Genius and Sacrifice in Early 20th Century Chemistry
December 7, 2014 7:46 AM   Subscribe

"Although radiation’s connection to cancer was known and the lab’s own employees had clearly suffered, the Curies made few adjustments to protocol." The descendent of a chemist in the Curies' lab recounts her great-great aunt's discovery of francium, followed shortly thereafter by a long, painful battle with cancer due to radiation exposure. In learning more about Marguerite Perey's life and untimely death a dark question emerges that complicates the cheery family folklore about a scientific hero: why did the Curies' take so few precautions for the health and safety of those who worked in their lab?
posted by thelaze (20 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
But it won’t help cure cancer. When I bring up Marguerite Perey’s ambitions for her discovery, Orozco replies: “Oh! No.” He sounds surprised at the idea.

I wonder what science is being done now that will, decades from now, be seen in the same light as this or perhaps the application of leeches.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:09 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why? Human nature. People take stupid risks all the time in all fields of endeavor. And with open eyes. Chemistry, it seems, just happens to have more intrinsic danger. Like lumberjacking or piano moving.

or perhaps the application of leeches.

Pedant alert! They were onto something with leeches. And maggots. At least in some cases.

Good post, BTW. Had never heard of Marguerite Perey.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:15 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


You can visit the Curie lab in Paris, by the way. It's very interesting. It was also decontaminated in 1981. 1981!!! So cut Marie some slack.
posted by Marauding Ennui at 8:29 AM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I found it interesting that Marie Curie herself died of aplastic anemia that some have speculated to be attributed to her groundbreaking work in (unshielded) mobile field x-rays in WWI, more than by her chemical research.
posted by fairmettle at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2014


I know scientists that seem to get a kick out of breaking certain safety rules, laughing at you if you are alarmed, telling you they know it's safe. I watched someone sniff a glass canister they were cleaning when the liquid inside stated bubbling, getting a big dose of chlorine gas. Waft, people, waft! And the number of people who STILL pipette by mouth even though we have those little rubber bulbs is insane- but they insist that you get more control. Food in the lab is the worst, as though the only thing that could contaminate your food is what you're working with now.

Yeah, there is some machismo. I think it is qualitatively different than the idea of sacrificing your health on the altar of science. At least in my field, that sacrifice is only in time and sleep.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:04 AM on December 7, 2014 [9 favorites]


I have a biography of Marie Curie written by her daughter, and at the time of her death the cause was attributed to a general collapse of her organs due to habitual overwork and exhaustion. Madame Curie would produce lovely glowing specimens to show around, from her pocket.

There was a cabaret performer who wanted a glowing costume with wings, that never got produced, but they became friends and would put on elaborate dance productions at the Curie house featuring various lighting effects.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:04 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks so much for this post.

I've written pieces now on both Marie Curie (mental_floss) and her daughter Irène (Modern Notion), and based on my reading about the family I think the reasons for their rash behavior in the lab were really complex.

Marie is kind of known for her monomania when it came to research, including living and working in atrociously poor conditions and having a very blinders-on laser focus that excluded anything she didn't feel to be essential. She was also extremely competitive and industrious—she was initially denied an education in Poland because she was a woman, and she engaged in a kind of work exchange with her sister which meant working herself to the bone for long periods of time. Even when she did get her education she had to fight for resources for her work. I think that by the time she was conducting her radium experiments with Pierre Curie, which involved processing huge quantities of minerals, she had lost touch with anything but getting it done. That brought us the great research, of course, and the legend, but it also created a culture of "get it done, keep your head down and your mouth shut, don't complain" that she very stringently passed on to her daughter and enforced at her own lab.

It's really sad, because the defiance and industry that made Marie Curie great also killed her, and her daughter, and a bunch of other people.
posted by mynameisluka at 9:07 AM on December 7, 2014 [21 favorites]


I think that by the time she was conducting her radium experiments with Pierre Curie, which involved processing huge quantities of minerals, she had lost touch with anything but getting it done.

In her day, in order to register a new element you were expected to produce and present a gram of it. An insane amount of redundant work was required to produce that quantity. Nowadays people discover new elements a few atoms at time, that only exist for fleeting microseconds.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:15 AM on December 7, 2014 [6 favorites]


"Until recently, it was generally believed that the extensive and prolonged exposure to radium caused her final illness. This seems not to have been the case, however. In 1995, Mme Curie's body was exhumed for reburial in France's national mausoleum, the Panthéon. Scientists from the French Office de Protection contre les Rayonnements Ionisants found that the level of radium emanations within the coffin was significantly lower than the maximum accepted safe levels of public exposure. Given these low levels and the very long half-life of radium (1620 years), the Office concluded that Mme Curie's final illness and death were probably not caused by extended exposure to radium. More likely, it was the direct result of her overexposure to x-rays during World War I, when she made significant contributions to military medicine through the establishment of mobile radiographic units. Thus, ironically, Marie Curie became a martyr to the advances in radiography and not to radiation therapy, the clinical specialty that developed from her epochal laboratory research."

- via Canadian Medical Association Journal
posted by fairmettle at 9:23 AM on December 7, 2014 [4 favorites]


Really an interesting article. So well written, you can almost hear them walking through the labs. Amazing people! When it was done she named the element Francium, not her name.
posted by Oyéah at 10:57 AM on December 7, 2014


> Why? Human nature. People take stupid risks all the time in all fields of endeavor. And with open eyes.

Taking stupid risks yourself is one thing, forcing people under your control to do so is quite another, and far more reprehensible.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]




Scientists from the French Office de Protection contre les Rayonnements Ionisants found that the level of radium emanations within the coffin was significantly lower than the maximum accepted safe levels of public exposure. Given these low levels and the very long half-life of radium (1620 years), the Office concluded that Mme Curie's final illness and death were probably not caused by extended exposure to radium. More likely, it was the direct result of her overexposure to x-rays during World War I, when she made significant contributions to military medicine through the establishment of mobile radiographic units.

I find this exoneration of Curie's work with radium extremely unconvincing because radium's decay products are prolific gamma emitters:
A sample of radium metal maintains itself at a higher temperature than its surroundings because of the radiation it emits – alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. More specifically, radium itself emits only alpha particles, but other steps in its decay chain emit alpha or beta particles, and almost all particle emissions are accompanied by gamma rays.[13]
and any damage x-rays can do, gamma rays will do as well, only much more so -- and because Curie was notorious for using a brightly blue-glowing jar of radium-enriched material on her nightstand as a nightlight!

And I have no patience with mealy-mouthed exculpations of Curie when it comes to those willful and knowing exposures of others, either; Marie Curie makes Mother Teresa look like a saint.
posted by jamjam at 11:53 AM on December 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Interesting article - although I found this jump to applauding scientists rather abrupt and arbitrary.

We should celebrate scientists not solely for their accomplishments but also for their courage and the tenacity required to discover anything at all.

The natural suggestion in the article in a way seems the opposite - that we won't and don't really care about most science - that its a choice of an existential project with the same instrumentality as any other choice. Ultimately meaningless.
posted by mary8nne at 12:06 PM on December 7, 2014




Marie Curie makes Mother Teresa look like a saint.

Why, did she teach Mother Teresa her trick for producing a mystical radiant glow?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:49 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Radium Girls could've shown old Mother T. a thing or two: For fun, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory.
posted by telstar at 7:06 PM on December 7, 2014


Sad and angry:
In 1925, three years after Grace's health problems began, a doctor suggested that her jaw problems may have had something to do with her former job at US Radium. As she began to explore the possibility, a specialist from Columbia University named Frederick Flynn asked to examine her. Flynn declared her to be in fine health. It would be some time before anyone discovered that Flynn was not a doctor, nor was he licensed to practice medicine, rather he was a toxicologist on the US Radium payroll.
Undark and the Radium Girls
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:25 PM on December 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I wonder what science is being done now that will, decades from now, be seen in the same light as this or perhaps the application of leeches.

Engineering, I think. Once people discover what engineering education does to the brain, engineers will be banned from discussing any topic other than engineering.
posted by happyroach at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2014


Engineering, I think. Once people discover what engineering education does to the brain, engineers will be banned from discussing any topic other than engineering.

What's with the engineer-hate on this site lately?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:16 AM on December 8, 2014


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