Nobel Prize Recipient. Francis William Aston received international recognition after being awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, he was given the coveted award "for his discovery, by means of his mass spectrograph, of isotopes, in a large number of non-radioactive elements, and for his enunciation of the whole-number rule." He received four candidacy nominations for the Nobel Prize in the year of 1922. A trained chemist, he became interested in the X-ray discovery and radioactivity at the turn of the century, and by 1910, he was an assistant to 1906 Nobel Prize recipient, Sir J.J. Thomson, at Cambridge University, and eventually, he expanded Thomson’s scientific finds. During World War I, he had to stop his research and became part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1913 Frederick Soddy, who would be the 1921 Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient, had theorized that certain elements might exist in forms that he called “isotopes” with differ atomic weights, while being indistinguishable and inseparable chemically. Aston developed the mass spectrograph in 1919. Using the mass spectrograph, he proved not only neon but also other elements are mixtures of isotopes, and his achievement is illustrated by the fact that Aston discovered 212 of the 287 naturally occurring isotopes. Born the second son of seven children of William Aston and his wife Fanny Hollis, he was educated locally at the Vicarage School and Malvern College before entering in 1894 Mason College in Birmingham. He studied chemistry and physics along with having a laboratory at home. Upon receiving a Forster Scholarship in 1898, he became a student of chemist Percy Faraday Frankland at Mason College in Birmingham, researching tartaric acid compounds. he held a position by W. Butler & Company Brewery, researching fermentation chemistry at the school of brewing in Birmingham. This ended in 1903 when he returned to the University of Birmingham as a scholarship associate under John Henry Poynting FRS, who had been the first professor of physics at Mason Science College, Birmingham University. Within a short time, he discovered the “Aston Dark Space,” which refers to dark space between the cathode surface and the cathode glow. He became a lecturer in 1909 at Mason College. The next year, he went to Cambridge University. He was the author of two textbooks, “Isotopes” in 1922, revised in 1941 and “Structural Units of the Material Universe” in 1923. His findings were published in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society” and “Philosophical Magazine.” Besides the Nobel Prize, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1921 and awarded the Society’s Hugh Medal the following year. He was awarded in 1923 the John Scott Medal and the Paterno Medal, in 1938 the Royal Medal, and in 1941 the Duddell Medal of the Physical Society. He was a member of several learned societies internationally including Russia and Italy. Besides science, he had a host of other interests including sports, in which he excelled in golfing, skiing, rock climbing, tennis, and swimming. He also was an accomplished musician playing the piano, violin, and the cello. In 1908 he received a large sum from an inheritance after his father’s death, and with that, he toured the world. He never married. According to a September of 2007 article in “Business Live,” to honor Aston’s 130th birthday a British Historical Blue Plaque was going to be erected on his birthplace but the house had been demolished in the 1960s. To add to the dilemma, his cremated ashes had been scattered in the family’s plot at St. Peters Churchyard Cemetery in Harborne without a marker for him. To solve the dilemma, the plaque was erected on a house that had been the family’s home some years later after his birth.
Bio by: Linda Davis