Erika Cremer was born in Munich, Germany, in May of 1900. She grew up in a family of scientists and university professors. Her older and younger brothers along with her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were involved in science research. Erika wanted to become a scientist, however, not many women were allowed in the science profession. Despite the negative environment for women to go to high school she graduated in 1921 and pursued her Ph.D., receiving her degree in Physical Chemistry in 1927.
After high school graduation she was able to attend lectures at the University of Berlin. Many of the speakers were Nobel Prize winners. Some of the speakers had invented such things as a method of manufacturing ammonia, the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics, crystal x-ray analysis, and developed the theory of quantum physics. She also heard lectures by Albert Einstein. She was able to work in Berlin as a scientist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute fur Physikalisches Chemie. Before its closure, in 1933 by Hitler, she was able to witness the first experiments with fission. She went on to do research in isotope separation earning awards and recognition from the Institute in 1938. Since she was a woman she was not considered for a position as a professor which usually followed these awards.
In 1940 she was appointed to the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Though she had developed plans for a gas chromatography machine the information was almost completely lost due to bombings and air raids. Her lab was destroyed during World War II. The only remaining copy of her notes was finally published 30 years later. By that time she had worked with students on her investigations and other scientists were studying gas chromatography as well. The new methods she had begun to develop in the 1940's started being used in the 1950's and improved upon during the 1960's.
Chromatography means color writing and is the process of separating different chemicals in a mixture. Different kinds of liquids or dissolved solids are poured through a median such as a tube of chalk or absorbent paper. The various chemicals collect at different levels in the chalk or paper as it is absorbed and is therefore known as absorption chromatography. Since gases have no color it is difficult to locate any change in the collecting material. Gases therefore needed a different substance/procedure for separation than liquids or dissolved substances. Erika Cremer developed the theory and early use of gas chromatography. She used a tube of liquid or solid and sent a moving stream of gases through the tube with the result that different gases travel at different rates and therefore separate and can be collected at the other end of the tube. This is useful in testing gaseous mixtures especially in hospitals. The ability to know what gases are in the blood help to understand different medical problems, enabling the doctors to prescribe accurate treatments.
The use of paper towels/coffee filters and water soluble marking pens to show absorption chromatography has been a fun project for physics class and scout meetings. Learning about gas chromatography takes mixture separation a step further.
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