Ego and the eponymous element

People are often surprised to hear that it’s perfectly legitimate to discover a new species and name it after yourself.  Legitimate, that is, but not (we pretty much all agree) in good taste. And yet, every now and then, a biologist names a newly-discovered species after him- or herself.*  Sometimes, the self-naming happens by accident (oops, Erhard Rohloff)**; sometimes it happen by subterfuge (nice one, Linnaeus); and sometimes it happens with a fanfare of self-adulation (really, Major Robert Tytler?). It’s not common, but among the millions of species names on record, some careful digging turns up a few unambiguous cases.

But it isn’t just species that get given eponymous names. Comets, mountains, cities… and elements.  Einsteinium, bohrium, curium… but Albert Einstein didn’t name einsteinium, Niels Bohr didn’t name bohrium, and Marie Curie didn’t name curium.  Has anyone ever named an element after themelves?  Well, I’ve recently stumbled across (here) the curious case of gallium.

Gallium is a soft, silvery metal (element number 31) sitting below aluminum in the periodic table. Its existence and properties were predicted by Dmitri Mendeleev, and it was discovered via spectroscopy in 1875 by the rather wonderfully named Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran.  Lecoq was a brilliant chemist and a pioneer in spectroscopy and in rare-earth element chemistry (gallium isn’t a rare-earth, but Lecoq also discovered samarium and dysprosium, which are).

A brilliant chemist, yes; but as an etymologist Lecoq was either slyly self-aggrandizing, or remarkably clueless. “Gallium”, you say?  In his 1875 paper, Lecoq didn’t specify the etymology for gallium. Two years later, he explained it was to honour France (from the Latin Gallus, or Gaul – the name used in Roman times for a resident of what is now France. Perfectly plausible, perhaps – but it seems Lecoq needed to say so because it was also true that gallus (lower case) is Latin for rooster – and Lecoq is French for the rooster. Did Lecoq name gallium, punningly, for himself?  The possibility did not go unnoticed at the time.

Several sources (including Wikipedia, that gold-but-not-gallium-plated standard) report that Lecoq denied the self-naming etymology. Evidence for this seems slim, actually. Lecoq’s 1875 paper mentions naming for France but does not elaborate further. An obituary (this one, footnote 5) claimed that Lecoq was eager to explain that gallium wasn’t in reference to roosters, but he doesn’t ever seem to have done so in print. In any case, what would you expect him to say – “Ha ha, you got me, but it’s too late, suckers”

It’s also inconceivable that Lecoq could have been unaware of what he was doing. The same pun that’s in gallium is the reason why the rooster is an unofficial symbol of France. It’s a symbol that was especially popular in the Third Republic, which began in 1870 just a few years before Lecoq’s discovery. He knew. So he was either clueless (thinking nobody would notice, or care), or slyly self-aggrandizing (thinking he should do it even if others noticed).  He might even have been eager to trumpet his own name’s ascendancy as an emblem of France.  The Lecoq de Boisbaudran family were Huguenots (French Protestants). They had been wealthy and prominent before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 led to official persecution of the Huguenots***. In Paul-Émile’s day, they had rebuilt their wealth (ever so Gallicly, through the selling of wine), and it might have been satisfying for the family to see their own name become symbolic of the country that once disdained them. This last part is utter speculation, though.

So did Lecoq name gallium for France, or for himself?  Most likely, the answer is “yes”. It’s the only plausible case of self-naming among the elements, and since element names are now vetted and approved by IUPAC, it will presumably stay that way. You have to admire the chutzpah, at least a little.

© Stephen Heard  October 27, 2020

Gallium is not the only fascinating element. For more – MUCH more – give this a read: Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements. It traces the presence of the elements in the world around us, in human history, and in arts and culture. It’s fascinating.

Images: gallium crystals © Maxim Bilovitskiy via CC BY-SA 4.0. What, you’d rather see them in someone’s hand, for scale? Better snap that photo quickly; gallium melts just below 30ºC. Lecoq, CC 0. French national football jersey: © TaraO via CC BY-SA 3.5.

*^Actually, it may not surprise you that in all known cases, the pronoun ‘himself’ suffices. There could be many reasons for this, but a sufficient explanation is low sample size: the rarity of ego-naming coupled with the historical exclusion of women from science may just mean it’s never happened to happen.

**^No, really, you can name something after yourself by accident. Rohloff did. If you’re curious about any of these kinds of self-naming, read Chapter 10 of my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.

***^I’ve written elsewhere about Pierre Magnol, another Huguenot, and one whose scientific career was greatly impeded by this persecution,

2 thoughts on “Ego and the eponymous element

  1. Pingback: A year of books (7): Is this the strangest assortment yet? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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