From the New York Times Magazine this week, a terrific piece about Curie lab technician Marguerite Perey and sacrifice in the name of science: My great-great-aunt discovered Francium. And It Killed Her.
The more you read about how research progressed in the Radium Institute, the less romantic the story seems. Several potent accounts come from Elizabeth Rona, a chemist who worked in various European radioactivity labs. She wrote of a lab assistant, Catherine Chamie, who transported radioactive sources to and from a safe each day on a cart, shielded poorly by lead bricks; Chamie later died from exposure. One day, Curie let Rona watch as she casually burned off radon emitted by a flask of radium. The gas exploded, shattering the flask; neither wore protective gear. Rona records a litany of radioactivity researchers who followed Chamie, their lungs, hands and bones falling apart. The thumbs, forefingers and ring fingers of their left hands were especially prone to damage, because of the way they were exposed to the radioactive substances they poured from flask to flask without gloves.
Bryce DeWitt, the husband and colleague of Cecile DeWitt-Morette, a physicist who worked in the lab in the 1940s, related that Irène Joliot-Curie “had a penchant for asserting that anyone who worried about radiation hazards was not a dedicated scientist.”