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Died in the cause of research

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Seventy-five years ago, on 4 July 1934, Marie Curie, pioneer in the field of radiation, died in France of aplastic anaemia. She was 66. Her achievements had included the creation of a theory of radioactivity (a term that she herself coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes and the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium.

Mme Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize, when she and her husband Pierre shared the 1903 physics prize with Henri Becquerel for their work on radiation. And, in 1911, she became the first person to receive a second Nobel prize, when she was awarded the chemistry prize for her work on polonium and radium.

During the 1914–18 war, Mme Curie turned her attention to radiotherapy. She collected “radium emanation”, a colourless gas given off by radium and later identified as radon, which she sealed in thin glass tubes about 1cm long. These were then encased in platinum needles and inserted into patients’ bodies so that the radiation would destroy diseased tissue.

By the end of the war it was becoming clear that even low-dose radiation was harmful if exposure was prolonged or repeated. And Marie Curie had already received large doses. She had walked around with test tubes of radioactive materials in her pockets, and she had stored them in her desk drawer, commenting on their pretty blue-green glow in the darkness.

In 1920, she had a series of operations for cataracts, which today we know can be caused by radiation exposure.

In 1925 Mme Curie sat on a commission that recommended the use of lead screens and periodic blood tests for workers in industrial laboratories where radioactive materials were prepared. She insisted that her own pupils took precautions, but she herself continued to work without adequate protection.

The anaemia that killed her was almost certainly the result of prolonged exposure to ionising radiation. (Her husband did not share her fate, having died in a road accident in 1906.)

By the time of her death, Marie Curie had had so much exposure to radiation that some of her research papers, and even her cookery book, had to be stored in lead-lined boxes. To this day, anyone wishing to study them must wear protective clothing.

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