ida obtained for the first time a paid academic position as a professor.

In 1946, after the war, he obtained a position in a technical college, the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule in Bamberg. Still, in possession of their old equipment from Strasbourg, Walter independently founded a private Geochemical Institute in Bamberg, where Ida became an (again) unpaid member of the staff, engaging in geochemical and physiological research. The institute was recognized and nationalized as part of the Federal Republic of Germany's network in 1956, and not long afterward, in 1960, Walter died. Ida, however, continued her research there until 1968, when she moved to a retirement home, finally dying in 1978.

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