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My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium, and It Killed Her (nytimes.com)
145 points by siyer on Dec 4, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 19 comments

Random tidbit, I lived a few hundred meters away from Marie Curie's place in my younger days (long after her death, in the 80's). A friend of mine in fact lived at her place. One day, the city decided to have radiation studies done and everyone in the area got visits from scientists - they took ground and water samples at multiple locations.

Results were communicated later - and radium, radon levels were more elevated especially at the old Marie Curie's house. However, nothing had been done following these findings.

Several areas in the city with radium and other radioactive materials have been found (older and newer dumps really!). Some areas are blocked off with radioactive signs, some houses have been destroyed for safety now.

Both our families moved. Note that the house also is at chemin du radium in France.

My friend's family and mine have left a few years later. All that to say, even recently there was still very little awareness and safety precautions being taken.

Some reference: http://www.franceinfo.fr/emission/le-plus-france-info/2013-2...

I thought this article was one of the best descriptions I've seen of the perils (both personal and teleological) of the scientific process.

"We should celebrate scientists not solely for their accomplishments but also for their courage and the tenacity required to discover anything at all. There are brave people out there working right now. They are brave not because they are killing themselves slowly or leaping from airplanes or catching rare tropical diseases, although scientists have done all those things. They are brave because of the intense emotional risks of trying to do something no one has done before by following your own lead. Radiation is a potent allegory for human life. Everything is always, inevitably falling apart; we are all in arrested decay. Our greatest achievements may become at best footnotes; few people remember us; we can’t know what will eventually come of our work."

"Radiation is a potent allegory for human life. Everything is always, inevitably falling apart; we are all in arrested decay. Our greatest achievements may become at best footnotes; few people remember us; we can’t know what will eventually come of our work."

And yet the human race is always, inevitably improving in every conceivable measure as a consequence of this individual sacrifice.

"Perhaps the most tragic demonstration of this involved workers at the United States Radium Corporation factory in Orange, N.J., which in 1917 began hiring young women to paint watch faces with glow-in-the-dark radium paint. The workers were told that the paint was harmless and were encouraged to lick the paintbrushes to make them pointy enough to inscribe small numbers. "

How awful is this ? I had never realized radiation had been so misunderstood back then...

The Radium Craze up to the nuclear bomb watching tourism of the Atomic Age are indeed quite bizarre to modern sensibilities. Or you could say they reflect an optimistic and romantic hope of what the future could bring, which we no longer have.

You might be interested in http://www.academia.edu/3586500/Half-Lives_The_Rise_and_Fall... , which writes that

> Prescribed Radithor by his doctor in 1928, Byers was dead by 1932 (aged 51), with his autopsy revealing that he had consumed approximately 1,400 bottles in afew short years — at least one every day. Radithor was a radium drinking solution promoted by one Dr. William Bailey (a fake name) whose products did in fact contain significant amounts of the element. The recognition that rich patients — and not just female industrial dial painters — were dying because of these products led “the federal government to act with far greater alacrity to help consumers than to assist workers.”

The Wall Street Journal published an influential article about Byers, "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off" which can be found on p. 18 here: http://www.case.edu/affil/MeMA/MCA/11-20/1991-Nov.pdf

Thanks for the pointer!

The comment about the jaw coming off reminds me of a story about phosphorus as a tonic:

> [I]n 1931 a Dr. G. Coltart wrote to the Lancet about an interesting case. A patient of his had come to him in 1904 complaining of feeling run down and so the doctor had prescribed a popular brand of tonic pills that contained both elemental phosphorous and strychnine but told the patient to stop taking them if the strychnine made him twitch. The patient had returned twenty-seven years later with an advanced case of phossy jw, the industrial disease that afflicted those in the match-making industrys, having taken the pills regularly during the intervening years. Asked why he had taken the pills for so long, he replied that he continued with them because they had never caused him to twitch! ("The Shocking History of Phosphorous", John Emsley, p. 58.)

The comment about the FDA reminds me of the 1937 Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy. As the WSJ article points out, the FDA only had the power to regulate adulterants or false advertising. They only had the authority to track down the toxic Elixir Sulfanilamide because it, technically speaking, was not an elixir. Hence why they couldn't control the sales of radium water which truly did contain radium.

(With free market beliefs, the idea was that the customer should decide, not the government.)

And the speculation about the possible stimulative effect echos the 1925 publication in JAMA by Martland, et al.,at http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=238584 :

> Minute particles of the radioactive substances ... produce, for a period of time, seemingly curative or stimulative reactions, to be followed later by exhaustion and destruction of the blood producing centers.

I was in a store recently in CA and I was all set to buy this beautiful silver tea platter for my partner, that is until the shop owner had told me it was made with radium. I had decided not to get it as I wasn't sure if could be potentially dangerous. I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of radiation in general(having studied physics and being aware that we're exposed to it constantly by light), but was I paranoid and overreacting?

Depends on the isotopes of Radium that were in it -- 226 Ra has a half-life of 1600 years, and 228 Ra has a half-life of 5.75 years.

Without the ability to measure things, I think you made the safer choice.

Thanks, this definitely makes me feel better. Now that you mention it, how would you go about measuring it, anyway? Would a Geiger counter do the trick(by measuring the sievert readings) or would you have to examine it more closely with other instruments?

For just determining if it's safe to take home - a Geiger counter will do. It needs to be able to count alpha & beta radiation, which they all pretty much do.

One would also help in checking for radioactive glaze used on Fiestaware plates.


It's a terrible story. The victims came to be known as "the Radium Girls," and you can find a lot more on it by searching on that:


It makes you wonder what we don't know about today. What are some of the things that we see with wonderment that in 50-100 years people will have the same reaction that you do with radiation today?

De-paywall-ified: https://archive.today/fxhwJ

>[...] Irène Joliot-Curie “had a penchant for asserting that anyone who worried about radiation hazards was not a dedicated scientist.” There are photographs of Joliot-Curie sucking a fluid up a glass tube to move it from one container to another, a practice called mouth pipetting. The historian Anne Fellinger has asserted that the substance is polonium [...]

We would be better served by the condemnation of lethal stupidity than the hollow glorification of scientific "heroes". We need the truth more than we need role models.

The truth at the time was that there was no known hazard to health.

According to http://www.academia.edu/3586500/Half-Lives_The_Rise_and_Fall... :

> Martland, on the other hand, emerged as a champion against any internal medical use of radium, alerting the AMA to its potential dangers as early as 1925

That's "Some Unrecognized Dangers in the Use and Handling of Radioactive Substances", at http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=238584 . It includes:

> when long lived radioactive substances are introduced into the body ... death may follow a long time after, from the effects of constant irradiation on the blood-forming centers.

Joliot-Curie was awarded her doctorate in 1924.

Have you read the article? The hazards were known, alright. And heroically ignored.

The article gives me the impression that the Curies' medical knowledge was primitive or nonexistent by today's standards. It makes it seem like they thought radiation would just magically cure cancer, like a philosopher's stone.

Does anyone know if this is correct? The article mentions that they knew radiation would kill tumors; did they know it just killed everything, but would kill the thing it was closest to fastest, or did they think it had magical specificity? Perey noted that francium would accumulate in tumors; did she know that tumors have faster metabolisms (the basis of a lot of treatments today) or did she think it had magical tumor seeking properties? If they were in fact ignorant by today's standards, were they ignorant by their own's?

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