George De Hevesy

The discoveries of George de Hevesy have done as much as those of any other individual to influence science in the 20th century. Ironically, it was his inability to accomplish a task assigned by Ernest Rutherford in 1911 that led to his greatest discovery: radiotracers. Hevesy had just joined the research group at the University of Manchester headed up by Rutherford who was investigating the radioactive properties of radium-D (Pb-210). Much to Rutherford's annoyance, the lead with which the radium-D was associated interfered with his analyses. Not realizing that radium-D was a radioactive form of lead, Rutherford erroneously thought it could be chemically isolated and told Hevesy "My boy, if you are worth your salt, you try to separate radium-D from all that lead". Out of his failure to complete that impossible task, Hevesy conceived the radiotracer technique by which radioisotopes could be used to investigate the behavior of stable atoms. It is a technique second to none in its analytical power. Hevesy not only performed the first radiotracer studies on plants and animals, using both natural and artificial radionuclides, he also performed the first tracer studies employing stable nuclides by using deuterated water to measure the turnover of hydrogen in the body. In addition to these studies, which earned him the 1943 Nobel Prize in chemistry, Hevesy developed the technique of neutron activation analysis, perhaps the most powerful non-destructive technique for the elemental analysis of solid samples. Despite the importance of the radiotracer technique and neutron activation analysis, Hevesy took the greatest pride in his discovery of the element hafnium. In part, this was because of the magnitude of the effort involved and in part because of the important role hafnium played in the organization of the periodic table.

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