Elizabeth Rona (Róna Erzsébet)
The Polonium Woman
Radnóti Katalin
Eötvös Loránd Univesity
„Main characters”:
Róna Erzsébet
Francis Tangl, George Hevesy, Otto Hahn,
Stefan Meyer, Hans Pettersson, Ellen Gleditsch,
Irnene Curie…….
The origins in Hungary
Berlin, Wien, Paris, Oslo, USA
Palló Gábor (1992): Radioaktivitás és a kémiai atomelmélet. Akadémiai
Kiadó. Budapest
Róna Erzsébet doktori értekezése (1912): A bróm és az egyértékű aliphás
alkoholok. Budapest. 32 oldal
Róna, E. (1914a): Az urán átalakulásairól, Mathematikai és
Természettudományi Értesítő, 32, 350.
Róna, E.(1914b): Az urán átalakulásairól, Magyar Chemiai Folyóirat. 5, 42.
Róna, E. (1917) A rádium-emanáczió diffúzióállandója és atomátmérője,
Magyar Chemiai Folyóirat, 23, 156.
Rona, Elizabeth (1978): How it Came About. Radioactivity, Nuclear
Physics, Atomic Energy. Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
Maria Rentetzi (2007): Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental
Practices published by Columbia University Press
Elizabeth Rona (1890. Budapest -1981. Oak Ridge)
She was born in Budapest in 1890.
At the age of 21 Elizabeth Rona received her
Ph.D in organic chemistry, from the University
of Budapest (1912).
Now called
Eötvös Loránd University.
It consists only 32 pages.
It can be found in the library of ELTE.
For postdoctoral training she went to Karlsruhe
to study under Kasimir Fajans, who had just
announced his discovery of „pliades” (the term
was changed to „isotopes” by F. Soddy a year
At this time George Hevesy also returned
to Budapest from Vienna, where he and
Fritz Paneth had just finished reporting their studies of
the diffusion of lead solutions . They had used ThB
(thorium-B ), which we now call Pb-2l2. Thus a
radioactive „isotope” has been an „indicator” in 1913.
Hevesy asked Elizabeth to check a small detail in a
current radiochemical argument. G. N. Antonoff in
Rutherford's Manchester laboratory had discovered
UY, now termed Th-231, but F. Soddy and A. Flecks
in Glasgow could not confirm.
The transformations of Uranium 1914.
Elizabeth followed Hevesy's suggestion and
verified the existence of UY.
In today’s nomenclature it would be written as:
Hungarian Sciences Academy
She was only 24 years old.
“On this sequence it is unusual, that both of the branches are a result of 
transformation, we didn’t see anything like this before and we thought
these branches can only be that some of the atoms emit  and others emit
β rays.”(Rona 1914)
Only after the isotope uranium-235 had been discovered (1935) and
established as the first element of a new series (the actinoid series) was UY
found to be an isotope of thorium: thorium-231, daughter of uranium-235 and
parent of protactinium 231.
Radioactive tracing was the discovery of four scientists.
One of them was Elizabeth Rona.
One interesting research project was the determination
of the diffusion constant of radon in water and its
atomic radius in 1917.
Eva Ramstead, a Swedish scientist, verified her
results in Stockholm. They met many years letter.
Francis Tangl, a well-know
and physiologist at the
University of Budapest
offerd her a new job.
He needed a scientist who could set up courses
to complement the chemical training of his
graduate and postgraduate students.
The political situation in Hungary changed suddenly
and dramatically. Otto Hahn offered her a fellowship
to work in their radioactivity department in the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem. Elizabeth Rona
joined Otto Hahn's staff in Berlin to separate ionium
(now Th-230) from uranium ores.
Stefan Meyer offered her a position
at the Radium Institute in Vienna.
 The atmosphere at the institute was most
pleasant. They were all members of one
family. The almanac of the Austrian Academy
of Sciences from 1919 to 1934 serves there
were 113 scientists, 43 women and 70 men,
who conducted research at the institute.
"This is an ideal institute for work.„(Rona 1978)
Kara-Michailova, Berta Karlik,
Rona and ?
Stefan Meyer
Elizabeth Rona at the Radium Institute, c 1925. and later
Source: Agnes Rodhe, personal archive.
Hans Pettersson
"The contamination of the Radium
Institute was too high to permit
small amounts of radium to be determined.
The needed equipment was moved to the
oceanographic station in Bornö on
Gullmarfjord, in south Sweden. Here, I spent
many summer months, staying sometimes well
into the fall." (Rona)
Artificial radioactivity
Rona joined the staff of the Curie Institute in Paris to learn polonium
separation from Irene Curie. She came to Paris in 1928.
, "I had the opportunity to hear a first-hand report about this
fundamental discovery which was to have such far-reaching
consequences for different branches of science. The talk was given
by Irene Joliot-Curie." (Rona)
During their visit, Rona and Karlik entertained the couple in Vienna.
The Joliot-Curies invited Rona to Paris and work with them on
problems of artificial radioactivity, she gladly accepted.
Rona left the Radium Institute for Budapest on
April 7, 1938. It was not only the rise of the
Nazis within the institute that threatened Rona,
but her everyday life became troublesome as
 At the age of 48 and after 13 years of work at
the Radium Institute, Rona was looking for a
new job (and a new home).
Her close friend Ellen Gleditsch offered her an
another temporary solution. She invited Rona
to spend a year in Oslo.
Ellen Gleditsch (1879–1968) shortly after her appointment as professor in 1929.
Reprinted by permission of Nils Petter Gleditsch.
After one last visit to Vienna in January 1941,
Rona fled to the United States.
She was able to obtain her first position at
Trinity College, a Catholic College for women
in Washington, D.C., as a chemistry teacher.
A year later, she was invited to work for the Office of
Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), using her
expertise in preparing polonium for work related to the war
She was able to forge a new career in the United States.
In 1950 she joined the teaching staff of a new school at the
Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies.
In 1965, after fifteen years, she retired, but then spent another
decade on the staff of the Institute of Marine Sciences of the
University of Miami, as a professor of chemistry.
Elizabeth Rona returned to Oak Ridge where she wrote about
her career. The 75-page booklet printed in 1978 was a short
history of the radioactive tracer method.
Copyright 1999, Oak Ridge Associated Universities
This example of a Frisch Grid
ionization chamber
was constructed in 1959
at Oak Ridge Associated Universities
(then the Oak Ridge Institute
of Nuclear Studies).
It was designed by Elizabeth Rona.
Copyright 1999, Oak Ridge Associated Universities
Rabbits are sample holders/transfer
devices used to expose materials
to neutrons, e.g., as in
neutron activation analysis (NAA).
In NAA, the sample is placed inside the rabbit and transferred
via a pneumatic line to a reactor core or other neutron source
for activation. Afterwards, the induced radioactivity in the
sample is analyzed.
The examples shown here were used by Elizabeth Rona who
worked at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) in the
1950’s. The reactor she utilized was probably the Oak Ridge
Graphite Reactor.
She died in Oak Ridge on July 27, 1981.
Her work is less known in Hungary, fewer
references can be found in Hungarian than in
We try to uncover and open to the public her
career to recover her reputation, by writing
articles, giving lectures about her and
referencing to her Hungarian publications and
her early work with Nobel-prize winner
George Hevesy.
Thank you for
your kind

Elizabeth Rona