April 20, Glow Day (Marie and Pierre Curie)

Radium watch hands; Nobel Foundatin image
Caption from the Nobel.org site: “Radium hands from 1940-1950’s watches. (Photo licensed under Creative Commons, author: Mauswiesel, November 2011)”  The glowing watches to which these hands were attached sometimes caused problems; people who painted the radium on to the hands and the dial suffered a high degree of radiation-related diseases.  Modern watches that glow typically do not use radium.

On April 20, 1902, Marie and Pierre Curie succeeded in isolating a chunk of the element radium, one of the earliest radioactive elements studied.

For this work they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, with Henri Becquerel.

Pierre died in 1906, run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Marie won a second Nobel, in Chemistry, in 1911. Marie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, a disease probably caused by her having received so much radiation over the course of her career.


2 Responses to April 20, Glow Day (Marie and Pierre Curie)

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    One more instant — well, several more instances — of radiation poisoning that shouldn’t have occurred. When we worked the radiation compensation bill for downwinders in Utah and Nevada I spent most of a week reading through all the studies done on the ladies in Tucson who painted the radium dials, their diseases, their treatments (and more often lack of treatment), and the lessons learned about prevention.

    Most of the time, since the Curies at least, we’ve had a lot people who knew better, but who didn’t demand that full safety measures be followed at all times.

    We learned a lot from the radium painting stuff. Too often, we fail to apply what we learn.

    Where else do we fail to apply lessons learned? Well, there was the New London, Texas school explosion in 1937, and the Texas City disaster in 1947, and did they help prevent the West, Texas, disaster in 2013?


  2. mpb says:

    The use of the radium watch dial hands brings up the topic of occupational disease. The (mostly) women who painted the radium on the hands would “point” their brushes by licking them. Little was known of how bone-seeking isotopes worked. Marie Curie suffered.

    However, it was the study of the radium dial painters which led to so much knowledge of bone physiology and the effects of radio and stable nuclides on bone (Sr, Ba, Ca, Pb, Ra).


    “The Physiology of Bone” Janet Vaughan (who has her own interesting life aside from her research as one of the few women at Oxford.


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