Giesel, Friedrich Oskar

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Giesel, Friedrich Oskar

(b. Winzig, Silesia, Germany, 20 May 1852; d. Brunswick, Germany, 14 November 1927)

commercial chemistry.

Giesel was an organic chemist who distinguished himself principally through his pioneering researches in radiochemistry. A physician’s son who retained lifelong medical interests, Giesel pursued a career in chemistry. He studied from 1872 to 1874 at the Königliche Gewerbeakademie in Berlin. After a period of varied researach Giesel received his doctorate from Göttingen in 1876. He then collaborated at the Gewerbeakademie until 1878 with Carl Liebermann, with whom he continued to publish jointly until 1897. Concentrating upon alkaloid research, they achieved a partial synthesis of cocaine and patented the technique in 1888. Working at Buchler & Co.,.a Chininfabrik in Brunswick, Giesel had introduced, by 1882, alkaloid extraction with benzol homologues.

In addition to this main line of research Giesel developed the use of radioactive luminous compounds and published over thirty papers on radioactivity between 1899 and 1909. A past master at the art of extracting and preparing pure substances in phytochemistry, after the Curies’ 1898 discovery of polonium, he applied his craft to radiochemistry. By 1900 he had developed an improved method of fractional crystallization, producing a greater concentration of radium salts in a shorter time, by using bromide instead of chloride. One direct result of his highly influential efforts, by which pure radium bromide became commercially available for research, was the 1903 verification by William Ramsay and Frederick Soddy of the production of helium from radium. Giesel was the first to observe the decomposition of water by radium salts.

When his close friends and nearby colleagues Julius Elster and Hans Geitel obtained inconclusive results regarding magnetic influence upon Becquerel rays, Giesel provided a key to these rays’ non-X-ray character by his decisive proof of their magnetic deflectability in October 1899. Three years later, using a zinc sulfide screen as a detector of alpha radiation, Giesel was able to isolate an emanating substance allied with lanthanum but free from thorium. He provisionally named his substance emanium (proven to be pure actinium by Otto Hahn and Otto Sackur in 1904) to distinguish it from André Debierne’s 1899 thoriumcontaminated actinium preparation. In 1903 Debierne also found the gaseous emanation (actinon) in his own actinium.

Giesel noted, as he had with radium in 1899, that the activity of his emanium increased with time. He thus proposed in 1904, by analogy with the 1902 analysis of Rutherford and Soddy, that an intermediate substance was the direct cause of the emanation. By 1905 this intermediate substance was named both by Giesel and by another, independent researcher, Tadeusz Godlewski. Giesel called it “emanium X,” but Godlewski terminology, actinium X, is the name that has survived.

Giesel was elected to the Leopoldina in 1903 and received the honorary title of professor (1903), as well as that of doctor of engineering (1916), all of which indicated the high esteem he enjoyed for his many contributions to science. Particular gratitude was expressed by Rutherford in a letter to Giesel dated 3 March 1904:

I have followed with great interest your researches on radioactivity and I feel that I, as well as the scientific world, owe a debt of gratitude to you for your enterprise in preparing pure radium bromide for use of outside scientists. But for your aid, I feel confident most of us would have to be content with Barium chloride of Paris manufacture of activity about 20,000 [Rutherford Collection, Cambridge University Library, Add MSS 7653/G79].

The Altmeister of radium research in Germany, Giesel succumbed to radiation-induced lung cancer.


I. Original Works. A nearly complete list of Giesel’s works is part of Otto Hahn, “Friedrich Giesel,” in Physikalische Zeitschrift, 29 (1928), 353–357. Richard Lucas, Bibliographie der radioaktiven Stoffe (Leipzig, 1908), pp. 33–35, is a valuable supplement to Hahn’s list.

Ferdinand Henrich, Chemie und chemische Technologie radioaktiver Stoffe (Berlin, 1918), contains a communication from Giesel (p. 344) concerning Buchler & Co.’s commercial provision of pure radium salts and a table (p. 283), beginning with 1902, indicating the rapidly increasing price per milligram of pure hydrated radium bromide. Some of Giesel’s unpublished correspondence and other MS material is at Buchler & Co. in Brunswick, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and the Darmstaedter Collection, Staatsbibliothek, Berlin.

II. Secondary Literature. The following are partially derivative accounts: S. Loewenthal, “Leben und Werk des Professor Dr. Fritz Giesel,” in Braunschweigisches Magazin, 36 (1930), 33–38; “Friedrich Giesel und die Radiumfabrikation,” in Walther Buchler, Dreihundert Jahre Buchler (Brunswick, 1958), pp. 115–122.

Giesel’s successful deflection experiment is considered by Lawrence Badash in “An Elster and Geitel Failure: Magnetic Deflection of Beta Rays,” in Centaurus, 11 (1966), 236–240. Stefan Meyer and Egon von Schweidler, using similar equipment but different experimental technique, could not initially confirm that the effect they had observed was also due to deflection. Correspondence among Giesel, Elster and Geitel, and Meyer and von Schweidler dealing with this research during October and November 1899 was published by S. Meyer, “Zur Geschichte der Entdeckung der Natur der Becquerelstrahlen,” in Die Naturwissenschaften, 36 (1949), 129–132.

Giesel’s achievements concerning actinium, actinium X, and actinon are discussed in M. E. Weeks, Discovery of the Elements, 5th ed. (Easton, Pa, 1945), pp. 499–501; and H. W. Kirby, “The Discovery of Actinium,” in Isis, 62 (1971), 290–308.

Thaddeus J. Trenn