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Impearls: The Radiant (but not Irradiant) Marie Curie

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Earthdate 2003-07-03

The Radiant (but not Irradiant) Marie Curie

Marie Curie, famed to the world as “Madame Curie,” but who began life as Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, in what was then the Russian Empire — winner of Nobel Prizes in two highly technical fields (Physics, 1903, which she shared, and Chemistry, 1911, which she did not), a feat almost unheard of for anyone, male or female — passed away 69 years ago this July fourth.

Madame Curie's fame was great earlier in the twentieth century, and she has stood as a towering example for generations of aspiring young scientists female and male.  Since then her reputation has become somewhat clouded, for no fault of her own I'd say, partly due to public fears and paranoia about anything “nuclear” (Marie coined the term “radioactivity”), and partly since she was popularly (and even scientifically) supposed to have died (though at the not inconsiderable age, particularly for those times, of 66) as a result of extensive exposure to radium during her great work separating out the element from uranium ore.

Why either of these factors should taint her reputation — even given the public's phobia about radio-anything — is hard to understand, but the first as a reason for trivializing the reputation of a scientific giant is ridiculous and risible, I'd say (Marie Curie deserves better than having a cloud placed over her head by public ignorance and prejudice), and now the latter should finally be put to rest as well, as yet another in the large class of urban legends (though perhaps not known to be such until recently).

In 1995 Madame Curie's body was exhumed as part of granting her France's highest honor (first time for a woman, for her own achievements), burial in the French national mausoleum, the Panthéon.  To forestall the possible escape of radioactivity from her body during the process of reburial, France's Office de Protection contre les Rayonnements Ionisants (ORPI) took charge of the investigation.  An article in the scientific journal Nature describes ORPI's findings thusly: 1

Curie's body was found to be enclosed in a wooden coffin, surrounded by a lead coffin, which itself was inside a further wooden coffin.  ORPI found that the level of radiation caused by radium within the interior coffin was, at 360 becquerels per cubic metre, significantly higher than the 13 Bq m−3 found at the entrance to the cemetery.

But the level was still well below the maximum accepted safe levels of public exposure to radium of 7,000 Bq m−3.  Given that the half-life of radium is 1,620 years, ORPI has concluded that Curie could not have been exposed to lethal levels of radium while she was alive.

Although Curie's laboratory was highly contaminated with radium, an ORPI official points out that radium poses risks only if it is ingested either orally or through the skin.

ORPI therefore speculates that Curie's illness was more likely to have been due to her use of radiography during the First World War, when precautions to protect against X-rays had not yet been introduced.

Sounds pretty conclusive to me.  However one feels about France at present, whatever jokes might fly in that direction, no one can deny that France knows its nuclear power and ionizing radiation — about 80% of the electrical power needs of France (an advanced industrial nation) are supplied from nuclear sources.  If their ORPI says Curie could not have been exposed to lethal levels of radium while she was alive, I'm tempted to say Q.E.D.  Let's put paid to this urban myth.  And sleep well, Maria Sklodowska Curie.


1 Nature, Vol. 377, No. 6545 (14 September 1995), “X-rays, not radium, may have killed Curie,” p. 96 (article not available online).

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