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Gleditsch, Ellen

university chemistry radium life

(1879–1968) Norway’s first woman professor of chemistry; she determined the half-life of radium.

The career of Ellen Gleditsch shows the possibility of achieving one’s goal through manageable steps from an unpromising position. She grew up in Tromsö, where she did well at her coeducational school, particularly in mathematics. However, the university entrance examination was reserved for boys. Determined to continue her interest in science, Gleditsch became an apprentice apothecary in 1897, studied pharmacology, gained a non-academic degree (1902) and moved to Oslo. Here she became an assistant at the chemical laboratory of the University of Oslo (1903) and three years later passed the qualifying university entrance examination. She then worked as a teaching assistant there (1906–7), where she wrote her first (and only) paper on organic chemistry, on derivatives of amylbenzene. Wishing to study with Marie , and with a recommendation from the head of her laboratory, her paper on organic chemistry, a little luck, and an award from the Dowager Queen Josephine’s legacy, she went to work at the Institut de Radium in Paris (1907–12). Marie Curie had at first refused Gleditsch, but needed another chemist and all her co-workers then were physicists. Gleditsch became Curie’s personal assistant responsible for the tedious work of extracting pure radium salts. In 1912 she graduated as Licenciée des Sciences (equivalent of a BSc) from the Sorbonne. Her work in Paris produced five publications on radioactive minerals. Armed with a scholarship from the American–Scandinavian Foundation she applied to work with at Yale. Despite a cool response from him Gleditsch went for a year (1913–14) and while there determined the half-life of radium (the time required for half the atoms to disintegrate) to be 1,686 years, a figure widely accepted by the scientific community (now estimated to be 1,620 years). Boltwood had previously estimated the half-life to be 2000 years, and found it to be 1760–1690 years. Honours and recognition followed this work. She returned home as fellow in chemistry at Oslo University, became reader in 1916 and a full professor in 1929, a post which she held until her retirement in 1946. During the Second World War Norway was occupied by Germany and Gleditsch worked with the Resistance.

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