The Curie laboratory and #chemsafety

Marie Curie at the Radium Institute in France in April, 1921. Credit: National Archive of the Netherlands, via

Marie Curie at the Radium Institute in France in April, 1921. Credit: National Archive of the Netherlands, via

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.”

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I have always marveled at stories like this. Marie Curie lived into her sixties and worked with radioactive materials for a long time. The stories of her death are not filled with the horrors of her body falling apart or death by exposure. Is this because of better technique, better genes or propaganda? Is she an outlier in the statistics or just average? I do believe that some people are more likely to suffer the ill effects of exposure whether it is radiation or chemical and that they are more likely to get the media’s attention. Similar to how we, as a society, get worked up about possibly dying in a plane crash but we are more likely to die in a car crash. The media never tells the story of all the people that survived working with dangerous materials just the ones about the people who have died because of it.

  2. In Curie’s case, I suspect that propaganda should not be discounted. From her obituary (then called necrology) in C&EN’s predecessor, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry, July 10, 1934, page 248:

    “Marie Sklodowska Curie, known throughout the world as Madame Curie, the co-discoverer, with her husband Pierre, of radium, died July 4 in her sixty-seventh year in a sanitarium near Sallanches, France. Seldom in really robust health and frail for the past few years, Madame Curie was nevertheless not believed to be so seriously ill. She had been for five weeks in a Paris clinic and it was at first through that her ailment was such that a transfer to the mountain districts would be beneficial. However, it seems that her family knew how ill she was. The press reports that her death was due to a form of pernicious anemia, hastened by ‘a long accumulation of radiations,’ which prevented her from reacting normally to the treatment for the disease.”

    And in the NYT:
    “Her death, which was caused by a form of pernicious anemia, was hastened by what her physicians termed ‘a long accumulation of radiations’ which affected the bones and prevented her from reacting normally to the disease. Mme. Curie went to Sallanches last Friday after having been for five weeks in a Paris clinic. It was thought at first that she had suffered a lung ailment and for that reason she was sent to the mountains. Her death came as a surprise to all but her family and intimate friends, for the rare modesty of her character never deserted her and she did not allow the public to know how ill she was.”

    It sounds to me as though there was more going on behind that “form of pernicious anemia” made worse by radiation, and that Curie was more ill for a longer time than the public knew.

  3. The impact of radium exposures in that time frame are well documented in the fates of the Radium Girls. Their exposures to radium were higher and faster-acting than Doctor Curie’s, but I suspect that she had a similar experience. The good news from this story is that Dr. Glenn Seaborg learned from their experiences and developed protocols for the Plutonium labs he ran in the Manhattan Project that provided much better protection for this laboratory workers.

  4. I remember reading a biography of Madame Curie when I was a girl. I was struck by the biographer’s description of how Curie would spend hours in the lab, forgetting to eat, and how she would neglect to pay for heat in her flat. It left me with the impression thst Madame Curie wasn’t in the best of health. The stuff that makes an impression on you when you’re young.