When Marguerite Perey was hired at the Radium Institute, she was employed on a temporary trial as a lab technician. With almost no formal training Perey was still able to impress the lab’s director, Marie Curie, and she was promoted to become Curie’s assistant. Her work focused on sorting through tons of ore in order to isolate the element actinium that was being used for experiments at the institute. While she was becoming more and more adept at the methods for production of actinium she was also developing sores on her arms that her family suggested might be due to acid exposure, but while she was concerned about the spots, she continued her work.
After ten years she had become very adept on the handling of the ore and had managed to improve the method. She was also very familiar with the results that she should be seeing from her efforts, but in January of 1939 she detected what appeared to be a new form of radiation. After further testing and analysis it was announced that Perey had discovered one of the last missing elements from the Periodic Table. With an atomic number of 87, it was the most rare and most unstable of all the natural elements with a half-life of twenty-two minutes–and Perey was given the honor of naming the element. Following in the footsteps of her mentor she named her discovery Francium.
After earning her doctorate in 1946, she continued to work with Marie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie until three years later when she accepted a position at the University of Strasbourg as the chair of nuclear chemistry where she would found her own radiochemistry lab. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before those sores on her arms were diagnosed as radiodermatitis from exposure to radioactive materials. For ten years doctors tried to stop the spread of her cancer, including 22 surgeries. She had to eventually step down from her lab–but the side effect of her devastating health problems was a new era of occupational regulations to protect others from a similar fate.
Written by Angela Goad