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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Radium and its "Medical Uses"

"Obsessive Genius" is a biography of Marie Curie written by Barbara Goldsmith.  In a previous post I mentioned that Marie was a Ph.D. candidate when she discovered radioactivity.  In this book I have learned many more things about her and her work.

Not only did Madame Curie discover radioactivity, but she found two new elements: polonium and radium.  It was thought that there would be medical uses for radium.  It had so much radioactive energy that it could be diluted 600,000 times and still retain its power.  Products soon appeared that were perceived as a cure for both real and imaginary illnesses.

"Minute dilutions of radium were added to tea, health tonics, face creams, lipsticks, bath salts, costumes that glowed in the dark, and so forth. La Créme Activa, purported to contain radium, was guaranteed to keep skin looking young. Curie Hair Tonic guaranteed no loss of hair. A bag containing radium worn near the scrotum was said to restore virility; a Cosmos Bag was strapped to the waist for arthritis. Radium toothpaste was said to preserve and whiten teeth, a radium inhaler to increase the vigor and enrich the blood.....Créme Tho-Radia...advertisements showed a beautiful blonde woman with flawless skin bathed in blue light.

"One could buy a Revigorator -- a flask lined with radium to be filled with water each night to drink the following morning.  Radithor, a drink containing one part radium salts to 60,000 parts zinc sulfide, was said to cure stomach cancer, mental illness, and restore sexual vigor and vitality.  An American industrialist, Eben Byers, drank a bottle a day for four years, at the end of which he died in excruciating pain from cancer of the jaw as his facial bones disintegrated."

It was a novelty to wealthy people who would carry  glass vials containing tiny particles of radium bromide in their pockets or purses.  In June 1903 when Marie received her Ph.D., the Curies and friends had a dinner to celebrate. "After the last toast, the group strolled out into the garden.  In the dark of the night, Pierre reached in his vest pocket and drew forth a glass tube of radium bromide.  Its magnificent luminosity gleamed as he held it up, illuminating an expression of rapture on Marie's face. It also illuminated the cracked flesh and burned skin of Pierre's irrevocably destroyed fingers."

By 1906, Pierre was showing signs of radiation poisoning in the bones of his back and legs.  He was in great pain, but he didn't die from the effects of it.  Perhaps mercifully, in April, he was run over by a heavily loaded wagon on a street in Paris and died.  Otherwise, his death would have been a very prolonged, painful one.

Marie was awarded her first Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of radioactivity in the fall of 1903, just months after she received her Ph.D., though the Nobel work was done a few years earlier before the degree was finished.  It was the first time one would go to a woman.  In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her "producing radium as a pure metal."  It was the second time one was presented to a woman.  The next time a Nobel Prize would be bestowed on a woman was in 1935.  It went to her daughter, Irene, in the category of chemistry.

By the way, do you know where the money for the Nobel Prize comes from?  In November, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and died the following year.  He had made a fortune after patenting dynamite in 1867, and left most of his money to be invested.  The interest was to be equally divided and awarded to those who make a difference in the world in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.  The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.  It is improper to refer to those who receive a Nobel Prize as a winner  Since it is not a competition or lottery, there are no winners or losers.  Instead, they should be referred to as a Nobel Laureate. (A Laureate is a recipient of honor or recognition for achievement in an art or science.)

Now you have heard something interesting.

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