Readers discuss etymology and national service, and question if we should celebrate someone with Nazi links

The article about Ida Noddack is important, not so much for covering her scientific contributions, but for raising the question of what exactly she and her husband Walter were involved in during the pre- and war years.

Walter was, at the least, a willing beneficiary of the Nazi Party’s antisemitism and racism laws, taking a chair in 1935 at the University of Freiburg from the distinguished Hungarian-Jewish physical chemist George von Hevesy (awarded the 1943 Nobel prize in chemistry for pioneering the use of radioactive tracers in chemistry and medicine), who had fled Germany. The Noddacks moved to the Reichsuniversität Strassburg (RUS; the University of Strasbourg had gone into exile) in 1941, which at the time was the showcase Nazi university with over 80% of the professors being members of the Nazi party. Ida Noddack had her first paid position at the RUS.

We also know that Ludwig Franz Holleck, a confirmed Nazi party member, became Walter Noddack’s research assistant and close collaborator soon after Noddack was appointed to the University of Freiburg. During 1940–41 Holleck managed the treasury of the Nazi lecturers’ association in Freiburg and then went with the Noddacks to the RUS, as an adjunct professor of physical chemistry. This suggests that the Noddacks and Holleck were close over an extended period and shared Nazi views, as suggested by a biographer of the Noddacks.

Unfortunately, information on what they were working on during 1941–45 is not readily available, but it is reasonable to speculate that they were involved in some way with the German war effort, not least since they did not publish any scientific papers between 1940 and 1951. The RUS was then a centre for nuclear weapons research, with Rudolf Fleischmann conducting research on isotope separation. The notorious war criminal August Hirt was also dean of the medical school, where he set up the ‘Jewish Skeleton Collection’ from murdered victims of Auschwitz and the nearby Natzweiler-Struthof extermination camp.

All this raises the important moral issue of whether we should ignore any Nazi/antisemitism/racism issues and instead focus on Ida’s published work and her struggles as a woman scientist. The article concludes with a quotation from one of her biographers, that she should be remembered ‘for her bold thinking’, and the version of the article published online is headed ‘Celebrating science’s forgotten heroes.’ Others will disagree with this blinkered assessment of a Nazi-era scientist who never denounced Nazism. Her and her husband’s complicity in the working of the Nazi regime and its horrors far outweigh her personal scientific contributions. And that is what she should be remembered for.

Stephen Neidle FRSC
University College London, UK

Editor’s note: The article on Ida Noddack has been removed from under the heading ‘Celebrating science’s forgotten heroes’ on the Chemistry World website. We apologise for this oversight. 

At chemistry’s service

The article ‘Called to the lab’ reminded me of my national service in the Royal Air Force. I was called up after qualifying as an associate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and sent out to Singapore to work in the Petroleum and Materials Control Lab on Seletar air base. I worked in the lab from 1956 to 1958 testing aircraft fuels, lubricants and other materials. The lab was staffed with about six national servicemen who had the rank of junior technicians and two regular senior technicians who carried out octane rating measurements against calibration standards, which we prepared from tetraethyl lead in iso-octane. In charge of the lab was a flight lieutenant.

When the hydrogen bomb tests were due to take place on Christmas Island (now Kiribati), we were urgently required to fly out to set up a fuel testing lab. We flew out via Australia on an RAF Hastings aircraft together with our lab equipment packed in wooden crates. Our duties required the sampling of the aircraft fuel for the V bombers that carried the bomb and the Canberra aircraft that sampled radioactive material from the explosions.

We lived in tents and the island was overrun with land crabs. I was there for the first H-bomb tests in May 1957 (code-name Grapple) before returning to Singapore. Later there was concern that there could have been exposure to personnel from radioactive matter from the tests, and a link between the tests and premature deaths and cancer was contested for years.

John Weiner FRSC
Tranås, Sweden

All systems goat

I enjoyed Kat Day’s article ‘Nonsensical nomenclature’. It reminded me of my A-level chemistry teacher who had a dry sense of humour. He was teaching us the value of using systematic (Iupac) nomenclature for organic compounds during the early 1970s. At this time one had to be able to recognise and use both the ‘trivial’ and systematic names. ‘Take capric, caproic and caprylic acids for instance,’ he said. ‘Apart from their acid functional groups they have no similarity in their structures at all; their only common feature is their having the smell of a goat!’ 

Indeed, unlike capric acid, which shares its root with the 10th sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, caproic and caprylic acids don’t even have the virtue of having 10 carbon atoms, having six (hexanoic acid) and eight (octanoic acid) carbon atoms, respectively. 

Alan Crooks FRSC CChem
Salisbury, UK

I agree with Kat Day’s sentiments in her article on chemical names old and new, and as Chemistry World’s crossword compiler find great delight in some of the etymology of our non-Iupac molecular monikers. Indeed, I am the proud owner of a 1963 volume by W E Flood entitled The Origins of Chemical Names. However, I was a little surprised that Antoine Lavoisier was conspicuous by his absence in her article (perhaps just space issues or an emphasis on organic rather than inorganic names), though Lavoisier was the subject of Vanessa Seifert’s article in the same issue. As I wrote in an article to commemorate 200 years since the chemist’s untimely death at the guillotine (‘The Aristocrat who revolutionised chemistry’, New Scientist, May 1994), Lavoisier was also revolutionary in his transformation of the language of chemistry with the 1787 publication of Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique with colleagues including Guyton de Morveau, whom Day does mention.

Paul Board FRSC CChem
Rhos-on-Sea, UK

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