Saturday, November 25, 2006


This NYTimes story is about a spy who died of polonium-210 poisoning. In spite of our good understanding of what radiation could do to us, this story still evokes horror.

Imagine an era in which radiation effects were known but poorly understood. Add to it an intense, obsessive passion for work that led to important discoveries of radioactive substances such as radium and, yes, polonium-210 too. In her excellent biography of Marie Curie (I mentioned it here, here, and here), Barbara Goldsmith dwells on the tragic consequences arising from just such a scenario:

[Even on her deathbed ...] Marie Curie never acknowledged that her beloved radium might have betrayed her. [...] A frequently asked question is, How could her denial have been so strong? How could the Curies expose themselves, their associates, and even their daughter Irène and her husband to the devastating effects of radiation? The answer, I believe, was love. It prevented Marie and Pierre from seeing radium with the same cold, scientific eye they brought to their other work. Even as they warned of the dangers of radium exposure, at their bedside the Curies kept a vial of radium salts to observe its beautiful glow before falling asleep. Marie referred to radium as "my child."

... As early as 1903 in his Nobel lecture, Pierre obliquely referred to Becquerel's accidental burn after placing the vial of radioactive barium salts in his vest pocket. ... [His] own fingers and those of his wife had become hard as cement with recurrent fissures that split open like red crags in clay. ... [In 1925] ... two engineers who were former pupils of Marie died after preparing industrial solutions of thorium X. Another had his fingers amputated, then his hand, then his arm. Subsequently, he went blind.

... There was no doubt that radium had destroyed Marie, slamming its raging power into her bones and organs. A century later, this contamination still clings to the preserved clothes she wore. ... When Irène Joliot-Curie died at fifty-nine in 1956, her death was duly noted as leukemia induced by exposure to radioactive substances. The main cause ... was her youthful exposure to X-rays and radon, exacerbated by a capsule of polonium-210 that exploded on her laboratory table fifteen years before her death. This deadly substance is readily absorbed into tissue and is too dangerous to handle even in minuscule amounts. Irène's husband, Frédéric Joliot, who ... died two years later from the effects of radium and polonium. With morbid humour, Frederic called death from radioactive exposure "our occupational disease."


  1. Anonymous said...

    This passage is lovely.

  2. Abi said...

    Anirudh: Thanks.