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Ellen Gleditsch: professor, radiochemist, and mentor

Ellen Gleditsch:
Professor, Radiochemist, and Mentor
Annette Lykknes
Department of Chemistry
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Trondheim, Norway
Ph.D. thesis
Til mamma
med takk for alt du har gitt meg
BIOGRAPHY AND THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE.............................................................................................. 13
A NEW APPROACH TO THE BIOGRAPHY GENRE...................................................................................... 17
TOWARDS A BIOGRAPHY OF ELLEN GLEDITSCH...................................................................................... 18
ON HISTORIOGRAPHY................................................................................................................................... 23
NOTE ON SOURCES ....................................................................................................................................... 29
FINAL COMMENTS......................................................................................................................................... 34
ORAL HISTORY...................................................................................................................37
This work has been conducted mainly at the Chemistry Department of the Norwegian
University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, but also at the History of
Science Department of the University of Aarhus (springs 2002 and 2004), during 2000-2005,
with financial support from the Chemistry Department and Faculty of Science and
Technology at NTNU, which are acknowledged, together with sectional leader Torbjørn
Ljones for understanding the position of this new field within a traditional chemistry
department, granting support for necessary trips and purchases. I am also grateful to Nordisk
forskerutdanningsakademi (NorFA, now: NordForsk), Lise og Arnfinn Hejes fond, the
Faculty of Science and Technology, and International Section at NTNU for scholarships
enabling me to participate at conferences and to have research stays abroad.
During my years as a Ph.D. student I have also taught laboratory courses in general
and inorganic chemistry, lectured on the history of chemistry in a teacher training course,
collaborated in the on-going project on collection and registration of ancient scientific
instruments, glassware, and chemicals at NTNU, as well as prepared an exhibition about Ellen
Gleditsch for the science library. I have given several presentations at international
conferences as well as in Scandinavia. All these experiences have been valuable for my
development as a researcher in the history of chemistry.
Associate professor Lise Kvittingen at the Department of Chemistry, my main
supervisor, has been an invaluable support all these years and without her this project would
not have been realized. She always returns my manuscripts with questions, drawings,
comments and proverbs, though in a hand-writing to despair of, to never let me relax on
formulations, expressions, thoughts, or on my presentation on chemical details. Her all-
embracing supervision includes meeting me in the morning (when I eventually arrive) with
new ideas hatched during the night, and involving her English-speaking family and especially
her husband Richard Verley, who has spent quite some time improving my English, for which
I am grateful.
Together with my co-advisor, associate professor Anne Kristine Børresen at the
Department for History and Classical Studies and Lise, I have worked in an effective,
stimulating and enjoyable interdisciplinary group. As a historian, Anne Kristine added
perspectives on history in general, biographies, history of science and my project that
triggered reflection and gradually, knowledge on history writing for which I will always be
indepted. Thanks also to her the papers became better focused when I struggled a bit in no-
where land. I am also grateful that she supplied relevant literature and made drafts of her work
available to me.
During my stays in Aarhus, and also whilst in Trondheim, Professor Helge Kragh at
the History of Science Department (now: Steno Institute) of the University of Aarhus, has
been of great help for the progress of my work, as he from the very first day asked “Haven’t
you written anything?” which scared me but forced me to start writing - but even more for his
suggesting this project, his knowledgeable comments, advice on relevant literature and
efficiency I am forever grateful. My stays in Aarhus included weekly colloquia, conferences,
and student lunches, as well as an open atmosphere that made me feel welcome. I would also
like to thank the then head of the department, Henry Nielsen, and all the professors and
students for fruitful discussions and pleasant lunches and teabreaks. A special thanks goes to
Kristine Lynning, Anja Skaar Jacobsen, and Ripudaman Singh for good friendships.
In autumn 2001 and spring 2003 I spent several weeks at the University of Oslo,
taking a radiochemistry course, collecting archive material, doing interviews, and talking to
researchers in nuclear chemistry as well as in the history of science. These stays were very
profitable for me. First my thanks go to the nuclear chemistry group at the Chemistry
Department, whose members always welcomed me, allowed me to use their offices and
equipment, took time to arrange for keys, key cards, and e-mail accounts, helped me with
photographs and, most importantly, answered scientific questions. They also included me in
their social happenings in a pleasent way. Particularly I wish to thank Jorolf Alstad, who more
than anyone shared his knowledge and time, answered endless questions and queries on
nuclear chemistry and Gleditsch, as well as arranged meetings with Gleditsch’s students, and
always with a smile. I am also grateful to Per Hoff and Jon Petter Omtvedt, and the rest of the
students and personnel at this section of the Chemistry Department.
During my trips to Oslo I have also kept in contact with the staff and students at the
Forum for University History, who have given constructive comments and advice on my way
through this thesis, especially after a presentation at the Forum in November 2003. I am
grateful to Robert Marc Friedman for advising me in an early phase and always answering my
questions about university history, as well as to John Peter Collett, Jorunn Sem Fure, Jan
Eivind Myhre, Kim Helsvig, Fredrik Thue, Ole Anders Rødberg, Arve Monsen, Elisabeth
Sandberg, Håkon Korsvold and many more. Thanks to Ole Anders I was able to find archive
sources that otherwise would have remained unknown to me.
I have furthermore greatly benefited from presenting my work at international
conferences, where I received thoughtful comments and gained new important contacts that
have been crucial in my work. Of these, I will mention Maria Rentetzi, who has become both
a good colleague, friend and role model with her independent attitude and courage. Thanks to
her I was bold enough to submit a paper for Isis. The successful panel on women in
radioactivity in Prague in 2003, which all of the participants learnt a lot from, had never found
place if it wasn’t for her either. Thanks also to the organizing committee.
Throughout my work lots of archive sources have been collected all around Europe
and in the United States. This could not have been possible without the help of archivists who
helped track material relevant for my work. I thank Ginette Gablot and Lenka Brochard at the
archives of the Musée Curie, Sigbjørn Grindheim and Anne Melgård at the manuscript section
of the National Library of Norway in Oslo, Bent Åby, Brit Opheim, and Jan Melåen at the
Central Administration and Faculty of Science and Mathematics at the University of Oslo,
Adam Perkins at the Cambridge University Library, Stefan Sienell at the Austrian Academy
of Sciences, Dirk Ullmann at the Max-Planck Archive Section, Tom Hyry at the Yale
University Library, Robin McElheny at the Harvard University Archives, Anne Lozier at the
Smith College Archives, Erwin Levold at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Finn Aaserud and
Felicity Porrs at the Niels Bohr Archive, Anne Wiktorsson and Karl Grandin at the Royal
Swedish Academy of Sciences, and staff at the Public Record Office in Oslo, NRK radio
archive, Regional State Archive in Trondheim, Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and Churchill
College Archives in Cambridge. Thanks also for permission to use these materials in my
Many people have, through this project, willingly shared their experiences of Ellen
Gleditsch with me. These include her family, students and former colleagues, and second
generation students, and I warmly thank them all for opening their homes, providing
information and photographs for my projects; Nils Petter Gleditsch, Chris Koch, Eva Koch,
Dagmar Gleditsch and Søren Bøtker, Lars Edmund Gleditsch, Bernard Ragvin, Susanne
Øverli, Mette Janson, Dag Gleditsch, Esther Gleditsch, Alexis Pappas, Paul Thrane Cappelen,
Ellen Rosenqvist, Terkel Rosenqvist, Gerd Borgen, Geirr Sletten, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, and
many more. Thanks also to N. P. Gleditsch and H. Langevin-Joliot for permission to quote
from archive sources. For scientific, historical, linguistic, practical and technical advice, apart
from those mentioned before, I have received help from Bjørn Pedersen, Ragnar Bye, Arne
Kjekshus, Frode Riise, Tor Brustad, Eiliv Steinnes, Bjørge Brattli, Rolf Manne, Pierre Laszlo,
Soraya Boudia, Annette Vogt, Anders Lundgren, Thomas Söderqvist, Anita Kildebæk
Nielsen, Roland Wittje, Geir Bentzen, Lars Rowe, Vassilia Partali, Hans-Richard Sliwka,
Stein Almo, Reidar Stølevik, Christian Mönch, Inger Frøseth, the staff at the science library at
NTNU, and many others. Thanks to all of you! I would also like to acknowledge the Forum
for the history of knowledge and the reading group (initiated by Jahnavi Phalkey) for
encouraging good discussions in the history of science.
A doctoral thesis cannot be undertaken without the support of friends and family, and I
in particular thank colleagues and friends from the environmental chemistry group, and the
“computer geeks” for a pleasant social time during my studies, as well as all my friends
outside of work. Without you this would have been a hopeless process! I also thank Ruth for
being a good neighbor during these years. I warmly acknowledge my mother, now deceased
grand-parents, and Tim, for giving me all the love and support I needed during my childhood
and youth, and thanks to Trond for being patient and caring during these last, tough months.
Last, but not least I will emphasize that it has been a pleasure getting to know the
history of science field and Ellen Gleditsch in particular, and that this work has given me an
appetite for more.
Trondheim, April 2005,
Annette Lykknes
Introduction: Ellen Gleditsch: Professor, Radiochemist, and Mentor
- What is needed in order to become a good researcher?
- Difficult to answer. The urge to research is presumably innate. One can probably say that scientific
instinct is a necessity, scientific interest, initiative, and capacity to complete tasks. – An inspiring
teacher and a scientific environment are also very important.
Gleditsch interviewed in Mot Kreft no. 2 (1963) pp. 20-22
Ellen Gleditsch traveled from Norway to Paris in 1907 to study radioactivity under Marie
Curie. After five years abroad she returned to Norway, where she was promoted from
university fellow (1911) to associate professor (1916) and full professor (1929). In Oslo she
was the only authority within radioactivity and laid the foundation for what was to become
Norway’s centre for radiochemistry (later: nuclear chemistry). She was a pioneer in at least
two respects; as a radiochemist participating in the early debates in the field, and as a female
scientist, internationally as well as in Norway. In 1929 she became Norway’s second female
full professor, this was also early in a European context.
This dissertation will deal with Ellen Gleditsch and some important aspects of her
career, as professor, radiochemist and mentor. As Professor Gleditsch supervised students,
gave lectures, disseminated science, did research and administrative work; together with many
others she participated in the shaping of a research university which developed during her
career. She also experienced the daily life in an institute in which there was competition for
both resources and positions, included the professorship she was finally granted after many
set-backs. The Radiochemist Ellen Gleditsch worked and researched at Marie Curie’s
laboratory in Paris, and later at Bertram Boltwood’s laboratory in New Haven and Stefan
Meyer’s Institute for Radium Research in Vienna, furthermore she planned and made efforts
to establish a similar laboratory in Oslo. During her time in Paris and U.S.A. Gleditsch
participated in important debates in the early period of radioactivity, including those on the
determination of the radium-uranium ratio and the half-life of radium. In Norway she devoted
her time to atomic weight determinations, age determinations, and radiogeological
investigations - research was an important part of Gleditsch’s life and career. Gleditsch was
also a Mentor in many respects; in the international radioactivity community, as one of the
first female academics and radiochemists in Norway, for her many students, and this role
seems also to have been hers within her family. In Paris she looked after students from all
over the world to help alleviate their home sickness, at the University of Oslo she was known
as the scientific mother to many; mentoring was among Gleditsch’s main qualities.
The story of Ellen Gleditsch opens for several perspectives. By focusing on her
scientific practice we can get a closer understanding of the questions: What could it be like to
be a scientist at the University of Oslo at the beginning to mid-twentieth Century? What were
the possibilities for researchers in a small and peripheral University? How could a university
career take form? Was research important? What part did travels abroad play for the training
of a scientist? How important was the cultivation of international networks? What could it be
like to be a female scientist at a time pervaded by a traditional pattern of gender roles, both
ideologically and in every-day life? Did women have a possibility to enter men’s arena and in
what form did the opposition they met appear? What happened in radiochemistry at the time?
Did Gleditsch participate in any important controversies and how was her work received? Did
her research group take part in these debates, and what became of her students?
The narrative about Ellen Gleditsch therefore goes beyond writing a story about her. It
also gives insight into the specific university culture Gleditsch was a part of and the
institutional, cultural and political frames within which her research was shaped. The scientist
Gleditsch was not only formed by her field and the institutions at which she worked or
studied, she herself also participated in the shaping of her immediate surroundings and
institute. By using scientific biography the study of how scientific thoughts and ideas develop
in the head and heart of an individual scientist can be combined with social, scientific,
institutional, political, economical and cultural contexts, thus bridging internalist and
externalist approaches to science. Biographies in general deal exactly with this: how one
person at the same time is shaped from, and shapes the surroundings in which she lives, and
how one single person both reflects that which surrounds her, and vice versa.
I will soon
return to which aspects of Gleditsch’s life I will focus on, first I will look at some of the
phases that biography as a genre has been through.
Biography and the History of Science
Scientific biographies have always been important in telling histories of science - in total
about four thousand biographies in book format of scientists, engineers and medical doctors
have appeared in the Latin, French, English, Italian, Dutch or Scandinavian languages since
the early seventeenth century - but their form and popularity have varied.
Until the twentieth
century biography was primarily a tribute to outstanding individuals, such as kings and
political leaders, and these heroic tales, whose aim was to preach a moral and present the
glorious and hard-working main character, were especially prevalent in the nineteenth century
and beginning of the twentieth century, at which time the scientific biography as genre
reached its peak. In 1918, in Lyttan Strachey’s book Eminant Victorians, heroic tale
biographies were for the first time criticized, and Strachey sought biographies that gave a
broader picture of a person’s life, showing both pleasant and darker sides.
Strachey’s book is
Anne Kristine Børresen, “Johan H. L. Vogt: Naturforsker og industribygger,” in: Anne Kristine Børresen and
Mikael Hård (eds.), Kunnskap og kultur: Vitenskapens roller i det norske samfunn, 1760-2000 (Tapir akademisk
forlag, 2004), pp. 137-174.
Thomas Söderqvist, “Introduction,” in: Thomas Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific
Biography (Aldershot: Ashgate, in press). I am grateful to Söderqvist for making drafts of the papers available to
me. For a thorough discussion on biography through history, see Michael Schortland and Richard Yeo,
”Introduction,” in: Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo (eds.), Telling lives in Science: Essays on scientific
biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 1-44; Thomas Söderqvist, “Existential projects
and existential choice in science: science biography as an edifying genre,” in: ibid, pp. 45-84; and Thomas
Söderqvist, “Forskerbiografiens historie,” Slagmark: Tidsskrift for idéhistorie no. 28-29, pp. 51-70.
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (New York: Modern Library, 1918), p. viii.
considered as a turning point in biography writing, where historical context became more
important and sources started to be scrutinized.
From the mid-twentieth century the biography as a genre lost status among historians.
For twenty to thirty years they were reckoned too narrowly oriented towards individuals. The
history of science was in this period increasingly influenced by philosophers such as Carl
Hempel, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos, later referred to as internalists. For them the logical
structure of science was more important than the scientist’s personality, and science could be
understood and analyzed as if external sociological and historical factors did not influence its
The declining popularity of the biography was also a reaction to the many
hagiographic biographies as these presentations in no way exploited the many possibilities a
biography could offer.
About the same time a new perspective in the history of science was launched. With
Robert K. Merton’s Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England
attention was directed towards the society in which scientists lived and away from the
autonomous individual.
In this atmosphere, where in particular social, economical and
political factors of scientific milieus were studied, biography as a genre hardly survived.
Instead historians of science from the inter-war period until the 1980s concentrated on the
emergence of scientific ideas, traditions and disciplines, and the institutional and societal
frames around the scientific milieus. The scientist’s background, personality, and relation to
colleagues at home or abroad were reckoned almost irrelevant when an analysis of their
See e.g. Marianne Egeland, “Lytton Strachey og den nye biografi,” in: Marianne Egeland, Hvem bestemmer
over livet? Biografien som historisk og litterær genre (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2000), pp. 67-72.
Thomas Söderqvist, “Att skriva interaktiv forskerbiografi,” Vest no. 1 (1992), 9-19.
Robert K. Merton, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Harper &
Row, 1970), first published in 1938 as a part of Osiris, volume 4, part 2; L. Pearce Williams, “The Life of
Science and Scientific Lives,” Physics 28 (1991), 199-213.
choices and practices was made.
Furthermore, biography was considered too literary and thus
Later, as many genres do, scientific biography saw its renaissance. Thomas Hankins
defended the use of biography in the history of science in 1979 and emphasized its
possibilities, earlier biographies had simply been unsuccessful because the result appeared
inharmonious when an author tried to combine personal aspects and technical details of the
scientists work. However according to Hankins the genre offered an unprecedented
opportunity: “We have, in the case of an individual, his scientific, philosophical, social and
political ideas wrapped up in a single package.”
Biography was therefore a possible means to
combine, or integrate, external factors with internal history of science, resulting, hopefully, in
a new understanding of a researcher or a community of scientists emerging.
In the 1980s biographies in the history of science appeared in increasing numbers
again. Saturation of institutional history and emphasis on structures in science may partly
explain this.
But also the gradual interest in the humanities towards so-called “new cultural
history,” with influence from anthropology, ethnology, folklore, linguistics, and literature,
contributed to a change of focus which was more easily integrated in a biography.
general historians at the time gradually turned towards history of every-day life as
experienced by common people - from general histories to more complex histories that could
be windows for the understanding of more general trends.
Biography is a type of micro-
history, integrating several perspectives in one story, be it institutional, social, internalist or
externalist. A biographical focus in the history of science allows the actors to speak and
Shortland and Yeo, “Introduction.”
Söderqvist, “Att skriva interaktiv forskarbiografi.”
Thomas Hankins, ”In defence of biography: The use of biography in the history of science,” History of Science
17 (1979), 1-16, on p. 5.
Söderqvist, “Att skriva interaktiv forskarbiografi;” Söderqvist, “Forskerbiografiens historie.”
See e.g. Lynn Hunt, “Introduction,” in: Lynn Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1989), pp. 1-22.
Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern
Challenge (Hannover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), pp. 101-102; Ingar Kaldal, Alltagsgesichte
og mikrohistorie (Universitetet i Trondheim, Historisk Institutt, 1994), Skriftserie fra Historisk Institutt, no. 2.
influence on our understanding of history, and “use an individual’s experience … for gaining
an understanding of the structural and normative.”
The emergence of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the 1980s also opened for
scientist-focused analyses. In Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s ethnographical studies of
laboratories, scientists were observed in their daily work.
Their work revealed new aspects
of scientific activities, light was shed on how scientific facts are constructed. Books and
articles followed, focus on the lonely genius’ struggles in science became outdated, at least
within STS, instead the scientist’s practices and methods, networking and alliances with other
actors in and outside the scientific milieu were analyzed.
In the study of science as practice
less prominent persons in the scientific milieu, who had previously received scant attention in
historical and/or sociological studies, were now legitimate studies, e.g., Stephen Shapin
researched and documented the importance of technicians and assistants, previously invisible
in the history of science, in the development of Robert Boyle’s instruments.
After the 1980s biographies became more critical, aims were now to combine an
interest in a scientist with the understanding of the scientific processes behind the work
(science in the making) or the complex, institutional and cultural context the science is shaped
by and in (science in context).
In the next decade further interest in the biographical genre in
the history of science appeared, in 1995 Australian historians of science, Michael Shortland
and Richard Yeo, solicited a number of essays on biography which were published five years
Charles Rosenberg, “Woods or trees? Ideas and actors in the history of science,” Isis 79 (1988), 565-570, on p.
See e.g. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts
(Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979) and Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and
Engineers Through Society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987) (Mikael Hård and Anne Kristine
Børresen, “Vitenskap som kulturell ressurs,” in: Børresen and Hård, Kunnskap og kultur, pp. 11-26).
See e.g. Karin Knorr-Cetina, Roger Krohn and Richard Whitely (eds.), The Social Process of Scientific
Investigation (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1981), Sociology of the Sciences, no. 4; and Michael Lynch, Art and Artifact
in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory (London: Routledge,
Steven Shapin, ”The Invisible Technician,” American Scientist 77 (1989), 555-563; Hård and Børresen,
“Vitenskap som kulturell ressurs.”
Malcoml Oster, ”Biography, Culture, and Science: The Formative Years of Robert Boyle,” History of Science
31 (1993), 177-226; Thomas Söderqvist, Hvilken kamp for at undslippe. En biografi om immunologen og
nobelpristageren Niels Kaj Jerne (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1998), p. 26; Børresen, “Johan H. L. Vogt.”
later by the Cambridge University Press under the title Telling Lives in Science;
in 1995 a
symposium at the Oregon State University in Corvallis discussed the life and work of Linus
Pauling within the framework of the art of biography in general,
an international meeting on
biography was also arranged in Denmark in 2002, and more publications have followed.
This increasing attention has also led to a renewed interest in different ways of writing a
A New Approach to the Biography Genre
Years of work with the biography of the Danish immunologist Niels Kaj Jerne, induced
Thomas Söderqvist to launch a new biographical genre in 1996, distinct from the social
biography and the philosophically approached biography; the existential biography.
type of biography should comprise an analysis of the scientist’s life, on the scientists’ own
premises, and not merely a “case study” for the understanding of other aspects of the history
of science. While the sociologists look at the scientist as a socially constructed individual, the
existential approach investigates how he is confronted with his freedom or fear, consequences
of his choices, or of guilt - scientific work and rational thinking are intertwined with the
existential project, and involve existential choices, according to Söderqvist.
In my opinion the existential biography is a very interesting approach to understanding
a scientist’s private and professional spheres, which are of course interrelated. We cannot
distinguish between Ellen Gleditsch the chemist, the family woman, or the politically engaged
person. All impulses of her life, as well as her own reactions and emotions facing milestones
Shortland and Yeo, Telling Lives in Science.
Ramesh S. Krishnamurty (ed.), The Pauling Symposium: A Discourse on the Art of Biography (Corvallis,
Oregon: Oregon State University Libraries, 1996).
“Workshop on The Poetics of Biography in Science, Technology and Medicine,” Copenhagen May 22-25,
2002 with forthcoming proceedings: Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography; Antonella
La Vergata (ed.), Le biografie scientifiche (special issue of the Italian history of ideas journal Intersezioni, 1995);
special issue of the Dutch history of science journal Gewina no. 23 (2000).
The term “existential biography” has been used before, but not in Söderqvist’s sense, see Söderqvist,
“Existential projects,” pp. 62-63.
Söderqvist, Hvilken kamp for at undslippe, pp. 29-31; Söderqvist, ”Existential projects,” p. 61.
and obstacles, in work, at home or elsewhere, are interconnected, and constitute small pieces
of a whole – the portrait of Ellen Gleditsch. However to write an existential biography in its
proper sense, one requires a variety of sources revealing her feelings in life and career. Few of
Gleditsch’s letters that I have read, include thoughts, feelings and reactions during joyous and
hard times, her reasons for choosing and acting the way she did, or on her private life,
friendships or romantic relationships. Söderqvist’s main character, Jerne, had kept letters,
manuscripts, protocols, bills, receipts and more from the age of sixteen as well as his diary.
All this he allowed his biographer to read and study, and moreover Jerne added nuances
through many conversations with Söderqvist before he died. In my work on Gleditsch, I do
not incorporate many of these aspects due mainly to lack of sources. In some situations I can
only indicate what it was like to be Ellen Gleditsch, in others personal information is
available, e.g. thanks to helpful cooperation by several relatives and former students. My story
about Ellen Gleditsch is not a purely social project, neither is it a chemical one. However I
have tried to present her career as a result of such factors, as well as many others. I will now
discuss the different approaches in my story on Gleditsch, and argue for my choices.
Towards a Biography of Ellen Gleditsch
As discussed, scientific biography offers several possibilities for an understanding of a certain
time, scientific community, or research practices. Through a close look at an individual we
can learn how personality and surroundings are intertwined in a career and get insight into a
scientific milieu. To know the person Ellen Gleditsch and her background is important in
order to understand her, however my aim has never been to write a biography following her
from birth to death, nor to give a personal portrait of Gleditsch. I have chosen some periods
and events in her life because I think these shed light on her career, as well as on how an
academic milieu in Norway functioned at that time, in which way her scientific life was
integrated in a institutional, cultural, political and economical context, and which strategies a
woman in a masculine culture chose. My narrative about Ellen Gleditsch is thus, first and
foremost, on her career, i.e. Ellen Gleditsch the scientist, with emphasis on the years 1907-
1946, with the purpose to understand more of the (scientific) society in which she lived her
As is obvious to the reader, this dissertation is not a traditional biography, in the sense
of being a monograph with a beginning and an end. Instead my thesis consists of three
independent papers about Gleditsch’s career with varying foci, each a complete story with its
own beginning and end. In this way particular aspects are cultivated simultaneously in each
paper, and each paper can be read independently of the others. I have chosen this form also as
a student in a chemistry department having this tradition, where I formally belong, and more
important because peer reviews throughout the work educate, trigger questions, enhance foci
and force reflections.
It is not only the overall structure that may discern my work from traditional historical
research, although evidently there are a number of varieties therein as well. I really appreciate
and value biographies from historians with their eloquent and capturing narratives, and I am
almost envious of their style and perspectives. My work may in this tradition seem colorless,
stringent and too concise, as well as documented beyond most needs. I am, however, trained
as a scientist with a concern for detail, imbedded fear for undocumented statements and for
perspectives beyond the table top. During my project I have however also learned to
appreciate this concern for detail, as when I read fascinating literature of which I eagerly
obtained references, if there were any, to end up disappointed as I found little corresponding
to the citing text. I therefore reckon the part of my thesis in font ten to be an important part,
and I hope it will be of interest to at least some readers.
In paper 1, “Ellen Gleditsch: Pioneer Woman in Radiochemistry,” the story is about
the young chemist Ellen Gleditsch, who arrived in Paris in 1907 and started cooperating with
Marie Curie. The milieu at the Laboratoire Curie in Paris where Gleditsch worked is outlined
as well as the fruits harvested from her time there, namely the extensive personal network of
women working in radioactivity, and several publications from her research. Her scientific
contributions from Paris; the lithium controversy and the determination of the radium-
uranium ratio, are thoroughly discussed in the context of contemporary scientific debates. In
this paper it is Gleditsch the pioneer and protégé of Curie, and Gleditsch the representative for
many women in radioactivity research, that is portrayed, although a summary of her later
contributions and achievements is also mentioned.
In paper 2, “Appreciated Abroad, Depreciated at Home. The Career of a Radiochemist
in Norway: Ellen Gleditsch (1879-1968),” Gleditsch’s story in the context of women in
science is told. At Gleditsch’s time it was generally accepted that women could not and
should not become scientists, they were held to lack strength, rigor, and clarity of mind for an
occupation that properly belonged to men.
Through her choice of career Gleditsch
challenged common prejudices about women’s role in society and academia specifically, and
she did meet obstacles during her work. However, in contrast to many other women in
academia, she was part of a congenial international network, of women working in
radioactivity, and also within the International Federation of University Women. The main
issue in this paper is the professorial appointment in 1929, when Gleditsch met opposition
both from her predecessor and the rector of the university. Gleditsch was, as the title states,
appreciated abroad, but depreciated at home.
Paper 3, “From Fertile Centers to Seeding the Periphery. Ellen Gleditsch: Duty and
Responsibility in a Research and Teaching Career, 1916-1946,” also concerns Gleditsch’s
Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press,
1985), p. 77.
career at home, i.e. in Norway, but does not in particular deal with her role as a female
scientist. Instead a closer look at which practices comprised her university career has been
taken - including struggles for new facilities and financial support, administration and
responsibilities, teaching and supervising, as well as her scientific work. Gleditsch, who had
been “nourished” in the famous contemporary centers of her subject, wished to establish a
teaching and research laboratory of radiochemistry at the University of Oslo, however
realities in the periphery of home did not allow this. Although she trained a handful of
candidates in radiochemistry, it was eventually under her student, Alexis Pappas, who was
appointed professor a decade after her retirement, that this “mission” was accomplished, not
least because the general economic situation in Norway and at the University had improved.
Through an investigation of her scientific works and the contexts in which they appeared, the
dynamics between center and periphery can be further understood.
In my story about the scientist Ellen Gleditsch I have tried to integrate several
perspectives, though obviously many had to be disregarded, especially within the limited time
of a Ph.D. project. For example feminist theory and political history have only been touched
lightly upon. As a chemist, I was interested in and responsible for studying Gleditsch’s
research, and to discuss it in a broader context. After all, her work appropriated most of her
time. Although I am trained as a chemist with courses in radiochemistry I have hardly
conducted any experiments in this field. To study her work and methods, and also
contemporary investigations and debates, has therefore been a considerable challenge.
Likewise to grasp some of the meticulous laboratory techniques used at the time was similarly
difficult, also my wish to present the scientific discussions in an understandable way for a
non-expert reader must be added to this. But to me this part is important for the understanding
of the scientist. As Hankins argues in his defence of biography: “It may seem tedious to the
reader who is only curious about the personality of a ‘great man,’ but is essential for the
historian of science.”
Judging from book reviews of some biographies of women scientists,
it is obviously regarded as important to get the science correct.
A narrative can take different forms. William Clark argues to displace a
historiographical discourse drawn from political history (with terms like “whiggish” and
“revolution”) by one drawn from literary criticism or poetics, distinguishing between four
classes of narrative; Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, and Satire.
According to Clark, the
romantic voice is memory, a story-teller, and also nostalgic, of times past and golden.
Golinsky, referring to Clark’s categories of narrative, argues that often when scientists are
writing the histories of their fields or predecessors, they write narratives with a romantic hue
because they (as in the hagiographies) present scientists as heroes, readily accommodate
wrong paths mistakenly taken, as well as intervals when little or no progress was made.
According to Golinsky, “while scientists frequently employ the history of their field so as to
locate themselves and their aims in continuous relationship to it, historians are more likely to
emphasize the discontinuities that divide the temporal fabric.”
When I started my Ph.D.
work almost five years ago, ignorant as I was, I was attracted to the romantic genre, although
at the time I was scarcely familiar, although dormantly aware, of this type of literature. Over
the years my competency in history of chemistry as well as on Ellen Gleditsch grew, and I
developed receptiveness to external and social factors influencing the history of science.
Gleditsch’s career itself also invited other aspects than the romantic. It has been argued that a
biographer often develops too close a personal and emotional relationship to his or her subject
Hankins, “In Defence of Biography,” p. 8.
Lawrence Badash, “Book Review: Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life,” Isis 88 (1997), 318-319; David B.
McLay, “Review Article: Lise Meitner and Erwin Schrödinger: Biographies of Two Austrian Physicists of Nobel
Stature,” Minerva 37 (1999), 75-94.
Wiliam Clark, “Narratology and the History of Science,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 26
(1995), 1-71. Christopher A. Chilvers also discusses the use of “tragedy in a manner that reveals its complex
socially dynamic and historical character” in the history of science, see Christopher A. Chilvers, “The Tragedy
of Comrade Hessen,” in: Söderqvist (ed.), The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography.
Clark, “Narratology,” pp. 9-10.
Jan Golinsky, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), pp. 192ff, quote on p. 194.
during the process.
Quite likely this also applies to me, however by being aware of this, I
hope to have avoided the most obvious potholes and thus presented a fairly sober story,
including both successful and unsuccessful parts of Gleditsch’s story. It is comforting to know
that Clarke, too, found it hard to reconcile “rather romantic views of science with those of the
new professionalism in the history of science” without writing whiggish history. Clifford
Geertz, reviewing Haraway’s Primate Visions, and Ian Hacking, Shapin’s and Shaffer’s
Leviathan and the Air-pump, had accused them of being whiggish histories, which made
Clark react: “Now consternation turns to elucidations. If one may not aspire to write like those
works, then who wants to be a clever professional historian of science?”
On Historiography
When I started my project on Ellen Gleditsch in 2000, two publications on Gleditsch existed;
Torleiv Kronen and Alexis Pappas’ biography in Norwegian; Ellen Gleditsch: Et liv i
forskning og medmenneskelighet (Ellen Gleditsch: A life in research and human sympathy)
from 1987, and an article entitled “Ellen Gleditsch: Professor and Humanist,” in Marelene and
Geoffrey Rayner-Canham’s edited volume A Devotion to Their Science from 1997.
article is mainly based on the biography by Kronen and Pappas, so my discussion will be
limited to their book, which has been a valuable source of information and a good starting
point for my project. The book, however, doesn’t give a contextual discussion of Gleditsch’s
scientific work or the institutional frame of her career, and important issues such as the
Birgitte Possing, ”Biografien ud fra et kvinde- og et historievidenskabeligt sysnpunkt,” in: Sune Åkerman,
Ronny Ambjörnsson og Pär Ringby (eds.), Att skriva människan: Essäer om biografin som livshistoria och
vetenskapelig genre (Stockholm: Carlsson, 1997), 61-74.
Clark, ”Narratology,” p. 3.
Torleiv Kronen and Alexis Pappas, Ellen Gleditsch: Et liv i forskning og medmenneskelighet (Oslo: Aventura
forlag, 1987) and Anne Marie Weidler Kubanek and Grete Grzegorek, ”Ellen Gleditsch: Professor and
Humanist,” in: Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of
Radioactivity (Montreal & Kingston, London and Buffalo: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), pp. 51-75.
professor appointment are only lightly treated.
My thesis therefore complements and
extends their book. After 1997, when the Rayner-Canhams’ book on women in radioactivity
appeared, an interest in these women researchers increased and Ellen Gleditsch became better
known. New projects on Gleditsch are therefore met with interest by many in the field of
history of science.
The classical work on the history of radiochemistry is Lawrence Badash’s book
Radioactivity in America: Growth and Decay of a Science from 1979, based on his doctoral
thesis from 1964.
Badash was thrilled when he received a microfilm roll with Ernest
Rutherford and Bertram B. Boltwood’s correspondence, and he soon “discovered” that
Boltwood and a number of his collaborators were important figures in the history of
radioactivity. The book spans the period from 1900 to 1920 and covers American scientific
debates on radioactivity and was also a valuable source for me in order to gain an overview of
the field at the time. To the best of my knowledge no similar source exists, although there are
several publications on other figures and debates in the history of radioactivity such as
Thaddeus Trenn’s The Self-Splitting Atom: The History of the Rutherford-Soddy
Collaboration from 1977,
Jeff Hughes’ dissertation on the Cavendish laboratory from
as well as numerous biographies of well-known researchers in the field.
The book was critized for lacking contextual frames, and much more. See book reviews: Arne Schouen, “Grått
om Ellen Gleditsch,” Dagbladet September 25, 1987, p. 38; Robert Marc Friedman, “En kvindelig
forskerpioner,” Forskningspolitikk no. 1 (1988), 15-16.
Lawrence Badash, Radioactivity in America: Growth and Decay of a Science (Baltimore and London: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979); Lawrence Badash, The Early Developments in Radioactivity, With
Emphasis on Contributions from the United States (Dissertation, Faculty of the Graduate School of Yale
University, New Haven, 1964).
Thaddeus J. Trenn, The Self-Splitting Atom: The History of the Rutherford-Soddy Collaboration (London:
Taylor and Francis, Ltd., 1977).
Jeff Hughes, The Radioactivitsts: Community, Controversy and the Rise of Nuclear Physics (Ph.D. thesis in
the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 1993).
See e.g. Eve Curie, Madame Curie (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1937); Robert Reid, Marie
Curie (New York: Dutton, 1974); Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (London: Heinemann, 1995); J. L. Davis,
“The Research School of Marie Curie in the Paris Faculty, 1907-14,” Annals of Science 52 (1995), 321-355;
Soraya Boudia, Marie Curie et son laboratoire: Sciences et industrie de la radioactivité en France (Paris:
Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2001); Anna Hurwic, Pierre Curie (Paris: Flammarion, 1995); Loïc
Barbo, Curie: Le Rêve Scientific (Paris: Belin, 1999); A. S. Eve, Rutherford: being the life and letters of the Rt.
Hon. Lord Rutherford, O.M. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939); Mark Oliphant, Rutherford:
Badash has also written many papers on the history of radioactivity as well as edited a volume
on the correspondence of Rutherford and Boltwood in 1969.
In some of these treatises
Gleditsch’s work is mentioned, however no profound or separate presentation exists.
Although female researchers have been mentioned in encyclopaedias for centuries, the
history of women in science is a new phenomenon which started around the 1970s. In 1987
Londa Schiebinger, reviewing the field, argued that the increase in numbers of women
scientists as well as the contemporary women’s movements were important influences on this.
One branch of the history of women in science seeks to “brush off the dust of obscurity from
those women whose scientific contributions have been neglected by mainstream (or in Mary
O’Brian’s phrase, ‘malestream’) historians of science” and focuses on the patterns of
scientific work conducted by more ordinary female scientists rather than the exceptional
a perspective presented in Margaret Rossiter’s two volumes of Women Scientists in
America, from 1982 and 1995.
In 1981 a special symposium entitled “The Contribution of
Women to the Development of History of Science and Technology” was held at the 15
recollections of the Cambridge days (Amsterdam, 1972); David Wilson, Rutherford: Simple genius (London:
Hodder and Stoughton, 1983); J. B. Birks, Rutherford at Manchester (London: Heywood, 1962); Morris W.
Travers, A Life of Sir William Ramsay. K.C.B., F.R.S. (London: Edward Arnold, 1956); Wolfgang L. Reiter,
“Stefan Meyer: Pioneer of Radioactivity,” Physics in Perspective 3 (2001), 106-127; Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A
Life in Physics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996); Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey
Rayner-Canham, Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992);
Robert Rosner and Brigitte Strohmaier, Marietta Blau: Sterne der Zertrümmerung (Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2003);
Elizabeth Róna, How it Came About: Radioactivity, Nuclear Physics, Atomic Energy (Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge
Associated Universities, 1978).
See e.g. Lawrence Badash, “Radioactivity before the Curies,” American Journal of Physics 33 (1965), 128-
135; Lawrence Badash, “’Chance favors the prepared mind’: Henri Becquerel and the discovery of
radioactivity,” Archives Internationales d’histoire des sciences 18 (1965), 55-66; Lawrence Badash,
“Becquerel’s ‘Unexposed’ Photographic Plates,” Isis 57 (1966), 267-269; Lawrence Badash, “The Discovery of
Thorium’s Radioactivity,” Journal of Chemical Education 43 (1966), 219-220; Lawrence Badash, “How the
‘Newer Alchemy’ was Received,” 215 (1966), 88-95; Lawrence Badash, “Rutherford, Boltwood, and the Age of
the Earth: The Origin of Radioactive Dating Techniques,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
112 (1968), 157-169; Lawrence Badash, “The Suicidal Success of Radiochemistry,” British Journal for the
History of Science 12 (1979), 245-256; Lawrence Badash, “Nuclear Physics in Rutherford’s Laboratory,”
American Journal of Physics 51 (1983), 884-889; Lawrence Badash, Rutherford and Boltwood: Letters on
Radioactivity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969).
Londa Schiebinger, ”The History and Philosophy of Women in Science. A Review Essay,” Signs: Journal of
Women in Culture and Society 12 (1987), 305-332, quote on p. 307.
Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Stragies to 1940 (Baltimore and London:
The John Hopkins University Press, 1982) and Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Before
Affirmative Action 1940-1972 (Baltimore and London: The John Hokins University Press, 1995).
International Congress of History of Science in Bucharest, leading to the establishment of a
new commission; namely the History of Women in Science, Technology and Medicine
(today: Commission “Women in Science”) under the International Union for History and
Philosophy of Science (IUHPS), division of History of Science (DHS). Between 1982 and
2001 the Commission organized around ten sessions under the auspices of IUPHS/DHS as
well as separate international conferences, all stimulating comprehension of women in
Interest in many women in radioactivity was stimulated when A Devotion to Their
Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity was published in 1997, as a first collective volume,
telling stories of the first generation of women scientists (all born before 1900), including
many lesser-known ones.
As this volume also contains the above mentioned, well-written
essay on Gleditsch, the first article in English on her, Gleditsch’s life and position became
interesting to an international audience of researchers on women in science. Soraya Boudia
and Astrid Schüermann have conducted research on female researchers from Curie’s
laboratory in Paris, whilst Brigitte Bischof’s Master thesis from 2000 and Maria Rentetzi’s
Ph.D. thesis from 2003 have drawn attention to the women at the Radium Institute in
In 2003 the conference “Women Scholars and Institutions” had a separate panel on
women pioneers in radioactivity research, organized by Maria Rentetzi, intending to “place
greater importance back on contingencies of time and place, highlight the significance of
cultural and political context and at the same time shed light on the interrelation between
Soňa Štrbáňová, Ida H. Stamhuis, and Kateřina Mojsejová, “Introduction,” in: Soňa Štrbáňová, Ida H.
Stamhuis and Kateřina Mojsejová, Women Scholars and Institutions: Proceedings of the International
Conference (Prague, June 8-11, 2003), Studies in the History of Sciences and Humanitites, vol. 13A, Prague
2004, pp. 9-14.
Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, A Devotion to Their Science.
Soraya Boudia, ”Les femmes dans la recherche scientifique en France: Le cas du champ de la radioactivité
(1898-1934)” in: Raffaella Similli (ed.), Scienza a due voci (Florence: Olschki, 2005) [in press]; Astrid
Schüermann, “Promoting International Women’s Research on Radioactivity: Marie Curie and her Laboratory,”
in: Štrbáňová, Stamhuis, and Mojsejová (eds.), Women Scholars and Institutions, vol. 13B, pp. 591-609; Astrid
Schüerman and Ruth Lewin Sime, “Gender and ‘race’ in Paris and Berlin: From the discovery of radioactivity to
World War II,” Osiris 8 (2005) [in press]; Brigitte Bischof, Frauen am Wiener Institut für Radiumforschung
(Diplomarbeit Universität Wien, 2000) [to be published in the near future]; Maria Rentetzi, Gender Politics, and
Radioactivity Research in Vienna, 1910-1938 (Ph.D. thesis, Virginia Tech., 2003) [to be published in 2006];
Maria Rentetzi, “Gender, Politics, and Radioactivity Research in Interwar Vienna,” Isis 95 (2004), 359-393.
scientific practices and gender” in the history of science.
The proceedings is the only
collective work on women in radioactivity after the Rayner-Canhams’ work from 1997. In
addition several biographies of women in the field have been published.
My project on Ellen
Gleditsch must be added to this growing knowledge of the many women in radioactivity.
History of science in Norway is a new discipline, however in recent years milieus in
Oslo and Trondheim have emerged; the most recent is the Forum for the History of
Knowledge which was established at NTNU in Trondheim in 2003, encouraging new research
on various cultures of knowledge, how they emerged, how and why they continued, which of
them developed into something new, and what characterized them.
The Forum for
University History, established by the University board of the University of Oslo in 1993, has
another perspective; in 2011 the University of Oslo will celebrate its 200 years anniversary,
and this Forum’s aim is to develop greater competency and interest in university history as
Maria Rentetzi, ”Introduction,” in: Štrbáňová, Stamhuis, and Mojsejová (eds.), Women Scholars and
Institutions, vol. 13B, pp. 581-589, on p. 583. The session on women in radioactivity also includes the following
papers: Astrid Schüermann, “Promoting International Women’s Research on Radioactivity: Marie Curie and Her
Laboratory;” Maria Rentetzi, “Gender and Radioactivity Research in Interwar Vienna: The Case of the Institute
for Radium Research;” Brigitte Bischof, “The ‘Marie Curie Syndrome,’ The Role of Mentors and Romanticism
or Why Were There So Many women in Radioactivity Research in Vienna?;” Emilie Těšínská, “Women in
Czech Radiology: The Case of Physical Chemist and Radiobiologist Jarmila Petrová;” Annette Lykknes, Lise
Kvittingen and Anne Kristine Børresen, “Struggles and Achievements. Ellen Gleditsch (1879-1968): Norwegian
Female Radiochemist.”
For biographies of Marie Curie, see footnote 36, as well as Rosalynd Pfaum, Grand Obsession: Madame
Curie and her World (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Helena Pycior, “Marie Curie’s Anti-Natural Path: Time
only for Science and Family,” in: Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram (eds.), Uneasy Careers and Intimate
Lives: Women in Science 1789-1979 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989); Helena Pycior,
“Reaping the Benefits of Collaboration While Avoiding its Pitfalls; Marie Curie’s Rise to Scientific
Prominence,” Social Studies in Science 23 (1993), 301-323; Sime, Lise Meitner; Charlotte Kurner, Lise,
Atomphysikerin: Die Lebengeschichte der Lise Meitner (Weinheim: Beltz &Gelberg, 1998); Patricia Rife, Lise
Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1999); Loriot Noëlle, Irène Joliot-Curie (Paris:
Presses de la Renaissance, 1991); Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, Harriet Brooks; Rosner and Strohmaier,
Marietta Blau; Peter Galison, “Marietta Blau: Between Nazis and Nuclei,” in: Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A
Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997); Ruth Lewin Sime, “Twice
Removed: The Emigration of Lise Meitner and Marietta Blau,” in: Friedrich Stahler (ed.), Österreichs Umgang
mit dem Nationalsozialismus: Die Folgen für die naturwissenschaftlische und humanistische Lehre (Wien.
Springer Verlag, 2004), pp. 153-170; Maria Alzira B. Almoster Moura Ferreira, “Branca Edmée Marques (1899-
1986),” in: Memórias de Professores Cientistas (Faculdade de Ciências Universidade de Lisboa, 2001), pp. 50-
Forum for the History of Knowledge’s publications include proceedings from its opening conference in
November 2003; Anne Kristine Børresen (ed.), Science, Crafts and Ignorance: Perspectives on the History of
Knowledge (Tapir Akademisk Forlag, 2004), Publication 1/2004 from Forum for the History of Knowledge.
well as to produce a major work on the entire history of the University.
Several permanent
and temporary researchers’ studies will add to the knowledge on cultures and contexts
involved in a modern university development, and on the broader historical impact of these
institutions; already a series of projects have been completed.
These will, together with on-
going projects, hopefully provide new knowledge on a university in the periphery, its role in
nation building, as well as the specific traditions cultivated due to the university’s small size
and relatively short history.
Internationally there are several examples of how research gradually became an
integrated part of European and American universities.
The studies however look at the
university as an institution. My perspective is different; I have directed my gaze on the
fundament; to a university scientist’s every day life and research practices. The sources I have
used from the Chemistry Department and Faculty of Science and Mathematics provide
answers to some questions, there are also studies in other disciplines from the same period,
Robert Marc Friedman, ”University History in Norway,” Uppsala Newsletter no. 28 (2000), 1-3.
Some examples of the theses or publications emerging from the Forum for University History project, are Tore
Grønningsæter, Christopher Hansteen og framveksten av norsk astronomi i begynnelsen av det 19. århundre
(Forum for Universitetshistorie, hovedoppgaveserie 1/2001); Anne Vaalund, Botanikk og folkeskikk:
Botanikkprofessor Nordal Wille –institusjonsbygger, folkeopplyser og filantrop i perioden 1893-1924 (Forum for
Universitetshistorie, hovedoppgaveserie 3/2001); Ole Anders Røberg, Vitenskap i krig og fred: Astrofysikeren
Svein Rosseland i norsk forskningspolitikk 1945-1965 (Forum for Universitetshistorie, hovedoppgaveserie
4/2001); Jorunn Sem Fure (ed.), Studenter under hakekorset: Fra 60-årsmarkeringen av Universitetets stenging i
1943 (Forum for Universitetshistorie 4/2004); Jon Røyne Kyllingstad; Kortskaller og langskaller: Fysisk
antropologi i Norge og striden om det nordiske herremennesket (Spartacus forlag, 2004). A short history of the
University of Oslo has already appeared; John Peter Collett, Historien om Universitetet i Oslo
(Universitetsforlaget, 1999).
For example, can its peripheral position explain why Norwegian universities were more socially open and
egalitarian than other universities in continental Europe and even in Scandinavia? Also, according to Friedman,
the culture of outdoor life in Norway might explain why disciplines like the geophysical and earth sciences were
more strongly supported than the traditional physics and chemistry (Friedman, “University History in Norway.”
See also Robert Marc Friedman, Integration and visibility: Historiographic challenges to university history
(Forum for University History, 2000), Occasional papers 1/2000).
See e.g. Laurence R. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago and London: The
University of Chicago Press, 1970); R. Steven Turner, “The Growth of Professorial Research in Prussia, 1818 to
1848 – Causes and Context,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 3 (1971), 137-182; Björn Wittrock,
“Dinosaurs or Dolphins? Rise and Resurgence of the Research-Oriented University,” in: Björn Wittrock and
Aant Elzinga, The University Research System: The Public Policies of the Home of Scientists (Stockholm:
Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1985), pp. 13-37; and essays in Sheldon Rothblatt and Björn Wittrock, The
European and American university since 1800: Historical and sociological essays (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993).
but few deal with science as practice.
My work is one of many pieces in this overall mozaic.
Furthermore, both in the Forum for University History’s projects and in the Forum for the
History of Knowledge there are no studies of the Chemistry Department or any chemist. My
project on Ellen Gleditsch will therefore contribute to this new history of the University of
Oslo, to one of its departments, as well as to the general body of women scholars.
Note on Sources
This project is based on a variety of sources. The first group, the archival sources, consists
firstly of letters, in particular Gleditsch’s correspondence with Marie Curie. It is a large
collection, placed in the Curie archive at the Musée Curie, in the Bibliothèque nationale in
Paris, and the manuscript section of the National Library in Oslo. The collection in Oslo also
contains her correspondence with several other scientists and a few friends. There are also
letters in archives in New Haven, Cambridge (USA), Cambridge (UK), Berlin, Vienna,
Stockholm, and Trondheim. In addition to Gleditsch’s letters, I have studied parts of
correspondence from some of Gleditsch’s Norwegian colleagues, such as Odd Hassel, Victor
Examples of biographical work on Norwegian scientists include, apart from the theses mentioned in footnote
47, Geir Hestmark, Vitenskap og nasjon: Waldemar Christopher Brøgger 1851-1905 (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1999);
Arild Stubhaug and Bente Geving, Det var mine tankers djervhet: matematikeren Sophus Lie (Oslo: Aschehoug,
2000); Arild Stubhaug og Åsta Brenna, Et foranskutt lyn: Niels Henrik Abel og hans tid (Oslo: Aschehoug,
2004); Arild Stubhaug, Skjulte kodar: Niels Henrik Abel: ein biografi (Oslo: Samlaget, 2004); Elisabeth Lønnå,
Helga Eng: Psykolog og pedagog i barnets århundre (Universitetsforlaget, 2002); Lucy Jago, The Northern
Lights (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) [biography of Kristian Birkeland]; Åse Kathrine Lauritzen,
Vitenskapsmannen som teknolog: Kristian Birkeland 1901-1908 (Master thesis in history, University of Oslo,
2000); Brian Mason, Victor Moritz Goldschmidt: Father of Modern Geochemistry (Texas: The Geochemical
Society, 1992), Special publication no. 4; Anne Kristine Børresen, on-going work on the geologist Johan
Herman Lie Vogt; Arve Monsen, on-going work on Kristine Bonnevie; see also Robert Marc Friedman,
Appropriating the weather: Vilhelm Bjerknes and the Bergen school of metorology (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1989) and Robert Marc Friedman, ”Civilization and National Honour: The Rise of Norwegian
Geophysical and Cosmic Science,” in: John Peter Collett and Arne Gundersen (eds.), Making Sense of Space:
The History of Norwegian Space Activities (Scandinavian University Press, 1995), pp. 3-39.
Early work on chemistry in Norway includes: Helge Kragh, “Out of the shadow of medicine, themes in the
development of chemistry in Denmark and Norway,” in: David Knight and Helge Kragh (eds.), The Making of
the Chemist: The Social History of Chemistry in Europe, 1789-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1998), pp. 235-263; Olav Helge Angell Nordeng, Universitet – forskning – samfunn: En studie av Kjemisk
Institutt ved Universitetet i Oslo (Master thesis in sociology, University of Oslo, 1973); Ellen Gard and Bjørn
Pedersen, Kjemisk Institutt, Universitetet i Oslo: En presentasjon…(University of Oslo, 1981); also, biographies
of chemists have been published by professors of chemistry and pharmacy, Bjørn Pedersen and Ragnar Bye, e.g.
in the Norwegian chemistry journal, Kjemi.
Goldschmidt, Sem Sæland, and Eyvind Bødtker, in order to get a broader view on the
scientific community in which she worked, and to understand how they perceived Gleditsch.
Gleditsch’s letters shed light on scientific practice and what constituted Gleditsch’s career;
who did Gleditsch keep in touch with, order equipment from, to where did she travel, and
sometimes I got a glimpse of the person Gleditsch, how she managed her teaching load, or to
which extent she supported e.g. grieving friends. New archive sources in different countries
have appeared during the process, partly as I searched new places, partly due to advice from
other researchers in the field.
The public archives of the department, faculty and university are scattered, and only
thanks to experienced archivists have I obtained some of them. The Department of
Chemistry’s archives have been transferred to the Public Record Office, whereas the protocols
from faculty meetings are kept at the Faculty of Science and Mathematics. Some files are in
the cellar of the Central Administration at the university campus, Blindern, in Oslo. The
University board’s protocols, together with the archives of the Norwegian Academy of
Science, different funds, and the Ministry of Church and Education all belong to the
collections of the Public Record Office. These public records give an insight to the
administration and bureaucracy, how the university system was organized, and to some extent
about what characterized this particular culture, e.g. through reading reports of meetings, or
applications, I learnt about argumentation for grants, positions, instruments, lab-space and
rooms in general, but also which position Gleditsch held in her department and faculty.
Newspaper reports have been another valuable source, and supplemented by other
sources they give information on the public figure Ellen Gleditsch. Especially around her
professor appointment there was a great interest in her. I have worked my way through every
single edition of three important Norwegian newspapers (Aftenposten, Dagbladet,
Morgenbladet) for three months in 1929 and indeed they revealed the media’s interest in the
case. Other newpaper reports were results of specific searches, whilst some I simply stumbled
over. For newspaper reports Kronen and Pappas’ biography also provided a useful starting
point for interviews with Gleditsch, as at the time the book was published clipping archives of
newspapers existed. Ironically two months before I was to submit my thesis, I talked for the
first time to the grand-daughter of one of Gleditsch’s brothers, who had kept Gleditsch’s own
scrap book, which she kindly lent me. In it were newspaper reports and interviews
complementing my already large collection, and they confirmed, not surprisingly, that
Gleditsch was a public person.
A third important source has been Gleditsch’s own publications. Fortunately, most of
them were listed in her letter collection in Oslo. However to get hold of other contemporary
scientists’ publications, in order to track the scientific debates, was not straight-forward, as
authors did not always cite their contemporaries’ and predecessors’ work, and, if they did,
these references were often incomplete. To understand what happened after Gleditsch’s work
appeared was even more challenging. Sometimes contemporary textbooks were helpful,
secondary treatises such as Badash’s on the history of radioactivity also gave clues, and
finally sometimes I obtained a paper with a complete reference list and my project moved on
at an unprecedented rate. For debates that continued until the 1950s (the work on
K) on-line
search resources have also been valuable, the results of which helped me to find which
journals to look through for more publications. In some cases I had to rely on advice from
experts in the field in order to progress. I believe that I have obtained most of the relevant
sources and thus that the scientific debates as they are presented in this dissertation (paper 1
and 3), are representative for the discussions at the time.
Finding information on Gleditsch’s students and collaborators was sometimes also
difficult. In Norway we are fortunate to have directories written by every student for the 25-
and 50-years anniversaries of their matriculation exam, which summarize what the students
have achieved since their exam.
However, to find these sources I needed to know the year of
their matriculation, which there are no short-curts to. Some of them I found in the catalogues
of Norwegian scientists, pharmacists and engineers,
some by ploughing through the lists of
students in the annual reports of the university. Having found the directories, these were not
always complete, and I had to search for additional information elsewhere. A few of
Gleditsch’s students later became professors and articles about them could be found in
biographical encyclopedia, or e.g. in publications honouring their anniversaries, for others
oral sources provided helpful starting points.
Among oral history sources are radio interviews or obituaries of Gleditsch from the
archives at NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation), video interviews with Gleditsch and
two representatives of the next generation of chemists, her own student Ivan Rosenqvist and
Hassel’s student, Otto Bastiansen, which like written obituaries and newspaper interviews
shed some light on the persons behind the names. My impression of Gleditsch has been
further substantiated by talks with relatives (a niece, a nephew as well as more distant
relatives), students (Master and Undergraduate students) and colleagues, however their
memories are naturally limited to the last thirty years of her life. Some talked heartedly about
their family and lives and also provided pictures, some shared their experiences with
Gleditsch as a teacher and supervisor, and many emphasized her warmth, although she was
well known not to play along with anybody. Also the second generation students of Gleditsch
have given information and helped me with difficult scientific questions and identified
persons in photos. With most of them I talked at least twice, sometimes on the phone,
sometimes in their homes or offices, and many of them gave additional information by e-mail
or regular mail.
These are called Studentene fra [eksamensår] (The students from [year of matriculation]).
Norges Realister 1907-1962 (Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskapelige Forskningsråd, 1963); Bjarne Bassøe (ed.),
Ingeniørmatrikkelen: Norske Sivilingeniører 1901-55 med tillegg (Oslo: Teknisk Ukeblad, 1961); Christian van
der Lagen (ed.), Norges Apotekere og Farmaceutiske Kandidater (Oslo: A. M. Hanches forlag, 1933).
Oral sources, such as interviews and conversations, are valuable because they give
personal reflections which are difficult to obtain otherwise, they sometimes indicate new
sources, give unexpected perspectives, and add information that does not exist in written
form. Only persons who knew Ellen Gleditsch well can provide information on her
personality, priorities, caring, and interests, but of course these stories are subjective and must
be treated as such.
The main objection against oral sources in history writing as discussed in
the 1960s and 1970s, is of course still relevant; namely, that informants often tell about events
which took place many years ago. Memory does not only fade with time, memory is also
influenced by new information, culture and experiences that come afterwards, which might
adjust the actual episodes, consciously or unconsciously. Historians, as any other researchers
using interviews, must be aware of the fact that an interview or conversation may “create”
certain answers, or stories, however at the same time what is said will be reflections of what
actually happened. In my work conversations have been utilized to supplement biographical
information about Gleditsch or her students, to get an impression on how the students saw
Gleditsch, and, in some cases, her relationship with her colleagues. The commemorative radio
program about Gleditsch by Ivan Rosenqvist, for example, provides an interesting view on her
field and methods, seen from the perspective of one of her students and later colleagues.
Newspaper reports (as well as personal letters) are of course also colored by the
author’s subjective opinion or the board’s policy and political preferences, I therefore
consulted three newspapers from different traditions; the liberal Dagbladet, and the
conservative Aftenposten and Morgenbladet in my 1929 investigations. Newspaper interviews
of Gleditsch are used as biographical information, to understand her motivation for entering
In 1967 the Oral History Association (OHA) was founded, through their website and publications, users of
oral history sources can get information and guidelines, see See also Paul Thomson, The Voice of the Past: Oral
History (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); David Henige, Oral Historiography (London:
Longman, 1982); Dagfinn Slettan, Minner og kulturhistorie: Teoretiske perspektiver (Universitetet i Trondheim,
Historisk Institutt, 1994), Skriftserie fra Historisk Institutt, no. 4.
science, her thoughts on how she was received as a woman, and to illustrate the attention
around the professor appointment.
Final Comments
Ellen Gleditsch was an international scientist. She was not only trained in the centers of
radiochemistry, but returned there frequently during her career to do research and breathe the
air of a scientific institute in her field. The international aspect was an important part of her
life, and her congenial networks of women in radioactivity and in the International Federation
of University Women in many ways distinguish her story from that of other contemporary
scientists. Yet most of her career she lived in Oslo, as professor, radiochemist and mentor at
the Chemistry Department of the University. By dealing with certain aspects of her scientific
career I have hopefully contributed to an enhanced understanding of what it could be like to
be a researcher on the scientific periphery of Europe. As will be treated in the following
papers, to Gleditsch this meant e.g. pioneering work abroad, for which she gained
international reputation, network building, and seeding of what was to be harvested as a
Norwegian center for nuclear chemistry research a decade after her retirement. Happy
Archives Marie Curie, Historical Archives of the Curie Laboratory (AMC),
Musée Curie, Paris
Archives Irène Joliot-Curie, AMC
Archives Frédéric Joliot-Curie, AMC
Archives Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, AMC
Marie Curie letter collection, no. 18450, Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (BN)
Marie Curie micro film collections, no. 2669, 2671, BN
Ellen Gleditsch letter collection, no. 456, National Library of Norway, manuscript section
Letters from Ellen Gleditsch, collections no. 48, 253, 304, 347, 386, 435, 537, 585, Ms. 4°
2985:3, NBM
Ellen Gleditsch manuscripts, collection no. Ms. 4° 2437: 2-19, NBM
Eivind Bødtker letter collection, no. 359, NBM
Letters from Victor Moritz Goldschmidt, letter collections no. 102, Ms. fol. 1924: 14d
, Ms.
fol. 3861: 8, NBM
Odd Hassel material, unsorted, boxes 1-5, NBM
Correspondence between Sem Sæland and Vilhelm Bjerknes, letter collection no. 469B, NBM
Bertram Boltwood collection, manuscripts and archives of Yale University Library, New
Haven (YUL)
T. W. Richards papers, HUG 1743.1.8, Box 3, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge,
Ernest Rutherford papers, MS.ADD. 7653, Cambridge University Library, Department of
manuscripts, Cambridge
Lise Meitner papers, MTNR 5/9, 5/15, Churchill College Archives (CCA), Cambridge
Ellen Gleditsch correspondence, Archives of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Institute for
Radium Research (AÖAW), Boxes 12, 32, 41, 68, Vienna
Ellen Gleditsch-Friedrich Paneth correspondence, Historical Archives of the Max Planck
Institute, Berlin-Dahlem (MPG), III. Abt., Rep. 45, No. 39, Berlin
Ellen Gleditsch correspondence, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, (KVS) Center for
History of Science, Stockholm
Victor Moritz Goldschmidt correspondence, Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen
Victor Moritz Goldschmidt Archive, Archives of the State Laboratory for Raw Materials, the
Regional State Archive in Trondheim, Boxes H-06, H-08, H-09
Honorary Degree Files: Ellen Gleditsch, Smith College Archives, Northampton,
Warren Weaver Diary 1933, Rockefeller Record Group 12.1, Rockefeller Archive Center,
New York
Archive of the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, University of Oslo (AMNF)
Central Archive, Files of the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, University of Oslo (SAO)
Archive of the Ministry of Church and Education, Public Record Office (RARK)
Archive of the University board, University of Oslo, RARK
Archive of the Chemistry Department, University of Oslo, RARK
Archive of the Norwegian Academy of Science, RARK
Oral history
Official material
Interview with Ivan Rosenqvist, video tape in possession of Forum for University History,
University of Oslo
Interview with Otto Bastiansen, video tape in possession of Forum for University History,
University of Oslo
Interview with Ellen Gleditsch in NRK, video tape in possession of Chris Koch
Interview with Ellen Gleditsch in NRK radio, no. 3790
Radio Obituary of Ellen Gleditsch by Ivan Rosenqvist and Anna Rosenqvist, NRK radio, no.
Ellen Gleditsch’s own memoirs in NRK radio, no. 684, 51506
Ellen Gleditsch’s lecture about Marie Curie in NRK radio, no. 51912
Ellen Gleditsch and Irène Joliot-Curie about atomic energy, NRK radio, no. Gram-4764
Conversations with Chris Koch, April 2002 and May 2004 + correspondence
Conversations with Nils Petter Gleditsch, September 2001, February 2004 + correspondence
Conversations with Bernard Ragvin, October 2003 + correspondence
(as well as conversations and correspondence with Dagmar Gleditsch, Lars Edmund
Gleditsch, Mette Janson, Dag Gleditsch, Esther Gleditsch, Susanne Øverli)
Students/colleagues/second generation students
Conversation with Alexis C. Pappas, October 2001
Conversations with Paul Thrane Cappelen, January 2003, October 2004
Conversations with Terkel Rosenqvist, January 2003, March 2005
Conversations with Ellen Rosenqvist, January 2003, October 2004
Conversation with Gerd Borgen, January 2003
Conversations with Jorolf Alstad, January 2003 and repeatedly through my work
Conversation with Geirr Sletten, June 2004
Conversation with Hélène Langevin-Joliot, June 2001
Paper 1
Annette Lykknes, Helge Kragh, and Lise Kvittingen,
”Ellen Gleditsch: Pioneer Woman in Radiochemistry,”
Physics in Perspective 6 (2004), 126-155
Paper 1 is not included due to copyright
Paper 2
Annette Lykknes, Lise Kvittingen, and Anne Kristine Børresen,
”Appreciated Abroad, Depreciated at Home.
The Career of a Radiochemist in Norway:
Ellen Gleditsch (1879-1968),”
Isis 2004, 95:576-609
Isis, 2004, 95:576–609
2004 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
Appreciated Abroad,
Depreciated at Home
The Career of a Radiochemist in Norway:
Ellen Gleditsch (18791968)
By Annette Lykknes,* Lise Kvittingen,**
and Anne Kristine Børresen***
Ellen Gleditsch (18791968) became Norway’s first authority on radioactivity and the
country’s second female full professor. From her many years abroadin Marie Curie’s
laboratory in Paris and at Yale University in New Haven with Bertram Boltramshe
became internationally acknowledged and developed an extensive personal and scientific
network. In the Norwegian scientific community she was, however, less appreciated, and
her appointment as a professor in 1929 caused controversy. Despite the recommendation
of the expert committee, her predecessor and his allies spread the view that Gleditsch was
a diligent but outdated researcher with little scientific promisea view that apparently
persists in the Norwegian chemical community today. In addition to her scientific work,
Gleditsch acquired political influence by joining the International Federation of University
Women in 1920; she later became the president of both the Norwegian section and the
worldwide organization. She worked in particular to establish scholarships enabling
women to go abroad.
* Department of Chemistry, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway;
** Department of Chemistry, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491 Trondheim, Norway;
*** Department of History and Classical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, N-7491
Trondheim, Norway;
Parts of this paper were presented at the conference “Women Scholars and Institutions,” Prague, 811 June
2003, and appear in the proceedings. The conference was arranged by the Commission Women in Science of
the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science/Division of History of Science (IUHPS/DHS) and
the Research Centre for the History of Sciences and Humanities, founded by the Czech Academy of Sciences
and Charles University, Prague. We are grateful to Ellen Gleditsch’s relatives, Nils Petter Gleditsch and Chris
Koch, for providing useful information and photographs; to Helge Kragh for suggesting this project; and to the
anonymous referees for Isis and editors Margaret Rossiter and Bernard Lightman for thoughtful comments. We
also thank N. P. Gleditsch and the Syndics of Cambridge University Library for permission to quote from
manuscript sources.
I once worked with a learned man who was reputed to hate women. On one occasion he stated
that the new collaborator was a rare exception. When he was asked why he said, “She does not
scream.” I heard this several months later and have kept it as a great compliment; yesthe
biggest in my scientific career.
Ellen Gleditsch
themselves to the contributions of well-known researchers such as Ernest Rutherford,
Bertram B. Boltwood, Otto Hahn, and Stefan Meyer, on the male side, and to Marie Curie
and Lise Meitner among the women. Thanks to collected biographies, such as Marelene
and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham’s edited volume A Devotion to Their Science, attention has
been drawn to some of the other women in the field, who, like women in science more
generally, have previously received scant attention in the historical literature. Many, many
women got caught in all the dead ends that make up the history of women in science; they
belonged to the second, or even the third, rank of physical scientists, and they are in fact
more representative of women scientistsin radioactivity and other fieldsthan were
exceptional figures like Curie and Meitner.
In this essay we hope to provide further jus-
tification for learning more about women scientists at this next level.
Curie attracted women from a number of countries; the Norwegian chemist Ellen Gle-
ditsch, who arrived in Paris in 1907, was the first woman to work in her laboratory for a
prolonged period.
Gleditsch’s acquaintances from this time formed the basis of her sci-
entific network throughout her career. Later Gleditsch had a sojourn in New Haven, Con-
necticut, where she worked for Boltwood, and eventually she established a career in her
native country.
Like many of her female colleagues, and despite the comparatively large proportion of
women within radioactivity, Gleditsch encountered prejudice and hostility from the men
she worked with. The quotation that opens this essay illustrates one man’sprobably
Boltwood’sattitude at the time of her arrival in the United States in the fall of 1913. In
Norway she met misogyny of a more unpleasant sort, particularly when she applied for a
full professorship in 1929. Both the rector of the university and Gleditsch’s predecessor
tried to prevent her appointment, even though the majority of the expert committee found
her the best candidate.
Gleditsch functioned in a society pervaded by the traditional pattern of sex roles, both
ideologically and in everyday life. Women were subordinate to men; and while men’s work
and activities largely took place in the public arena, women directed their efforts toward
home and family. As Evelyn Fox Keller notes, it was generally accepted that women could
not and should not be scientists; they were held to lack the strength, rigor, and clarity of
Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, eds., A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer
Women of Radioactivity (Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1997) (hereafter cited as Rayner-Canham
and Rayner-Canham, eds., Devotion to Their Science). See also Margaret Rossiter, “A Twisted Tale: Women
in the Physical Sciences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L.
Numbers, eds., The Cambridge History of Science, Vol. 5: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Sciences,
ed. Mary Jo Nye (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 5471. The epigraph is quoted from an
interview with Ellen Gleditsch published in a local newspaper in Norway: “Mannen som kollega: Hvad professor
Ellen Gleditsch mener,” Adresseavisen, 10 May 1930 (here and throughout the essay, translations into English
are our own unless otherwise indicated).
Liste du personnel du laboratoire Curie 19041934, Historical Archives of the Curie Laboratory, Archives
Muse´e Curie (hereafter cited as AMC).
mind for an occupation that properly belonged to men.
Through her choice of career and
by virtue of being one of the first female professors in Norwayand even in Europe
Ellen Gleditsch challenged common perceptions about what jobs were suitable for women
and what women could achieve. Her position gave her the opportunity to specialize within
a field, to lecture at the university level, to travel, and to develop as a person in an un-
precedented way. But she did meet obstacles, and many of them were connected to her
gender. Science was an area created by men and permeated by masculine values; this essay
will make it clear that, even though Gleditsch was not a total outsider to science, she was
by no means an insider.
The story of Ellen Gleditsch could be written from several perspectives. Torleiv Kronen,
a French teacher, became aware of Gleditsch’s correspondence with Curie while doing
research on Norwegian academics in France. He and Alexis C. Pappas, a professor of
nuclear chemistry who was Gleditsch’s student, successor, and friend, wrote a biography
that pays tribute to Gleditsch as a scientist and humanist.
It is a valuable overview, rich
in useful information on Gleditsch’s life and career, but it does not present detailed dis-
cussions of and critical reflections on the scientific debates and the broader institutional
context in which she participated or on her fight to become a full professor. This essay
will focus on Gleditsch’s experiences as a female researcher both abroad and, especially,
in Norway, where she spent most of her career as a university fellow, associate professor,
and, finally, full professor.
Like many female academics, Gleditsch had problems finding acceptance among her
colleagues at her home university; in contrast to many others, however, she was fortunate
to be part of a congenial international network. As we shall see, this network included
scientists, in particular female scientists, who worked in radioactivity and also members
of the International Federation of University Women. These people would be her sup-
porters and friends throughout her career, compensating for the chilly atmosphere she met
in Norway. Gleditsch is thus an example of an internationally recognized scientist who
was disparaged when she returned to the small chemical community in her native country
but was sustained both scientifically and personally by an extensive international network.
We have included a brief summary of her background, education, and entrance into science
and a discussion of some of her main scientific contributions in order to present a broader
picture of Gleditsch as a scientist and as a person. To contextualize, we begin with a short
introduction to the history of women’s participation in Norwegian academia.
Secondary Schools and Matriculation
When Gleditch passed her matriculation exam in 1905, three years after completing her
degree in pharmacy, Norwegian women had been permitted to sit this examination for
twenty-three years; the secondary school examination had been open to them for twenty-
nine years.
The opening of what had been boys’ secondary schools to women had been
Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), p. 77.
Torleiv Kronen and Alexis C. Pappas, Ellen Gleditsch: Et liv i forskning og medmenneskelighet (Oslo:
Aventura, 1987). A well-written account, based largely on the biography by Kronen and Pappas, is Anne Marie
Weidler Kubanek and Grete P. Grzegorek, “Ellen Gleditsch: Professor and Humanist,” in Devotion to Their
Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, pp. 5175.
The matriculation exam, Examen artium, corresponded to today’s high school graduation exam, after which
the pupils were given the title “students.” It was also a requirement for university acceptance. Until 1923 this
a gradual process, initiated by women who needed educational certificates that girls’ pri-
mary schools did not supply. The first girl to take the secondary school exam with the
permission of the Ministry of Church and Education was Ingeborg Poulsson, whose father
raised the issue on her behalf. It was determined that no change of law was needed to
enable girls to take the exam, and an administrative addition to the existing statutes, dated
26 April 1876, accomplished the purpose.
In Sweden and Denmark, matriculation and most university degrees were opened to
women in 1870 and 1875, respectively. In 1880 (Ida) Cecilie Thoresen asked her father
whether she had the same opportunities in Norway.
He directed the question to the Min-
istry of Church and Education. The Faculty of Law, speaking on behalf of the university,
concluded that a change of law would be required: the matriculation exam was held to be
a maturity test for men only. After a debate in Parliament, only one of the 114 members
voted against changing the law. Although the Ministry of Church and Education continued
to express doubts as to whether women should be permitted to take the exam, the new law
was formally approved on 15 June 1882. A few weeks later Cecilie Thoresen was finally
able to matriculate.
The cases of Cecilie Thoresen and Ingeborg Poulsson show that Norwegian women
from resourceful families could fulfill their unorthodox wishes if a manoften the
fatherwas willing to articulate them.
Their ambitions were put forward in a period of
general social and political change, and from the 1880s onward a sympathy for women’s
liberation developed in Norway. This gradually changed women’s legal position and paved
the way for them to achieve full rights throughout society.
University Degrees for Women
Although the university had been opened to women as a result of their right to matriculate,
women were still not permitted to complete degrees. They were not allowed to participate
in seminar groups within some faculties; this would, after all, be useless to them, as they
had no right to hold any academic position. Nevertheless, Thoresen and others attended
courses and lectures as so-called auditors.
Thoresen never completed a degree in science,
as she thought that this would be incompatible with her future life when she married in
1887. Like most people, she regarded it as improper for a woman to continue her education
or to work after marriage. From that point, nearly everyone believed, a woman’s energy
should be directed toward her home, husband, and children.
exam was not compulsory for pharmacy studies, however. This explains why Gleditsch did not pass the exam
before she started her chemistry studies at the university in 1905. See Bjørn Johannesen, “Norsk Farmaceutisk
Selskap gjennom 75 a˚r, Cygnus, 1999, no. 3, pp. 510.
Anna Caspari Agerholt, Den norske kvinnebevegelses historie, 2nd ed. (Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk, 1973), p.
56; and Agnes Frølich, “Kvinner fa˚r adgang til høyere utdanning,” in Ingeborg Astrid Klepp et al., Jubileums-
skrift: Kvinner ved Universitetet i 100 a˚rHvor langt har vi na˚dd? (Bergen: Univ. Bergen, 1982), pp. 18, on
p. 2.
Anna Caspari Agerholt, “Kampen om adgang til høiere utdannelse,” in Kvinnelige Studenter 18821932,
published by Norske Kvinnelige Akademikeres Landsforbund (Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk, 1932), pp. 4178, on p.
53; and Agerholt, Den norske kvinnebevegelses historie, p. 59.
A similar initiative was taken by a group of thirty mothers in Switzerland in 1872. See Natalia Tikhonov,
“Le roˆle des parents dans l’acce`s de jeunes filles a` l’enseignement supe´rieur en Suisse a` la fin du XIXe sie`cle,”
in Lorsque l’enfant grandit: Entre de´pendence et autonomie, ed. Jean-Pierre Bardet, Jean-Noe¨l Luc, Isabelle
Robin-Rouiero, and Catherine Rollet (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne, 2002), pp. 505520.
Gro Hagemann, “Det moderne gjennombrudd 18701905,” in Aschehougs Norgeshistorie, 12 vols., Vol. 9
(Oslo: Aschehoug, 1997), p. 118.
Agerholt, Den norske kvinnebevegelses historie (cit. n. 6), p. 62.
From the 1880s, women’s insistence that they should be allowed to complete university
degrees increased. The demands began with the medical degree. Even some men regarded
the idea of female physicians as inoffensive, believing that a woman was entitled to treat-
ment by one of her own kind. The medical authorities were, however, opposed to training
female doctors. One argument was that a woman who studied medicine would become
“something abnormal,” that “her intelligence would develop at the expense of her emo-
tional life.”
In 1884 H. E. Berner, the member of Parliament who had proposed the law
that allowed women to matriculate, proposed that women should be granted full rights at
the universitynot only the right to pursue medical degrees. This new law, like the ma-
triculation law, passed with only one vote in opposition and was sanctioned on 14 June
1884, two years after the matriculation law was changed and four years after Cecilie
Thoresen had started her fight. This new law did not admit women as public servants,
however, and this would become the next battleground. The movement to change the law
regarding public service brings us to the case of the first female professor in Norway,
Kristine Bonnevie.
Norway’s First Female Full Professor
Norway was comparatively late in opening school exams and university degrees to women,
but 1912 saw the appointment of Kristine Bonnevie as the first female full professor at the
university in Oslo.
After completing her studies she worked as a curator in the Department
of Zoology, where her duties included teaching. According to her memoirs, she also ad-
ministered the department and was responsible for student excursions. In brief, she stated,
“During the first decade after my appointment I had in reality a professors full work and
responsibility, but with respect to title and salary I was still ‘curator.’”
Not until she
applied and was recommended for a lectureshipequivalent to a professorshipat the
Bergen Museum in 1910 did Robert Collett and Georg Ossian Sars, the professors in the
department in Oslo, act to avoid losing herand thus having to take over her duties. They
proposed that Bonnevie be given a full professorship at the university. But the law that
would allow women to hold positions as public servants had not yet been passed.
Unanimous statement from the university medical faculty, quoted ibid., pp. 6263.
At this time there was only one university in Norway, the Royal Frederik University in Kristiania, founded
in 1811. Norway was a part of Denmark-Norway until 1814, and before 1811 Norwegians studied in Copenhagen.
Beginning in 1624, the capital of Norway was called Christiania (spelled “Kristiania” from 1877), after the
Danish-Norwegian king Christian IV (15771648). In 1925 the original name, Oslo, was restored. In 1939, in
anticipation of the founding of another Norwegian university, the University of Bergen (which was established
in 1946), the Royal Frederik University was renamed the University of Oslo. For simplicity, we will refer
throughout this essay to “Oslo” and the “University of Oslo,” even for periods when the name was actually
otherwise. It should be noted, furthermore, that Norway also had other important research institutions: e.g., the
Norwegian Institute of Technology, founded in 1910, which is now part of the Norwegian University of Science
and Technology in Trondheim.
Aadne Ore and Ove Arbo Høeg, “Det Matematisk-Naturvitenskapelige Fakultet,” in Universitetet i Oslo
19111961, 2 vols. (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1961), Vol. 1, pp. 475699, on p. 597; and Kristine Bonnevie,
“Fra 30 a˚rs virksomhet som Universitetslærer,” in Kvinnelige Studenter 18821932 (cit. n. 7), pp. 92101, on
p. 96 (quotation). For information on Bonnevie see Arne Semb-Johansson, “Kristine Bonnevie, va˚r første kvin-
nelige professor,” Forskningspolitikk, 1999, no. 4,
nr_4_1999/kristine_bonnevie_v_r_f_rste_kvinnelige_professor; and Bjørn Føyn, “Minnetale over Professor
Kristine Bonnevie,” in Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi: A
rbok (Oslo: Det Norske Videnskaps-Akademi, 1949),
pp. 7179. A note on Bonnevie appears in Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey, eds., The Biographical Dictionary
of Women in Science (New York: Routledge, 2000), Vol. 1, pp. 157158. See also Bonnevie’s own memoirs in
Elga Kern, Fu¨hrende Frauen Europas (Munich: Ernst Reinhardt, 1928), pp. 187198.
Public servants (embetsmenn) were all those who held final university degrees and had been appointed by
the king to their posts, including full professors. Bergen Museum, founded in 1825, was a semipublic institution
By 1902 360 women had matriculated, and their meager job rights became the next
focus in the fight for equality. In 1904, in a move without precedence in Europe, the
government proposed women’s admission to public service positions, with some excep-
tions. Action on this proposition was postponed in 1904 and 1905, and it was not put
forward again until 1911, by which time the issue was less contentious. Some argued that
women had already demonstrated their abilities in public positions and even that they were
better qualified than men for certain jobs. As Parliament had been open to women since
1907, it seemed unreasonable not to allow them to hold other positions in public service.
Shortly after the law was sanctioned in 1912, Kristine Bonnevie was appointed to a (ex-
traordinary) full professorship in zoology (full professor from 1919). She was one of the
first women to become a full professor at a state institution in Europe: the first female full
professor in what is now the Czech Republic was appointed in 1945, while the first in
Germany was named in the late 1950s, in Sweden in 1937, and in Denmark in 1946.
Four years after Bonnevie’s appointment, Ellen Gleditsch became the first female associate
professor at the university in Oslo, and in 1929 she was named the second woman full
professor in Norway. The third was Helga Kristine Eng, who became a professor of ped-
agogy in 1938. Only three more women were appointed full professors in Norway (one
in 1939 and two in 1948) until the 1960s, and all were in the humanities.
Family Background and Scientific Training
Ellen Gleditsch was born in 1878 into a middle-class family in the south of Norway, the
first of eleven children who arrived in rapid succession. Both parents were politically
involved, and her mother was a suffragist. Her father, a teacher with a special interest in
the natural sciences, eagerly took his family to the mountains, the forest, and the sea.
for natural history, archaeology, and cultural history, financed mainly by the state and the local community.
Bergen Museum became the University of Bergen in 1946. See Anders Haaland, “Bergen Museums historie
18251945,” in Astri Forland and Haaland, Universitetet i Bergens historie (Oslo: Akademisk Publisering, 1996),
Vol. 1, pp. 93110.
Agerholt, Den norske kvinnebevegelses historie (cit. n. 6), pp. 232238.
For an account of women’s admission to German universities see Patricia M. Mazo´n, Gender and the Modern
Research University: The Admission to German Higher Education, 18651914 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ.
Press, 2003). The first female professor in Europe was the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaia, appointed
in 1899 at Stockholm’s Ho¨gskola (later the University of Stockholm), a private institution not subject to the
same laws as state universities. Similarly, Lise Meitner became a professor at the private Kaiser Wilhelm Institute
for Physics in Berlin in 1919 but was not allowed to teach at German universities. Later, in 1926, she became
the first female professor at a German university, although she held the rank of extraordinary professor (ausse-
rordentlicher Professor) rather than full professor (ordentlicher Professor). No woman was entitled to a full
professorship until the 1950s: Annette Vogt, private communication, 8 July 2003. See also Ann Hibner Koblitz,
A Convergence of Lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia: Scientist, Writer, Revolutionary (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers
Univ. Press, 1983); Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1996); Rossiter,
“Twisted Tale” (cit. n. 1); Sonˇa S
trba´nˇova´, “The Institutional Position of Czech Women in Bohemia, 1860
1938,” in Women Scholars and Institutions: Proceedings of the International Conference (Prague, June 811,
2003), ed. S
trba´nˇova´, Ida Stamhuis and Katerˇina Mojsejova´ (Studies in the History of Sciences and Humanitities,
13) (Prague, 2004), pp. 6997; and Vogt, “Women Scholars at German Universities; or, Why Did This Story
Start So Late?” ibid., pp. 159186.
Universitetet i Oslo 19111961, Vol. 2, p. 266 (Gleditsch); and “Alfabetisk oversikt over vitenskapelige
ansatte ved UiO 18111984” (list of professors at the University of Oslo, 18111984), prepared by the Forum
for University History, University of Oslo, available at
Figure 1. Ellen Gleditsch as an assistant in the Chemistry Laboratory at the University of Oslo,
together with her supervisor Eyvind Bødtker and some other students in spring 1903. (From
Universitetet i Oslo 19111961, Vol. 1, p. 546.)
Gleditsch recalled her fathers special interest in botany and that they collected plants on
family trips.
Thus the children adopted their parents’ fondness for nature at an early age.
When Ellen was nine years old the family moved to Tromsø, in the north of Norway,
and there, at eighteen, she started an apprenticeship in pharmacy. She chose this subject,
in consultation with her parents, partly because the courses included many natural sciences
that interested her (botany, zoology, physics, chemistry, mineralogy) and partly because
this profession would allow her to become economically independent within a reasonably
short time. Gleditsch’s parents wanted their children, boys and girls, to get an education
and to become useful, independent, and economically responsible citizens. After some
years as an apprentice, she passed the two exams necessary to become a pharmacist in
1900 and 1902. After taking her examinations the twenty-three-year-old Gleditsch became
interested in chemistry and decided to continue her studies. She supported herself by
coaching freshman students of pharmacy. In 1903 she began to receive funding from the
Pharmaceutical Funds and started an assistantship in chemistry (see Figure 1), but she had
to continue with the coaching as well.
These experiences gave her teaching practice and
Ellen Gleditsch, “Et liv i vitenskapens tjeneste,” radio memoir, 1 Sept. 1966, NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting
Corporation) Radio Archives, no. 51506.
Ibid.; “Ellen Gleditsch” [interview], Urd, 14 Jan. 1911, pp. 1314; and Ore and Høeg, “Det Matematisk-
Naturvitenskapelige Fakultet” (cit. n. 13), p. 538. See also Gleditsch’s application for Queen Dowager Josephine’s
Scholarship for Women’s Education, 27 Feb. 1905, Archives of the Ministry of Church and Education (Kirke-
og Utdanningsdepartementet), 1. skolekontor D, 18981938: Enkedronning Josephine’s legat for kvinnelig ut-
dannelse, 19041905, Søknader, Utdelinger, Ed-218, Public Record Office (Riksarkivet) (hereafter cited as
enabled her to develop her laboratory skills and insights, assets that were to prove important
when she approached Marie Curie four years later.
After some years as an assistant, Gleditsch managed to get to Paris to work in radio-
activity. Her interest in the new phenomena of X-rays and radioactivity had grown con-
siderably over the preceding decade. The liberal newspaper Verdens Gang had published
an article entitled “Photographing Through the Wall” only two months after Wilhelm
Conrad Ro¨ntgen discovered X-rays in late 1895. Soon the conservative newspaper Mor-
genbladet advertised “Lectures and Experiments on X-rays” by university fellow Kristian
Birkeland, advising the audience to bring their opera glasses. And when Birkeland also
displayed X-ray pictures of the skeleton, explaining the medical use of these new rays,
many Norwegians were excited. With Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity in 1896
and Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of polonium and radium two years later, the general
enthusiasm was further enhanced. Gleditsch was fascinated by the fact that “rays one could
not see nonetheless worked.” In a 1907 essay on radium she reflected on how swiftly this
purely scientific discovery had disseminated into the general public, concluding that “the
properties of radium are so new and peculiar and in so many ways shatter the theories we
have regarded as quite certain for years.”
According to the Rayner-Canhams, astronomy, crystallography, and atomic science
(which included radioactivity) were the fields within the physical sciences that particularly
appealed to women at the time. Brigitte Bischof has shown that radioactivity was presented
as a “romantic endeavor” in the Viennese media and that women, in particular, were
attracted to the field and to Marie Curie as a person, although she never specifically pro-
moted women researchers. The Curies, together with Becquerel, had been awarded the
Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their discovery of radioactivity and research on radiation
phenomena, and even in the early years students from around the world wanted to work
in their laboratory. The first woman to study there, the Canadian Harriet Brooks, came in
1906 and worked for a year under Marie Curie, who took charge of the laboratory after
Pierre’s tragic death and ensured that it retained its leading position within the field. During
Gleditsch’s first five years in Paris there were between two and five women and between
eleven and twenty-two scientists in all in the laboratory. With her second Nobel Prize in
1911, this time in chemistry, Curie’s fame increased; but during the same period the refusal
of the French Academy of Science to elect her to membership and the rumors of her
involvement with Paul Langevin may have affected her popularity. In any case, the number
of workers at and publications from her laboratory decreased for a time. After the war,
and with the inauguration of her new radium institute, the number of laboratory workers
rose once again. Curie was aware of her “celebrity effect” and rejected students she sus-
pected of wanting to work with her only to be able to brag about it later.
Verdens Gang, 14 Jan. 1896; Morgenbladet, 22 Mar. 1896; and Tor Brustad, “Radiologiens inntog i Norge,”
Forskningspolitikk, 2000, no. 1, pp. 67, 10. Gleditsch confirmed the general enthusiasm for radioactivity in an
NRK television interview in 1965 (videotape in possession of Chris Koch, Gleditsch’s niece). For the quotations
see Ellen Gleditsch, “Et liv i vitenskapens tjeneste” (cit. n. 18); and Gleditsch, “Radium,” For Kirke og Kultur,
1907, pp. 211224.
Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, eds., Devotion to Their Science, p. 13; and Brigitte Bischof, “‘The
Marie Curie Syndrome,’ the Role of Mentors, and Romanticism; or, Why Were There So Many Women in
Radioactivity Research in Vienna?” in Women Scholars and Institutions, ed. S
trba´nˇova´, Stamhuis and Mojsejova´
(cit. n. 16), pp. 639658. For the figures on laboratory workers during Gleditsch’s time with Curie see J. L.
Davis, “The Research School of Marie Curie in the Paris Faculty, 190714,” Annals of Science, 1995, 52:321
355; and Liste du personnel, Historical Archives of the Curie Laboratory, AMC. On the academy’s refusal to
elect Curie to membership and on the Langevin affaire see Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (London: Heine-
mann, 1995); regarding the “celebrity effect” see ibid., p. 402.
Women at the turn of the century generally had to create their own “feminine” jobs or
study “feminine” subjects such as home economics, botany, or child psychology in order
to enter the world of science. The passive, routine work often associated with astronomy,
crystallography, and atomic science has been suggested as a reason why many women had
a chance to enter these fields. Because they were also willing to accept low pay and jobs
as assistants, they were able to carve out “niches” within otherwise masculine research
fields. James Chadwick, visiting Meyers laboratory in Vienna in 1927, observed that
women did the scintillation counting. He reasoned that they were able to concentrate on
this tedious work more intensely than men because they had so little on their minds.
Supportive supervisors were of course also crucial in enabling women to enter into radio-
activity research, and Rutherford and Meyer were renowned for providing collaborative
and positive working environments for their women researchers. Even Gleditsch, who
never worked with Rutherford, wrote to him in 1915 about her work on the half-life of
radium: “I hope you will forgive me for writing you about my work. As you will understand
you yourself gave me the courage in Washington [to pursue it].”
Going abroad for research and training was considered a necessity for Norwegian stu-
dents and scientists. Researchers in a peripheral country like Norway, with its small uni-
versity and even smaller research units, needed sojourns at well-equipped and topic-
specific laboratories if their work was to progress. Gleditsch was well aware of this; she
wrote that “the demand for instruments and apparatus is now high, and progress in a
specific field of science is often connected to the development of the finest and best ap-
paratus.” The laboratory in Oslo where Gleditsch did her work in chemistry was not
adequately equipped, particularly not for radioactivity research, and its deficiencies were
reported repeatedly over the years. As early as 1903 the budget was exhausted on chemical
consumables for everyday use, making new investments in instruments, chemicals, and
specimens impossible to consider.
Norwegian scientists’ travels abroad were thus common. Not only did they need better
laboratory facilities and the chance to participate in a strong research group: by visiting
highly regarded professors, groups, and institutions, Norwegian scientists sought to link
their own research projects to these persons and places and at the same time establish a
professional network that they could rely on after they returned home.
Gleditsch certainly
understood this dynamic, though in spending more than seven years abroad she might,
paradoxically, have gone beyond what was advantageous to her future career in Oslo.
Lawrence Badash, “Nuclear Physics in Rutherford’s Laboratory before the Discovery of the Neutron,”
American Journal of Physics, 1983, 51:884889 (Chadwick’s view); and Ellen Gleditsch to Ernest Rutherford,
1 Nov. 1915, Ernest Rutherford Papers, MS ADD 7653:G.99, Department of Manuscripts, Cambridge University
Library. On women’s “niches” within masculine research fields see Margaret W. Rossiter, Women Scientists in
America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 5172, 313316;
and Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, eds., Devotion to Their Science, pp. 1718. On the supportiveness of
Rutherford and Meyer see ibid., pp. 20, 24.
Ellen Gleditsch, “Kvinnelige AkademikereUtenlandsopphold og stipendier,” in Kvinnelige Studenter
18821932 (cit. n. 7), pp. 244248, on p. 244. At this time the Chemical Laboratory, situated in Fredriksgate
3which also hosted the metallurgical laboratorycomprised two laboratories, one for the pharmacy students
and the other for the science students. When the metallurgists moved out in 1912, their laboratory was taken
over. As early as 1918, however, the sites were described as being too small. Gleditsch’s first radiochemistry
laboratory was a room in the basement of the building, which was specially equipped for this purpose in 1920/
1921. The ongoing deficiencies are noted in the annual reports from the Chemical Laboratory that appeared in
Universitetet i Oslo: A
rsberetninger, the annual report of the university; for the first such complaint see ibid.,
1902/1903, pp. 8889.
Sven Widmalm, Det o¨ppna laboratoriet: Uppsalafysiken och dets na¨tverk 18531910 (Stockholm: Atlantis,
2001), pp. 3477; and Anne Kristine Børresen, “Johan H. L. Vogtnaturforsker, ra˚dgiver og nasjonsbygger,”
in Historiske fabrikasjonar, ed. Ola Svein Stugu (Fabrikken, 2001), pp. 87116, on p. 95.
For many scientists Germany was the natural place to go to at the end of the nineteenth
century, gradually replacing France as the chief center for science in Europe. However,
with the work of Louis Pasteur on microorganisms and the founding of the Institut Pasteur
in 1888, Paris remained a center for chemical-biological research. The discoveries of Bec-
querel and the Curies in the 1890s made the city a center for physical-chemical science as
Gleditsch might have been influenced by her supervisor, Eyvind Bødtker, who himself
went to Paris in 1906 to work in organic chemistry. He remained her supporter throughout
her career, from encouraging her to begin her studies in chemistry to supporting her ap-
plication to become a full professor. He established the first contact between Gleditsch and
Curie in Paris; he even dictated her first letter in French to Curie. Gleditsch’s wish to go
to Paris was due to a combination of factors; in addition to Bødtker’s influence, she had
great ambitions and career plans and was eager to work with an important scientist such
as Marie Curie.
Bødtker called on Curie to request a place for Gleditsch in her laboratory. Curie origi-
nally declined the inquiry, citing a lack of space, until Bødtker desperately exclaimed:
“But Gleditsch is so small, she doesn’t need much space!” It is likely that Gleditsch’s
skills as a chemist changed Curie’s mind, as she needed another chemist to perform crys-
tallizations. Isolating radium from uranium minerals was laborious and meticulous work:
a ton of mineral rich in uranium yielded only 0.2 grams of radium chloride.
One step in
the procedure was the separation of barium from radium. As these elements have similar
chemical properties, repeated fractional crystallizations were necessary. Performing crys-
tallizations is itself considered something of an art in chemistry. Fractional crystallizations
are even more challenging, demanding an intimate chemical understanding of the com-
pounds to be separated and thorough and practiced chemical dexterity, as well as patience
and perseverancethis was one of Gleditsch’s main tasks during her years in Paris.
Gleditsch stayed in Paris for five years, from 1907 to 1912, and was soon promoted
from student to Marie Curie’s personal assistant. During these years she also studied at
the Sorbonne and completed the Licencie´e e`s sciences degree (equivalent to a B.S.). Gle-
ditsch was not supported financially by Curie during all these years, but she did not have
to pay the laboratory fee because of the crystallizations she did for Curie. According to
her niece, Chris Koch, Gleditsch was frugal and might have been able to live on her savings
during her first year of study. Her repeated applications for various scholarships, some of
which were granted, indicate that she must have felt the need for additional economic
support. From 1908 until 1911, Gleditsch received a substantial scholarship from the Uni-
versity of Oslo. In 1911 she became a university fellow; during the first year of the fel-
On Germany as a scientific center in the late nineteenth century see John Peter Collett, “Tysk innflytelse pa˚
norsk vitenskap og høyere utdannelse,” in Tyskland-Norge: Den lange historien, ed. Jarle Simensen (Oslo: Tano
Aschehoug, 1999), pp. 4960 (this volume has been translated into German as Deutschland-Norwegen: Die
lange Geschichte [Oslo: Tano Aschehoug, 1999]); Børresen, “Johan H. L. Vogt”; Ha˚kon With Andersen, “Ger-
many and the Education of Norwegian Engineers, with Some Reflections on the Role of the Engineers as a
Social Group,” in Bu¨rgentum und Bu¨rokratie im 19. Jahrhundert: Technologie, Innovation, Technologietransfer
(Oslo: Norges Allemenvitenskapelige Forskningsra˚d/Stifterverband fu¨r die Deutsche Wissenschaft, 1988), pp.
104109; and Torleiv Kronen, Ut over grensene: Norske vitenskapsmenn i Frankrike 11501940 (Oslo: Aven-
tura, 1985), pp. 93, 146147. On the attractions of Paris see ibid., pp. 146147; and Kronen and Pappas, Ellen
Gleditsch (cit. n. 4), p. 22.
Gleditsch reported Bødtkers remark in a television interview (cit. n. 20). On the yield of radium chloride
see Ellen Gleditsch, “Om radioaktive mineraler og om radiums utvinding,” Teknisk Ukeblad, 22 Sept. 1911, pp.
461464, 515517.
lowship she was exempted from her teaching duties so that she could finish her education
in Paris. For the academic year 1909/1910 she also received a Curie-Carnegie Fellowship,
endowed by the American millionaire Andrew Carnegie.
Networks of Women
Between 1900 and 1910, about thirty women throughout Europe were working in radio-
activity, many of them at the Laboratoire Curie in Paris. In one year researchers from
seventeen countries worked in this laboratory, and during Curie’s lifetime no fewer than
twenty-five nations were represented there. Curie’s laboratory thus became an ideal place
to foster international relations. Ellen Gleditsch enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere
thoroughly and later corresponded with many of her coworkers. In the book Kvinnelige
Studenter 18821932 [Female Students, 18821932], published by the Norwegian section
of the International Federation of University Women, she wrote: “You return from such a
stay [abroad] greatly enriched, not exactly in gold, but in noble goods: an understanding
of your science, knowledge of another country’s people and culture, and an extended
acquaintance with representatives of still many other countries and people.” When Gle-
ditsch arrived in Paris in 1907 she was the only woman in the laboratory apart from Curie.
In succeeding years more women came, among them the Englishwoman May Sybil Leslie
(19091911) and the Swede Eva Ramstedt (19101911), with both of whom Gleditsch
kept in touch for years.
Her frequent references to Ramstedt in her letters to Curie testify
to the special relationship that started in Paris. Later the two coauthored a book and met
several timesat least twice with Leslie, who later came to work with Rutherford in
Manchester. Leslie wrote to Arthur Smithalls, her professor at Leeds, while in Paris: “There
are only two ladies beside myself, Norwegian Mlle. Gleditsch, and French, Mlle. Blan-
quies. Of the French lady I see very little because she does not spend all her time here,
but of Mlle. Gleditsch I see much since she lives in the same pension. She has been
exceedingly good to me and has prevented me from feeling lonely.”
For more details about her stay in Paris see Annette Lykknes, Helge Kragh, and Lise Kvittingen, “Ellen
Gleditsch: Woman Pioneer in Radiochemistry,” Physics in Perspective, 2004, 6:126155. For an account of the
Curie laboratory see Soraya Boudia, Marie Curie et son laboratoire (Paris: Editions des Archives Contempo-
raires, 2001). Regarding Gleditsch’s efforts to win scholarship support see her applications for Queen Dowager
Josephine’s Scholarship and the Houen Fund, 19051910, Archives of the Ministry of Church and Education,
1. skolekontor D, 18981938, Ed-218221, Ed-305307, RARK. Her scholarships from the university are
recorded in Universitetet i Oslo: A
rsberetning: Matrikulen, 1907/1908, 1908/1909, 1909/1910, 1910/1911. The
Curie-Carnegie Fellowship is noted in Liste du personnel, Historical Archives of the Curie Laboratory, AMC;
see also Robert Reid, Marie Curie (New York: Dutton, 1974), p. 160.
Ellen Gleditsch, “Maria Sklodowska Curie,” Nordisk Tidsskrift, 1959, pp. 417434 (twenty-five nations)
(hereafter cited as Gleditsch, “Maria Sklodowska Curie” [1959]); and Gleditsch, “Kvinnelige Akademikere
Utenlandsopphold og stipendier” (cit. n. 23), p. 246. Leslie’s and Ramstedt’s dates are taken from Liste du
personnel, Historical Archives of the Curie Laboratory, AMC. For brief accounts of their lives and work see
Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, “May Sybil Leslie: From Radioactivity to In-
dustrial Chemistry,” in Devotion to Their Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner Canham, pp. 7681; and
Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham,“...AndSome Other Women of the French Group” [including Ramstedt],
ibid., pp. 125126.
May Sybil Leslie to Arthur Smithalls, 30 Nov. 1909, Arthur Smithalls Collection, Leeds University Library;
quoted in Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, “May Sybil Leslie,” p. 77. The coauthored book is Ellen Gle-
ditsch and Eva Ramstedt, Radium og de radioaktive prosesser (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1917). Later meetings are
noted in Gleditsch to Marie Curie, 10 Nov. 1915, Marie Curie Archives, letter 785, AMC; postcard from Gle-
ditsch, Ramstedt, and Leslie to Curie, 12 June 1920, Letter Collection 18450, Bibliothe`que Nationale, Paris;
Gleditsch to Lise Meitner, 7 July 1926, Collection MTMR 5/15, Churchill College Archives, Cambridge (here-
after cited as CCA); postcard from Gleditsch and Ramstedt to Curie, 12 July 1932, Letter Collection 18450,
Bibliothe`que Nationale; and Gleditsch to Ire`ne Joliot-Curie, 26 Feb. 1947, Ire`ne Joliot-Curie Archives, AMC.
Since some of her colleagues in Paris later went to work in other laboratories, Gleditsch
was able to maintain contact with scientists in many places. For this reason she has been
described as the central figure linking the three main groups in radioactivity: the French
(in Paris under Curie), the British (in Manchester under Rutherford), and the Austro-
German (in Vienna under Meyer and in Berlin under Hahn). Gleditsch and Ramstedt were
also so-called honorary correspondents of the Austro-German group. Among her col-
leagues from Parisapart from Ramstedt and Lesliewere the Polish-Russian Jadwiga
Schmidt and the Pole Alicja Dorabialska. The latter welcomed Gleditsch’s former assistant
Ruth Bakken as her assistant at the University of Lwow in the 1930s.
But Gleditsch also cultivated bonds and friendships with scientists who never worked
in Paris. During World War II she offered positions in her laboratory in Oslo to the scientist-
refugees Marietta Blau, an Austrian, and the Hungarian Elizabeth Rona, both of whom
had worked in Stefan Meyers Institute for Radium Research in Vienna. Rona recalled:
“My close friend Ellen Gleditsch . . . had invited me to replace a staff member who was
on a leave of absence.”
Although they never worked together, Gleditsch took the initiative in 1926 to ask for a
meeting with Lise Meitner in Berlin, since she would pass through on her way to Warsaw:
“I do wish to make your acquaintance; we have radioactivity in common.”
This was the
beginning of a friendship that would last for the rest of their careers. Gleditsch also rec-
ommended her students and assistants to Meitner, both for short meetings and for longer
But it was with Curie, her mentor and friend, that Gleditsch maintained her closest
contacts. After examining the thirty-nine volumes of the Curie correspondence in the
Bibliothe`que Nationale in Paris, Gleditsch biographers Torleiv Kronen and Alexis Pappas
say that there was no one closer to Curie, apart from her immediate family, than Gleditch.
Some students in Curie’s laboratory described her as dismissive and reserved, but Gle-
ditsch, who knew her better, considered Curie a caring advisor with a particular interest
in each student. She observed that Curie was “immensely shy” and opened her mind only
to her family and close friends, in which group Gleditsch was included. Gleditsch was a
regular guest in Curie’s home on Sundays and also grew close to her daughter, Ire`ne Joliot-
Curie. They spent the summer of 1953 hiking together in the Norwegian mountains, and
their correspondence continued until Ire`ne’s death in 1956.
On Gleditsch’s “centrality” see Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, “Pioneer
Women of Radioactivity,” in Devotion to Their Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, pp. 1228,
on p. 27; Gleditsch and Ramstedt are mentioned as “honorary correspondents” on p. 26. On Schmidt see Ruth-
erford to Bertram Boltwood, 20 June 1914, in Lawrence Badash, Rutherford and Boltwood: Letters on Radio-
activity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), p. 294; on Dorabialska see Stephanie Weinsberg-Tekel,
“Alicja Dorabialska: Polish Chemist,” in Devotion to Their Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham,
pp. 9296.
Elizabeth Rona, How It Came About: Radioactivity, Nuclear Physics, Atomic Energy (Oak Ridge, Tenn.:
Oak Ridge Associated Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 4243. For accounts of Blau’s life and work see Peter L. Galison,
“Marietta Blau: Between Nazis and Nuclei,” Physics Today, 1997, 50:4248; Galison, “Marietta Blau: Between
Nazis and Nuclei,” in Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press,
1997), pp. 146160; and Leopold E. Halpern, “Marietta Blau: Discoverer of the Cosmic Ray ‘Stars,’” in Devotion
to Their Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, pp. 196204. On Rona see Marelene F. Rayner-
Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, “Elizabeth Ro´na: The Polonium Woman,” in Devotion to Their
Science, ed. Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham, pp. 209216.
Gleditsch to Meitner, 16 June 1926, Collection MTNR 5/15, CCA.
Gleditsch’s close relationship with the Curies is noted in Kronen and Pappas, Ellen Gleditsch, p. 125. On
Curie’s purported reserve see Gleditsch, “Marie Sklodowska Curie” (1959), p. 429; and Quinn, Marie Curie (cit.
As we have seen, Gleditsch kept in touch with so many of the women in radioactivity
that she became a central figure in the network of women in this field. From 1920 on, she
also participated in formal networks of women, not least during her many years in the
International Federation of University Women. We will return to this group after a look at
her initial years as a researcher in Norway.
Fellowship at the University of Oslo
At the turn of the century the University of Oslo was still quite small. In his speech marking
the centenary of the university in 1911, Rector Waldemar Christopher Brøgger announced
that a staff of 102 professors and university fellows was insufficient. If Oslo was to retain
its standing compared to other universities and ensure recruitment for the future, Brøgger
insisted, at least 130 professors and university fellows would be necessary. His hopes for
such an expansion were not fulfilled, although a substantial increase did take place, from
80 professors in 1911 to 116 in 1922.
Gleditsch applied for a fellowship (adjunktstipend) from the university in 1910 but was
turned down, despite a faculty recommendation in her favor. She had already received
money to continue her studies in Paris, and the university board was unwilling to support
a candidate who was already holding a scholarship. However, the next year, when she
reapplied, she was awarded a five-year grant as a university fellow, a position that offered
the holder financial support and the opportunity to do research and teaching and helped
the university build a pool of talent from which the professors of the future could be
With some economic security, then, Gleditsch completed her studies in Paris and a year
later returned to Oslo, where she began lectures on “Radium and the Radioactive Sub-
stances” for an audience of ten to twenty students. The spring of 1913 was a devastating
time in Gleditsch’s personal life: she attended the deathbeds of her mother, her twenty-
five-year-old brother, and her father, all within two months. Diligently she kept on teaching
until 17 April, but at this point, two days before her father died, she had to give in. As the
eldest child and, hence, the natural center of the family, Ellen had to organize the funerals
and see to the creation of a new home. She shared a home with her brother Adler for the
rest of her life. The youngest brother, Kristian, was only twelve years old when his parents
died. Characteristically, Ellen provided both emotional and financial support for many
years. Kristian’s daughter, Chris Koch, recalls that Ellen paid for part of her education and
offered economic support whenever she had some extra money. Her care also extended to
Chris’s children, for whom she was like a grandmothersupplying them with hand-knitted
sweaters, for example.
Gleditsch’s concern to take care of her family was partly due to
her being the eldest of the siblings, but these tasks also seemed natural to her as a woman
n. 21), p. 403. For Gleditsch’s own view see Ellen Gleditsch, “Discours de Mlle. Gleditsch,” in Cinquantenaire
du premier cours de la Marie Curie a` la Sorbonne (Cahors: Couelant, 1957), pp. 3637; Gleditsch, “Marie
Sklodowska Curie” (1959), p. 429; and Gleditsch, “Marie Sklodowska Curie,” Naturen, 1934, pp. 289294, on
p. 294. The Sunday visits are noted in Gleditsch, “Marie Sklodowska Curie” (1959), p. 428; hiking with Ire`ne
is mentioned in Gleditsch, “Ire`neogFre´de´ric Joliot-Curie,” Samtiden, 1959, 68:172181.
John Peter Collett, Historien om Universitetet i Oslo (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1999), pp. 117121; the
increase to 116 is noted on p. 115.
For the initial refusal see reports from the faculty board meetings, 6 Oct. 1910, 20 Oct. 1910, Reports 1899
1927, Archives of the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, University of Oslo (Arkiv fra det Matematisk-
Naturvitenskapelige Fakultet) (hereafter cited as AMNF). The five-year grant is noted in Universitetet i Oslo:
rsberetninger, 1914/1915, pp. 195196.
Conversation with Chris Koch, Copenhagen, Apr. 2002.
Figure 2. Ellen Gleditsch with her niece Chris Koch (b. 1931) in 1942. (Courtesy of Chris Koch.)
of her time. In living with her brothers and having responsibility for Chris during the war
(see Figure 2), Gleditsch, who never married, had the chance to express the nurturing part
of herself and to combine her career at the university with the pleasures of having a home
and a family. On the other hand, because she had to run a household, she was not able to
dedicate herself entirely to her research, as the majority of her male colleagues could do.
Gleditsch felt isolated at the University of Oslo, as there was no one else there with
much experience in radioactivity. She therefore corresponded extensively with her col-
leagues from her Paris period and returned there frequently.
During her first years as a
university fellow her time was divided between the demanding task of establishing a
laboratory in radioactivity, which included purchasing chemicals and instruments, applying
to various funds for project support and travel grants, teaching students, and doing research.
To get a break from her busy scheduleand seeking new stimulishe applied for a
fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation that would enable her to go to
the United States. In America Gleditsch would benefit from exposure to other scientists
and new methods. As in Paris, she met colleagues with whom she kept in touch for the
rest of her career.
When she was awarded the fellowship she wrote to ask both Boltwood at Yale and
Theodore Lyman at Harvard if she could work with them for a year. Lyman simply an-
swered that no woman had ever set foot inside a physics laboratory at Harvard, whereas
Boltwood hesitatingly welcomed her. In a letter written to Rutherford in September 1913
E.g., in the fall of 1916 Gleditsch ran the radium factory outside of Paris, where she had worked previously,
because Curie needed more radium to treat those wounded in the war. In July 1920 Curie left her laboratory in
Gleditsch’s hands when she had to travel. See Curie to Gleditsch, 22 June 1916, 7 July 1920, Letter Collection
456, National Library of Norway, Oslo (Nasjonalbiblioteket, manuskriptsamling) (herafter cited as NBM).
it appears that Gleditsch was well known to both of them but that Boltwood was none-
theless skeptical:
Mlle. Gleditsch has written that she has a fellowship of the American Scandinavian Foundation
(I never heard of it before!), and wishes to come and work with me in New Haven!! What do
you think of that? I have written to her and tried to ward her off, but as the letter was necessarily
delayed in forwarding to me, I am afraid she will be in New York before I get there. Tell Mrs.
Rutherford that a silver fruit dish will make a very nice wedding present!!!
Boltwood, still a bachelor, was known for his misogynistic attitudesfor example, toward
Marie Curie, whom he rarely and reluctantly credited for her workand though the tone
of his letter is humorous he evidently had difficulties in imagining a female scientist. In
Boltwood’s world women belonged to other parts of society; they were potential wives,
not colleagues. Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham state that attitudes toward women
in American academic circles were colder than those in Europe and suggest that this might
have led to a decline in the numbers of women working in radioactivity after World War
I, when the United States became increasingly interesting for promising students in the
Probably in jest, Rutherford’s wife Mary wrote to Boltwood in October 1913, wonder-
ing, “Are you engaged to the charmer yet, I forgot who she was”obviously in reference
to Gleditsch. Despite his initial suspicion, Boltwood soon accepted Gleditsch as a colleague
and coworker, and their cooperation resulted in two papers on the half-life of radium,
published by Gleditsch in 1915 and 1916. Even Lyman relented and invited her to work
with him, if only as a guest. Nevertheless, Gleditsch did not forget the hostility she met
with in the United States. In a newspaper interview in 1930 she made a point of mentioning
that a man “who was reputed to hate women”probably Boltwoodthought she was “a
rare exception” among womankind because she did not scream.
Boltwood learned to appreciate Gleditsch’s scientific and intellectual abilities; both her
work on the half-life of radium and her facility in the English language impressed him.
During her year in New Haven she also lectured on radioactivity at the Women’s Colleges
of Massachusetts and New York, and in June 1914 she was awarded an honorary doctorate
at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. During the presentation Professor Gar-
diner described Gleditsch as someone “who for exceptional intellectual attainments was
selected as the first woman fellow of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, and whose
investigations and original contributions to the field of radio-activity have placed her
among the acknowledged experts in this new and important science.”
Bolstered by an
Boltwood to Rutherford, 12 Sept. 1913, in Badash, Rutherford and Boltwood (cit. n. 30), pp. 285286.
Regarding Curie see, e.g., Boltwood to Rutherford, 11 Oct. 1908, ibid., pp. 195196. On American attitudes see
Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from
Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1998), p. 133.
Mary Rutherford to Boltwood, 6 Oct. 1913, in Badash, Rutherford and Boltwood, p. 286. For the publications
see Ellen Gleditsch, “Om radiums levetid og om dets aktivitetskonstant,” Archiv for Mathematik og Naturviden-
skab, 1915, 34:319; and Gleditsch, “The Life of Radium,” American Journal of Science, 1916, 41:112124.
Lyman’s invitation is reported in “Lolita: Kjernekjemisk Gratie” [interview with Gleditsch], Dagbladet, 13 June
1964; the story about the man “who was reputed to hate women” comes from the interview “Mannen som
kollega: Hvad professor Ellen Gleditsch mener” (cit. n. 1).
Gardiner is quoted in the Springfield Republican, 17 June 1914; the clipping is in Honorary Degree Files:
Ellen Gleditsch, Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts. Boltwood’s appreciation is expressed in
Boltwood to Gleditsch, 28 June 1915, Letter Collection 456, NBM. Gleditsch’s lectures in Massachusetts and
New York are reported in Universitetet i Oslo: A
rsberetninger, 1913/1914, pp. 9495.
honorary doctorate of science, Gleditsch was even more encouraged to continue her ex-
periments and studies of radioactivity on her return to Oslo.
Scientific Work in Paris, America, and Oslo
Gleditsch’s first publication, on the tertiary derivatives of amyl benzene, would be her
only paper in organic chemistry. It appeared while she was an assistant at the Chemistry
Laboratory in Oslo. During her Paris period Gleditsch authored several papers, in both
French and Norwegian. Her work in French contributed in particular to discussions per-
taining to the alleged transformation of copper into lithium and the radium-uranium ratio.
Eager to present evidence for Rutherford and Frederick Soddy’s transformation theory of
1902, the Nobel laureate William Ramsay and Alexander Thomas Cameron reported the
detection of lithium in copper solutions treated with radium emanation (radon,
a paper published in 1907. Because the new phenomenon of radioactivity had opened
several black boxes within the atomic sciences, it also lent itself to speculation and sen-
sationalism, and Ramsay and Cameron’s findings resulted in press notices in France spec-
ulating about the transmutation of silver into gold. Curie and her coworker, assistant pro-
fessor Andre´ Debierne, were skeptical, however, and Gleditsch and Curie investigated
Ramsay and Cameron’s claims and found that the traces of lithium in their copper solutions
probably originated from the glass container.
Gleditsch also published on her own on the lithium controversy. Her investigation of
the lithium content in minerals containing both copper and radium led her to claim that
copper did not transform into lithium under the influence of radiation. These results are
mentioned in the major contemporary English, French, and German textbooks on radio-
activity, an indication of their importance.
In her own work and in collaboration with
Curie, she had therefore disproved claims about the transmutation of metals. Further spec-
ulative experiments on silver and gold were thus avoided, and the old alchemical dream
remained just that.
Another topic of interest to Gleditsch during her time in France was the ratio of radium
) to uranium (
), the Ra-U ratio, in minerals. This too was a response to the
transformation theory of Rutherford and Soddy. Finding the Ra-U ratio would indicate
whether uranium was radium’s parent and would be important for mapping radioactive
decay. Boltwood had worked on the Ra-U ratio in minerals and his results showed a
constant ratio, indicating that there was a genetic relationship between the two elements
in the radioactive decay series. Gleditsch’s results, however, indicated that the ratio varied
from mineral to mineral.
This perturbed scientists, as it seemed to indicate that uranium
Ellen Gleditsch, “Sur quelques derive´s d’amylbenze`ne tertiaire,” Bulletin de la Socie´te´ Chimique de France,
1906, pp. 10941097; Andre´ Debierne to Gleditsch, 16 Sept. 1908, Letter Collection 456, NBM; and Marie
Curie and Gleditsch, “Sur le lithium dans les mine´raux radioactifs,” Comptes Rendus de l’Acade`mie des Sciences,
1908, 147:345349. For a more detailed discussion of Gleditsch’s scientific work in Paris and in America see
Lykknes et al., “Ellen Gleditsch” (cit. n. 27).
Ernest Rutherford, Radioactive Substances and Their Radiations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1913),
pp. 320322; Marie Curie, Traite´ de radioactivite´, 2 vols., Vol. 2 (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1910), p. 262; and
Stefan Meyer and Egon R. Schweidler, Radioaktivita¨t (Leipzig: Teubner, 1916), p. 13. For Gleditsch’s work on
the lithium controversy see Ellen Gleditsch, “Sur le lithium contenu dans les mine´raux radioactifs,” Compt. Rend.
Acad. Sci., 1907, 145:1148; Gleditsch, “Sur le lithium dans les minerais radioactifs,” ibid., 1908, 146:331333;
and Gleditsch, “Sur le lithium dans les mine´raux radioactifs,” Radium, 1908, 5:3334.
Ellen Gleditsch, “Sur le radium et l’uranium contenus dans les mine´raux radioactifs,” Compt. Rend. Acad.
Sci., 1909, 148:14511453; Gleditsch, “Sur le radium et l’uranium contenus dans les mine´raux radioactifs,”
Radium, 1909, 6:165166; Gleditsch, “Om forholdet mellom uran og radium i de radioaktive mineraler,” Arch.
Math. Naturvidenskab, 1909, 30:311; Gleditsch, “Sur le rapport entre l’uranium et le radium dans les mine´raux
actifs,” Radium, 1911, 8:256273; and Gleditsch, “Om forholdet mellom uran og radium i de radioaktive mi-
neraler,” Tidsskrift for Kjemi, Farmasi og Terapi, 1911, 8:369379.
was not the ancestor of radium. Gleditsch, however, emphasized that her findings did not
disprove anything; she urged caution, noting that the relationship had not been demon-
strated experimentally in any direct way.
Since experiments had indicated that radium was not formed as a direct decay product
of uranium, Boltwood began looking for an intermediate radioactive element. In 1907 he
discovered such an element and named it “ionium” for its ionizing action. Otto Hahn and
Willy Marckwald in Berlin discovered ionium independently at about the same time.
Ionium, later recognized as the thorium isotope
, explained why the Ra-U ratio
was not always constant. Gleditsch argued that if the half-life of ionium was assumed to
be 10
years (it is now established to be 7.54 10
years), this would explain why older
minerals had a constant Ra-U ratio while younger ones did not: radioactive equilibrium
had not yet been reached in the latter. This work, too, found a place in the most important
contemporary textbooks on radioactivity.
When Gleditsch came to the United States in 1913 her research addressed the half-life
of radium (
). Boltwood had estimated this half-life as 2,000 years by comparing the
amount of radium produced by ionium (
) to the amount in equilibrium with ionium
in uranium minerals. Rutherford and Hans Geiger, however, had calculated the half-life as
1,690 years by counting the number of alpha particles emitted by a salt with a known
amount of radium. Boltwood asked Gleditsch to look for the reason for the discrepancy.
She improved on Boltwood’s method by ensuring the complete isolation of ionium from
the uranium minerals, a challenging chemical task, and determined the half-life of radium
to be between 1,642 and 1,674 years. These values agreed well with Rutherford and
Geigers results. Today the accepted value is 1,605 years.
The determination of the half-life of radium is one of Gleditsch’s most celebrated
achievements: all of the expert evaluations pertaining to her application for a full profes-
sorship in 1929 highlighted this work. The half-life of radium was an important constant,
since radium was regarded as the standard substance in this research field. It was also
necessary for the estimation of the half-life of uranium. Direct measurement of the half-
life of uranium was impossible because of its large magnitude, but it could be deduced
from the half-life of radium and the Ra-U ratio. Even though Gleditsch’s figure for the
half-life of radium was later revised, Lawrence Badash argues that her work “had devel-
oped assurance that future changes would be small.”
The half-life of radium and the
Ra-U ratio also formed the basis for geological age determinations using the ratio of lead
to uranium (the Pb-U ratio), a topic in which Gleditsch soon became interested.
After World War I Gleditsch continued to work on radioactive isotopes and the age of
minerals. In 1916 she had isolated lead from the Norwegian mineral bro¨ggerite, a thorium-
rich uraninite (UO
) named after the Norwegian geologist (and university rector) Waldemar
Christopher Brøgger. The internationally acknowledged expert on atomic weights, Theo-
dore W. Richards at Harvard, had determined that the atomic weight of the lead from
Rutherford, Radioactive Substances and Their Radiations (cit. n. 42), p. 463; Curie, Traite´ de radioactivite´
(cit. n. 42), Vol. 2, pp. 440441; and Meyer and Schweidler, Radioaktivita¨t (cit. n. 42), p. 314.
Gleditsch, “Om radiums levetid og om dets aktivitetskonstant” (cit. n. 39); and Gleditsch, “Life of Radium”
(cit. n. 39). On the value accepted today see M. J. Woods and S. M. Collins, “Half-Life Data: Critical Review
of TECDOC-619 Update,” Applied Radiation and Isotopes, 2004, 60:257262.
Lawrence Badash, Radioactivity in America: Growth and Decay of a Science (Baltimore/London: Johns
Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 153, 92, 158 (quotation). For the expert opinions see Central Archive, Files of
the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, 1929, University of Oslo (Sentralarkiv, Mapper fra Det Matematisk-
Naturvitenskapelig Fakultet 1929, Universitetet i Oslo) (hereafter cited as SAO).
Gleditsch’s bro¨ggerite samples differed from that of common lead. Gleditsch therefore
assumed that the lead in bro¨ggerite was a mixture of three different isotopes: RaG (
the end product of the uranium series; ThD (
), the end product of the thorium series;
and the common lead present since the formation of the earth.
Determining the age of
bro¨ggerite required calculation of the ratio of RaG to uranium, which led Gleditsch to
investigate the isotopic composition of lead in the samples of bro¨ggerite. This, in turn, led
her to atomic weight determinations for chlorine and lead.
Together with Bjarne Samdahl
(later professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at Oslo) and her sister Liv, Gleditsch found
that the average atomic weight (and thus the isotopic composition) of chlorine did not vary
with the mineral source.
In sum, her work confirmed that the ratios of the isotopes of
elementswith the exception of leadhad not changed measurably since the formation
of the earth. Since the isotopes of lead are the end products of the radioactive decay series,
they are constantly being produced; thus the isotopic composition of lead depends on the
age of the mineral.
In the 1930s, the relationship between the radioactive decay series of uranium and of
actinium was an unsolved problem. Analysis showed that the amounts of actinium and
uranium present in uranium minerals were interdependent, which indicated a genetic re-
lationship between the two series. It was initially assumed that actinium was a branch
product of
. After Francis Aston’s 1929 discovery of the lead isotope
, assumed
to be the end product of the actinium-decay series, it seemed more likely that actinium
originated from a third uranium isotope, actinouranium (AcU,
). Gleditsch and her
coworker Ernst Føyn (later professor of chemical oceanography at Oslo) measured the
ratio of actinium to uranium in rare earths. They then calculated the amount of AcU in
natural uranium and confirmed that it is the ancestor of the actinium-decay series, just as
Regarding the work with Gleditsch’s brøggerite samples see T. W. Richards to Gleditsch, 29 Mar. 1916,
T. W. Richards Papers, HUG 1743.1.8, Box 3, Harvard University Archives, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and
T. W. Richards and C. Wadsworth, “Further Study of the Atomic Weight of Lead of Radioactive Origin,” Journal
of the American Chemical Society, 1916, 38:26132622. Today natural lead is known to consist of
(24.1 percent),
(22.1 percent), and
(52.4 percent): G. Pfennig, H. Klewe-Nebenius,
and W. Seelman-Eggebert, Karlsruher Nuklidkarte (Karlsruhe: Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe GmbH, Technik
und Umwelt, 1995). For Gleditsch’s publications after World War I see, e.g., Ellen Gleditsch, “E
tudes sur les
mine´raux radioactifs, I: La broeggerite,” Arch. Math. Naturvidenskab, 1919, 36:384; Gleditsch, “Studier over
brøggerit, et radioaktivt mineral, og en bestemmelse af dets alder,” Fysisk Tidsskrift, 1919, 17:101120; and
Gleditsch, “L’age des mine´raux d’apre`s la the´orie de la radioactivite´, Bull. Soc. Chim. France, 1922, 31: 351
See, e.g., Ellen Gleditsch, “Om atomvegtsbestemmelser av grundstoffer av forskjellig oprindelse,” Naturen,
1923, pp. 118129; E. Gleditsch and Bjarne Samdahl, “The Atomic Weight of Chlorine in an Old Mineral
Apatite from Bamle,” Arch. Math. Naturvidenskab, 1923, 38:310; E. Gleditsch, “Sur les poids atomique du
chlore,” ibid., 1924, 39:38; E. Gleditsch, “Sur le poids atomique du chlore,” Journal de Chimie Physique,
1924, 21:456460; E. Gleditsch, Margot Dorenfeldt Holtan, and O.-W. Berg, “Determination du poids atomique
du me´lange isotopique de plomb de la cle´veı¨te de Aust-Agder, Norve`ge,” ibid., 1925, 22:253263; and E.
Gleditsch and Liv Gleditsch, “Contribution a l’e´tude des isotopes, sur le poids atomique du chlore dans les sels
de potasse d’Alsace,” Journal de Chimie Physique et de Physico-Chimie Biologique, 1927, 24:238244.
Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham have also discussed this; see Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and
Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, “Stefanie Horovitz, Ellen Gleditsch, Ada Hitchins, and the Discovery of Isotopes,”
Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, 2000, 25:103108. See also Ire`ne Curie, “Sur le poids atomique dans
quelques mine´reaux,” Compt. Rend. Acad. Sci., 1921, 172:10251028. Liv Gleditsch, the first female master’s
candidate in chemistry at the University of Oslo (1923), earned her living as a high school teacher. Ellen probably
invited her to join in some of her research projects because she needed helpand maybe partly to include her
sister in the exciting world of science. Liv Gleditsch also participated in Ellen’s investigations into the electrical
conductivity of radon solutions at the end of the 1920s. See Ellen Gleditsch and Liv Gleditsch, “Elektrisk
ledningsevne av radonoppløsninger,” Arch. Math. Naturvidenskab, 1927, 40:38; and E. Gleditsch and L. Gle-
ditsch, “La conductivite´e´lectrique des solutions aqueuses de radon,” J. Chim. Phys., 1928, 25:290293.
uranium I (
) is the ancestor of the uranium-decay series and thorium (
) is the
ancestor of the thorium-decay series.
In the fall of 1939 Gleditsch helped the Hungarian refugee scientist Tibor Graf to come
to Oslo. He was an expert on Geiger-Mu¨ller counters and constructed several for Gleditsch
and Lars Vegard, a professor of physics. Vegard used his Geiger-Mu¨ller counters primarily
to study cosmic rays, while Gleditsch used hers to study the radioactivity of rocks, a field
she termed “radiogeology.”
The radioactive potassium isotope
, which was identified by Georg von Hevesy in
1935, has a half-life of 1.3 10
years and thus became important in determinations of
geological age. During their investigations of this isotope, Gleditsch and Graf discovered
that it emitted gamma rays with far greater intensity than had been reported previously.
They found, in fact, that the heat produced by the radioactive decay of
to 20 percent of the total heat produced in acidic igneous rocks. This discovery prompted
a reevaluation of the past and present heat balance of the earth.
Gleditsch retired in 1946, and her contributions to international publications in the field
ceased to appear. However, her keen interest in chemistry, and especially radiochemistry,
did not abate: for example, she attended the weekly Saturday seminars in nuclear chemistry
in the 1960s and wrote essays on the history of chemistry. Given her affection for France,
it is not surprising that many of her biographical studies, including a monograph on La-
voisier, treated French chemists. Yet she also found time for Scandinavian scientists. She
completed her last manuscript, on the great Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, just
before her death at the age of eighty-eight.
The International Federation of University Women
In addition to her research, teaching, and dissemination of science, Gleditsch was actively
engaged in the International Federation of University Women, at both the local and the
international levels, during the 1920s. This organization helped her to extend her inter-
national network beyond radiochemistry and was a resource and support throughout her
In 1918 three womenVirginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College in New York,
Professor Caroline Spurgeon of the University of London, and Rose Sidgwick, a lecturer
at the University of Birminghamlaunched the idea of a worldwide organization uniting
university women. Spurgeon and Sidgwick were, at the time, the female members of the
On the origin of actinium see Ernest Rutherford, “Origin of Actinium and Age of the Earth,” Nature, 1929,
123:313314; and Badash, Radioactivity in America (cit. n. 46), p. 209. For Gleditsch’s investigations with Føyn
see Ellen Gleditsch and Ernst Føyn, “Dosage de l’actinium dans les minerais d’urane,” Compt. Rend. Acad. Sci.,
1932, 194:15711572; and Gleditsch and Føyn, “Sur le rapport actinium-uranium dans les mine´raux radioactifs,”
ibid., 1934, 199:412414.
see Helge Kragh, “Isotopkjemi,” in J. N. Brønsteden dansk kemiker, ed. Børge Riis Larsen
(Copenhagen: Dansk Selskab for Historisk Kemi, 1997), pp. 5969, on p. 66. For Gleditsch and Graf’s work
see Ellen Gleditsch and Tibor Graf, “Dosage rapide du potassium par la mesure de son rayonnement radioactif,”
Arch. Math. Naturvidenskab, 1941, 44:6372; Gleditsch and Graf, “Sur la radioactivite´ des sels de potassium,”
ibid., pp. 145157; Gleditsch and Graf, “On the Gamma-Rays of K40,” Physical Review, 1947, 72:640; and
Gleditsch and Graf, “Significance of the Radioactivity of Potassium in Geophysics,” ibid., p. 641. For the
reevaluation the discovery prompted see Alexis Pappas, “100 a˚r siden professor Ellen Gleditsch ble født,” Kjemi,
1980, 40:5356.
On Gleditsch’s regular attendance at the Saturday seminars see Ernst Føyn and Alexis C. Pappas, “Ellen
Gleditsch 85 a˚r,” Aftenposten, 28 Dec. 1964 (morning ed.); and Jorolf Alstad, private communication, 14 Apr.
2004. For the biographies see Ellen Gleditsch, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1956); and Gleditsch,
“Carl Wilhelm Scheele,” Naturen, 1968, no. 6, pp. 353374.
British Universities Mission, a committee appointed by the government to develop closer
relations with universities on the other side of the Atlantic. The mission toured the United
States and Canada in October 1918; during their frequent returns to New York the English
women met Gildersleeve and discussed their experiences and plans. Gildersleeve particu-
larly recalls one event:
One evening, as I sat on a steamer trunk in Miss Spurgeon’s room at the old Women’s University
Club on East Fifty-second Street in New York, we three talked about the terrible war which
had just ended. “We should have,” said Miss Spurgeon, “an international association of uni-
versity women, so that we at least shall have done all we can to prevent another such catastro-
Miss Sidgwick and I looked at each other. “Then I guess I must rally the Association of
Collegiate Alumnae [an association of women college graduates],” I said. Rose Sidgwick added,
“And we must go back and talk with the British Federation of University Women.” That was
for me the birth of the International Federation of University Women.
These women were convinced that, by fostering friendship and understanding, women
graduates could help prevent another catastrophe such as the recent war; helping female
teachers and students to work abroad would be one way of achieving this. They had no
desire to set up a “separatist, ultra-feminine movement” but felt that some organized effort
was necessary to give women a chance to participate in international educational activi-
In 1919 university women from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada met in
London to found the International Federation of University Women (IFUW), and the fol-
lowing year the first IFUW conference was convened in London, with delegates from
organized groups in Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands,
Spain, and the United States, as well as representatives from incipient groups from Bel-
gium, Denmark, India, Norway, South Africa, and