Frederick Soddy, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921

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Frederick Soddy, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921

Birthplace: Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK
Death: Died in Brighton, Brighton and Hove, UK
Immediate Family:

Son of Benjamin Soddy and Mrs. Benjamin Soddy
Husband of Winifred Soddy

Occupation: Nuclear chemist, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921
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Immediate Family

About Frederick Soddy, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921

Frederick Soddy (2 September 1877 – 22 September 1956) was an English radiochemist who explained, with Ernest Rutherford, that radioactivity is due to the transmutation of elements, now known to involve nuclear reactions. He also proved the existence of isotopes of certain radioactive elements. He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1921, and has a crater named for him on the far side of the Moon.


Soddy was born in Eastbourne, England. He went to school at Eastbourne College, before going on to study at University College of Wales at Aberystwyth and at Merton College, Oxford. He was a researcher at Oxford from 1898 to 1900.

In 1900 he became a demonstrator in chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he worked with Ernest Rutherford on radioactivity. He and Rutherford realized that the anomalous behaviour of radioactive elements was because they decayed into other elements. This decay also produced alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. When radioactivity was first discovered, no one was sure what the cause was. It needed careful work by Soddy and Rutherford to prove that atomic transmutation was in fact occurring.

In 1903, with Sir William Ramsay at University College London, Soddy verified that the decay of radium produced alpha particles composed of positively charged nuclei of helium. In the experiment a sample of radium was enclosed in a thin walled glass envelope sited within an evacuated glass bulb. Alpha particles could pass through the thin glass wall but were contained within the surrounding glass envelope. After leaving the experiment running for a long period of time a spectral analysis of the contents of the former evacuated space revealed the presence of helium. This element had recently been discovered in the solar spectrum by Bunsen and Kirchoff.

From 1904 to 1914, Soddy was a lecturer at the University of Glasgow and while there he showed that uranium decays to radium. It was here also that he showed that a radioactive element may have more than one atomic mass though the chemical properties are identical. He named this concept isotope meaning 'same place' - the word 'isotope' was initially suggested to him by Margaret Todd. Later, J.J. Thomson showed that non-radioactive elements can also have multiple isotopes. Soddy also showed that an atom moves lower in atomic number by two places on alpha emission, higher by one place on beta emission. This was a fundamental step toward understanding the relationships among families of radioactive elements. Soddy published The Interpretation of Radium (1909) and Atomic Transmutation (1953). In May 1910 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society

In 1914 he was appointed to a chair at the University of Aberdeen, where he worked on research related to World War I. In 1919 he moved to Oxford University as Dr Lee's Professor of Chemistry, where, in the period up till 1936, he reorganized the laboratories and the syllabus in chemistry. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research in radioactive decay and particularly for his formulation of the theory of isotopes.

His work and essays popularising the new understanding of radioactivity was the main inspiration for H. G. Wells's The World Set Free (1914), which features atomic bombs dropped from biplanes in a war set many years in the future. Wells's novel is also known as The Last War and imagines a peaceful world emerging from the chaos. In Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt Soddy praises Wells’s The World Set Free. He also says that radioactive processes probably power the stars.

In four books written from 1921 to 1934, Soddy carried on a "quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships", offering a perspective on economics rooted in physics—the laws of thermodynamics, in particular—and was "roundly dismissed as a crank". While most of his proposals - "to abandon the gold standard, let international exchange rates float, use federal surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools that could counter cyclical trends, and establish bureaus of economic statistics (including a consumer price index) in order to facilitate this effort" - are now conventional practice, his critique of fractional-reserve banking still "remains outside the bounds of conventional wisdom".

He rediscovered the Descartes' theorem in 1936 and published it as a poem. The kissing circles in this problem are sometimes known as Soddy circles.

He died in Brighton, England. He had married Winifred Beilby, daughter of Sir George Beilby, in 1908.

The lunar crater Soddy is named after him, as is the uranium compound Soddyite, found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Frederick Soddy, the son of Benjamin Soddy, a London merchant, was born at Eastbourne, Sussex, England, on September 2, 1877. He was educated at Eastbourne College and the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

In 1895 he obtained a scholarship at Merton College, Oxford, from which University he graduated in 1898 with first class honours in chemistry. After two years of research at Oxford he went to Canada and from 1900 to 1902 was Demonstrator in the Chemistry Department of McGill University, Montreal. Here he worked with Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford on problems of radioactivity. Together they published a series of papers on radioactivity and concluded that it was a phenomenon involving atomic disintegration with the formation of new kinds of matter. They also investigated the gaseous emanation of radium.

Leaving Canada, Soddy then worked with Sir William Ramsay at University College, London where he continued the study of radium emanation. Here, Soddy and Ramsay were able to demonstrate, by spectroscopic means, that the element helium was produced in the radioactive decay of a sample of radium bromide and that helium was evolved in the decay of emanation.

From 1904 to 1914 Soddy was lecturer in physical chemistry and radioactivity in the University of Glasgow. Here he did much practical chemical work on radioactive materials. During this period he evolved the so-called "Displacement Law", namely that emission of an alpha-particle from an element causes that element to move back two places in the Periodic Table. His peak was reached in 1913 with his formulation of the concept of isotopes, which stated that certain elements exist in two or more forms which have different atomic weights but which are indistinguishable chemically.

In 1914 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, but plans for research were hampered by the war. In 1919 he became Dr. Lees Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, a post he held until 1937 when he retired, on the death of his wife.

After his period at Glasgow he did no further work in radioactivity and allowed the later developments to pass him by. His interest was diverted to economic, social and political theories which gained no general acceptance, and to unusual mathematical and mechanical problems.

His books include Radioactivity (1904), The Interpretation of Radium (1909), The Chemistry of the Radioactive Elements (1912-1914), Matter and Energy (1912), Science and Life (1920), The Interpretation of the Atom (1932), The Story of Atomic Energy (1949), and Atomic Transmutation (1953).

Soddy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1910 and Oxford awarded him an honorary degree. He was awarded the Albert Medal in 1951.

He was a man of strong principles and obstinate views, friendly with students and prickly with colleagues.

ln 1908, he married Winifred Beilby. He died on September 22, 1956 at Brighton.

From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1966

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Frederick Soddy, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921's Timeline

September 2, 1877
Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK
Age 30
September 22, 1956
Age 79
Brighton, Brighton and Hove, UK