George de Hevesy (1885-1966)

George de Hevesy (1885-1966)

George de HevesyGeorge de Hevesy

Nobel laureate chemist

Discoverer of radioactive tracing and the chemical element called hafnium, Hevesy was originally born in Budapest, Hungary as George Bischitz, but the family's original name soon changed to Hevesy. Hevesy pursued his studies in chemistry at the University of Budapest, and at the Technical University of Berlin, and acquired his doctorate in physics in 1908 from the University of Freiburg.

University of BudapestUniversity of Budapest

During World War I, he served in the Hungarian army, and once the war was over, he conducted research at the institute for Chemistry of the Budapest College of Veterinary. Later, he took the position offered at the Budapest University of Technology. Similar to lots of Central and Eastern European scientists, Hevesy carried out the majority of his research abroad: in Zürich, Manchester, Freiburg, and Stockholm. He worked in Niels Bohr's laboratory in Copenhagen several times. This is where he discovered the No.72 element, the hafnium in 1922.


Aware of the growing hostility of the Nazis, Hevesy and his family escaped from Copenhagen to Stockholm in 1943. Hevesy gained valuable experience in the field of radioactive isotopes.


The silvery, heavy hafnium so far is used only for a few special technical applicationsThe silvery, heavy hafnium so far is used only for a few special technical applications

In 1911 he started to work in Ernst Rutherford's famous laboratory in Manchester. During three years, he participated in the fundamental experiments relating to the structure of the atom and the No.238 element uranium. The task Rutherford proposed for him was the separation of the newly discovered radioactive isotope radium-D from ordinary, stable lead with which it occurred. Since the experiments proved to be unsuccessful for two years, Hevesy came to the conclusion that a separation was impossible. (In fact, radium-D was a radioactive isotope of lead.)

The chemical symbol of hafniumThe chemical symbol of hafnium

Hevesy found that if the active substance is inseparable from the inactive one, the non-radiating lead could be traced by detecting the adjoining radiating radium-D. This principle forms the basis of using radioactive isotopes as tracers in many different applications. Among his notable achievements, he worked out a radioactive tracing system. The core point of this method is that once radioactive isotopes are added to an element of identical chemical behaviour, based on the radioactive emission, the element can be traced. This method provided chemists and medical experts with the opportunity of tracing a wide range of processes occurring in living organisms, which they had not even dreamt about before.


Hevesy was awarded the 1943 Nobel Prize in chemistry, which he actually received a year later.

The bust of George de HevesyThe bust of George de Hevesy