What killed Madame Curie? (Part 1)


July, 1934

I was called to investigate the recent death of a famous physicist: Marie Curie, born Manya Skłodowska.  When I arrived on the scene, she was in her death-bed, her face long and grey, a ghostly shadow in the warm light of the mountain sanatorium.  Her daughter Eve was there.  “It’s so quiet,” she said, “so fearfully motionless—”

We made our introductions, but she was obviously distracted.  “So motionless, those hands.  No longer nervously shaking, constantly moving, always working…”

I took a look at the hands, still and limp on the bed.  They were hardened, calloused, deeply burned and thick-skinned.  “What is this?” I asked myself, but I must have said it out loud because Eve heard me.

“Radium,” she said.


“Those were her last words— ‘Was it done with radium or with mesothorium?’  As she was stirring her tea with a spoon— no, no, not a spoon, but a glass rod or some delicate laboratory instrument…  She had drawn away from human beings; she had joined those beloved ‘things’ to which she had devoted her life, and joined them forever.”

A cup of tea and now dead?  That didn’t sound good.  “Poisoned?” I asked.  I never mind stating the obvious.

“Yes, poisoned.  By radium.  In the laboratory, she always used to say, ‘That polonium has a grudge against me.'”

“Radium— or polonium?”


“A conspiracy?”

I could see the news was shocking to her— she didn’t know what to say.  A doctor entered the room to pick up a chart.  I followed him; maybe he’d have some answers.  “The disease was an aplastic pernicious anaemia of rapid, feverish development,” he said, and I scribbled in my notebook as fast as I could to get it all down.  “The bone marrow didn’t react, probably because it had been injured by a long accumulation of radiations.”

“Radiations, eh?”

“That’s her killer.”  My ears perked.  He went on to tell me that the most distinguished doctors in France had attended her case, to no avail.  Sometimes they said it was grippe and sometimes bronchitis; no one had ever seen the like.  But one thing was sure: those radium and polonium figures were behind it all.  The doctor gave me a lead, one Professor Regaud, a colleague of the late Madame.

“Marie Curie can be counted among the eventual victims of the radioactive bodies which she and her husband discovered.”

“She knew her killer?”

“Better than anyone in the world, and yet not well enough, I’m afraid.”

“Tell me more about this discovery of hers— or theirs?  Where is her husband?”

“Oh, dear, you don’t know?  He died more than twenty years ago.  Run over by a car.”

“Sounds unrelated.  What about this radium?”

“Yes, it was the first element discovered by radiation.  It makes the air conductive to electricity— Pierre and his brother Jacques invented an instrument sensitive to its subtle rays, an electrometer.  Well, the electrometer actually measures the small electric currents that are then induced through the conductive air, but the energy creating those currents came from radiation.  Marie used the electrometer to identify all of the radioactive elements, and then to discover a radioactive source more powerful than any known element, buried in pitchblende.  Since it could not have been one of the known elements, she postulated that a new element was at work: radium!”

Scribbling all of this down, I double-underlined pitchblende.  “What’s pitchblende?”

“Oh, nasty stuff.  It’s black and sooty— mostly uranium oxide, but the Curies used a depleted ore in their studies.  You see, she wasn’t interested in the uranium, that was known; it was the idea that there are new elements, producing the same sort of rays but far more active, that excited her.  When the carriage arrived from Bohemia with the stuff, she dug her hands into it— she just couldn’t wait to extract its secrets!”

“Her hands!  The marking on her hands!” I exclaimed.  “It’s because she went digging around in radioactive soot!”

“I should say it was not merely that incident,” the Professor continued, somewhat annoyed, “it could be attributed to a lifetime of radiochemical research, handling highly concentrated radioelements with only a glass vial or small metal box to protect her hands, stirring literally tonnes of bubbling pitchblende in a cauldron, draining off the inert metals, in a stinking shed with no proper ventilation: that’s your culprit, gumshoe!  Dedicated service to Humanity!”

So early in the case, and already solved: radioactive mud and service to humanity— it seemed so simple.  I caught up with Eve at her home, where she was writing her mother’s biography.  Papers were stacked on a concert piano, and old scientific notebooks were open and strewn about the house.

“Look at this—” she said, holding up what must have been an electrometer, “they’re still active.  Even the notebooks are radioactive after all of these years.  Their ‘living activity’ has outlived their authors.”

“That’s the key to the mystery,” I informed her, “radioactivity killed your mother.  That, and humanity.”

She seemed underwhelmed.  “Well you’re the last to be surprised,” she said finally.  “It’s hardly mysterious that Mé’s intimacy with her work was killing her.  Her blood tests were always abnormal.  She made her pupils handle tubes with pincers and protect themselves with lead bucklers, but it was too late for her.  Here,” she said, pulling out a transcript from an old journal, “this is Papa’s description of the lesion he raised on his arm.  As soon as he heard that the radium rays had physiological effects, he exposed his arm, indifferent to the danger, and overjoyed to see the bruise develop.

I scanned the scientific-looking description, and could detect the glee hidden behind the report: “After the action of the rays,” it read, “the skin became red over a surface of six square centimeters; the appearance was that of a burn, but the skin was not painful, or barely so.  At the end of several days the redness, without growing larger, began to increase in intensity; on the twentieth day it formed scabs, and then a wound which was dressed with bandages…”  It went on and on, including similar lesions unintentionally inflicted upon Marie’s hands.

“But for all of that, we still don’t know what it is,” she mused.

“Sure we do— it’s radiation.  It comes from chemicals and kills people.  Mysterious rays…”

She snorted.  “Is that the depth of your investigations, detective?  Don’t you have the least curiosity of what really killed her?  Whence cometh the radio-atom? Listen to this: this was Mé’s favorite story about those days.  She and Papa had just spent four years extracting the millionth part from pitchblende, and only a tenth of a gram of radium salts to show for it.  At home, after putting the baby to bed (that’s my older sister, Irène), Marie sat down and made some stitches on the hem of Irène’s new apron.”  (She was at this point reading from her manuscript.)  “One of her principles was never to buy ready-made clothes for the child: she thought them too fancy and impractical.  In the days when Bronya was in Paris, the two sisters cut out their children’s dresses together, according to patterns of their own invention.  These patterns still served for Marie.

“But this evening, she could not fix her attention.  Nervous, she got up; then, suddenly: ‘Suppose we go down there for a moment?’ There was a note of supplication in her voice— altogether superfluous, for Pierre, like herself, longed to go back to the shed they had left two hours before.  Radium, fanciful as a living creature, endearing as a love, called them back to its dwelling, to the wretched laboratory.

“The day’s work had been hard, and it would have been more reasonable for the couple to rest.  But Pierre and Marie were not always reasonable.  As soon as they had put on their coats and told Dr. Curie of their flight (they lived with Pierre’s father), they were in the street.  They went on foot, arm in arm, exchanging few words.  After the crowded streets of this queer district, with its factory buildings, wastelands and poor tenements, they arrived in the Rue Lhomond and crossed the little courtyard.  Pierre put the key in the lock.  The door squeaked, as it had squeaked thousands of times, and admitted them to their realm, to their dream.

“‘Don’t light the lamps!’ Marie said in the darkness.  Then she added with a little laugh: ‘Do you remember the day when you said to me, “I should like radium to have a beautiful color”?’

“The reality was more entrancing than the simple wish of long ago.  Radium had something better than ‘a beautiful color’: it was spontaneously luminous.  And in the somber shed where, in the absence of cupboards, the precious particles in their tiny glass receivers were placed on tables or on shelves nailed to the wall, their phosphorescent bluish outlines gleamed, suspended in the night.

“‘Look… Look!’ the young woman murmured.

“She went forward cautiously, looked for and found a straw-bottomed chair.  She sat down in the darkness and silence.  Their two faces turned toward the pale glimmering, the mysterious sources of radiation, toward radium— their radium.  Her body leaning forward, her head eager, Marie took up again the attitude which had been hers an hour earlier at the bedside of her sleeping child.

“Her companion’s hand lightly touched her hair.

“She was to remember forever this evening of glowworms, this magic.”

I let her revel in the magic for a moment before asking the hard questions.  “Where can I learn more about this radioactivity?”  The killer was evidently more intimate with the Curies— both of them— than I had thought.  I hate messy cases.

“Well now that the world’s foremost expert is no longer with us,” Eve began slowly, “I suppose you could ask an Italian by the name of Fermi, Enrico Fermi.  I hear from Irène that he has just proposed an exciting new explanation for radioactive beta decay— it has all our colleagues buzzing.”

“Italian, eh?”  I could only think of one thing: mob connections.  This case was getting messier by the minute.  Still, there’s a killer out there, and I swear I’m going to get to the bottom of it, no matter how long it takes.

28 Responses to “What killed Madame Curie? (Part 1)”

  1. sandra moore Says:

    very imaginatively vividly written,it captures the sense of the moment.the Curies remained full human beings at a time and in a world where science began to be impersonal ,factual, andoverwhelming.

  2. sandra moore Says:

    ps pierres death was 28 years earlier.

  3. Cederash Says:

    Даже и не докопаешься.

  4. Jim Pivarski Says:

    I re-write history! No one can ever tell that I corrected her Polish name (previously masculine) and added “more than” to the “20 years” quote. I actually had Eve’s biography open in front of me; I just don’t subtract very well. It’s an original edition, picked up in a used booksale. (It even smells old.)

    • met Says:

      No one can ever tell that I corrected her Polish name (previously masculine)

      A nitpick, but you’ve asked. I don’t know what was there before, but… Manya? Polish feminine for French Marie is just Maria, masculine would be Marian (Sklodowski).

      • Jim Pivarski Says:

        > A nitpick, but you’ve asked. I don’t know what was there before, but… Manya?

        It was her last name that I corrected (to end in “a”, and include the ell-bar and no “v”s). Eve Curie’s biography always calls her Manya before she goes to France and becomes Marie. My wife (who knows some Polish) says that it might be a nickname, but I think that would be a rather strange thing to do in a biography.

        Fortunately, my narrator is a bit of a dunce. I can always hide behind that.

  5. Avertedd Says:

    Подойдя к второму обзацу необходимо будет побороть в себе желание его пропустить

  6. stiff Says:

    It’s “Maria”, not “Manya”.

  7. met Says:

    Your story reminded me of a guide from year ago on how to isolate uranium at home from its ores http://carlwillis.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/uranium-chemistry/

    Eve may have transliterated diminutive Mania/Mańka which spoken aloud sounds more like Manya in English.

  8. Sheldon Campbell Says:

    Thanks, Jim. I really enjoyed this.

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  10. camron Says:

    thanks for the information on Marie Curie’s death, this will help me out dramtically on my research project for Chemistry

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    Can you give us with the part two?

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  17. Oyekunle olaitan Says:

    Thanks jim. You have done a good work. Your work will definately help me in my chemistry projects

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    This story gave a power.

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    What killed Madame Curie? (Part 1) | The Everything Seminar

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    What killed Madame Curie? (Part 1) | The Everything Seminar

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