Nothing less than an adventure: Ellen Gleditsch and her life in science

Nothing less than an adventure: Ellen Gleditsch and her life in science

Anne-Marie Weidler Kubanek

Montreal, Canada: Crossfield Publishing 2010 | 196pp | ?11.80 (PB)

ISBN 9781452842132

Reviewed by Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham


In this International Year of Chemistry and the celebration of the outstanding contributions of Marie Curie, it is widely overlooked that there were other women active in the field of radioactivity during that period. Ellen Gleditsch was one of those forgotten women radiochemists.

This definitive book finally brings recognition of the contributions of Gleditsch to the English-speaking world. In addition to researching correspondence of Gleditsch with contemporary scientists, Kubanek painstakingly tracked down and interviewed surviving relatives, friends, and former students of Gleditsch. Kubanek has woven their commentaries into this fascinating biographical study.

This volume will be a good read for those with an interest in the history of scientific endeavour and the challenges faced by women in science some decades ago. Gleditsch’s life was an interesting one, and makes for an intriguing read in its own right.

Born in Norway in 1879, Gleditsch first trained as a pharmacist. In 1907 she moved to Paris, France, and worked with Marie Curie on the extraction and concentration of radium. Whilst working with Betram Boltwood in 1913 at Yale University, US, she established a precise value for the half-life of radium. Gleditsch returned to work with Curie several times, and their friendship continued for the remainder of Curie’s life.

Kubanek has given a true sense of Gleditsch’s life in the context of a woman scientist in early 20th-century academia. In addition, there are interesting insights into the workings of the Curie laboratory. Kubanek should be congratulated for having filled a missing piece in the early history of radioactivity.