Field of Science

Isotope and the hidden women of science

It was a century ago today that the word isotope first appeared in print, in a letter to Nature from Frederick Soddy, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in 1921.  Nature Chemistry has a Thesis column by Brett F. Thornton and Shawn C. Burdette ($) to commemorate the occasion, as well as a post up at the Sceptical Chymist.  The post is illustrated with a photo of a plaque which reads "At a dinner party held in this house in 1913 Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) introduced the concept of 'ISOTOPES'..."  Thornton and Burdette also point to the dinner party as the moment when the term isotope was coined.

But Soddy did not coin the word.  The woman who did coin the term, Dr. Margaret Todd, has been gently set aside and one is left to assume that the word came to Soddy out of thin air. Margaret Todd was a physician and novelist, one of the first women to enroll in medical school in Edinburgh after the exams set by the Scottish Royal Society of Physicians and Surgeons were opened to women.  She was gay.  She wrote a popular novel under a male psuedonym, but it's the single word she handed Soddy that is her most enduring authorial legacy.  You need a good Greek term, she told him.  Try this one.