Engaging story on Marguerite Perey

Wondering what to do on your lunch hour? Thanks to several Chem 13 News readers who brought a New York Times magazine article to my attention, I spent mine reading about Veronique Greenwood’s great-great aunt, Marguerite Perey. The story is freely available online at the link provided and is called “My Great Great Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her.” It is the story of Perey’s discovery of francium when she worked at the Curie Institute in Paris. Greenwood provides a personal story behind the woman, describing Perey’s ambitions and unique approach to her research. It is an engaging read mixed with some good historical chemistry.

The story begins with the circumstances of Perey coming to work for Madam Curie and continues on to her discovery. One of the fascinating parts of the story is the safety conditions under which Perey worked while handling radioactive compounds. Greenwood describes the level of knowledge existing at the time that would have warned of the dangers of working with radiation. Greenwood recounts, “And yet from the beginning, there were signs that radiation had sinister powers. In 1901, Henri Becquerel, the first person to observe radioactivity, reported strange burns he received from the vial of radium he carried in his waistcoat pocket.” The dangers were never acknowledged and sadly Perey eventually developed terminal bone cancer, no doubt caused by her exposure while working.

The article laments that “…you almost get the impression that in the Curie lab, dedication to science was demonstrated by a willingness to poison yourself — as if what made a person’s research meaningful were the sacrifices made in the effort to learn something new.”

So plan to do something different this lunch hour — in the few minutes you might have remaining after giving extra help to students and preparing for the day’s lab — and sit down and contemplate the woman who discovered francium.

Marguerite Perey and Madam Curie smiling at outdoor bench.

Marguerite Perey (left) and Sonia Cotelle, who worked in the Curies’ lab and both died from the effects of radiation exposure. Image from the Musée Curie (coll. ACJC).