Where is Madam Curie's gram of radium today?


#1

In 1921, American women donated $100,000 to give 1 gram of radium to Marie Curie. The Marie Curie Radium Fund was so successful that it raised another $56,413.54, which was ultimately given to her daughter.

The gram of radium was manufactured by the Standard Chemical Company in downtown Pittsburgh; the building became quite contaminated and required decades to decontaminate.

With his characteristic bloviating, President Harding presented Madam Curie with the gram of radium, securely encased in a lead lined box weighing some 125 pounds. Curie took the precious cargo to the newly founded Radium Institute in Paris. In 1929, she returned seeking another gram; this one for the Polish Radium Institute. Americans again funded this request, and Warsaw received a gram of radium.

Today, radium has no medical use; specialized isotopes and particle accelerators have made it obsolete.

Question: What happened to those two grams of radium? Where are they today?


#2

Love your books, Cliff. Cuckoo’s Egg was formative for me in the early 90’s and prescient, given the massive levels of actual computer crime now.

The actual site was in Canonsburg, it looks like, which is outside Pittsburgh:

The mill produced vanadium and uranium that were used in ferro-alloys, but its primary product was radium. To produce a gram of radium at the mill, Standard Chemical used 500 tons of ore, 500 tons of various chemicals, the power from 1,000 tons of coal, and 10,000 tons of purified water. The Canonsburg site was ideally situated to deliver these resources. About 150 persons worked at the Canonsburg mill. The milling chemistry was patterned after that developed by Mme. Curie in her Paris laboratory to extract radium from an Austrian ore, pitchblende. But, applying her laboratory procedure to an industrial operation to process American carnotite required considerable modification that took two years, 1911 to 1913. During this period, 2.1 grams was produced. At end of 1913, the modifications were completed, enabling Standard Chemical to expand the Canonsburg plant and begin commercial production the following year. From 1914 to 1921, annual radium production averaged 9 grams, peaking at 18.5 grams in 1920.

source

Decontamination information (pdf):

The Canonsburg mill site was designated in the 1978 Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act as eligible for federal funds for clean up, the only uranium mill east of the Mississippi River so listed. Under a $48 million cleanup, the mill site and 163 nearby properties in Canonsburg were remediated. The nearby properties were contaminated as a result of mill tailings from the SCC operation having been used as road and yard fill in Canonsburg. Residual radioactivity was consolidated into a covered, clay-lined cell at the Canonsburg mill site that is fenced and posted and periodically monitored by the department of Energy and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Sadly I can’t find anything about what happened to Marie Curie’s radium. Here’s her NYT obituary in 1934 and as of 1934, at least…

Today there stands in Paris the Curie Laboratory at the Radium Institute of the University of Paris. Today the many uses of radium are known. Thousands have been cured of cancer and other diseases by radium.

… radium was considered useful so the disposal probably happened at a later date. I guess I would focus on the general date where everyone agreed that radium had no practical use? Not sure what that is, Wikipedia is not a ton of help:

(Bonus! HeLa cell references!) Though it does say

In the U.S., nasal radium irradiation was also administered to children to prevent middle-ear problems or enlarged tonsils from the late 1940s through the early 1970s

so it’s kind of unclear to me what year there was consensus that “radium has no medical use”.


#3

Hi Ken,

Hey - many thanks for your kind note this morning! I’m tickled that
you remember m’book, and happy to hear from someone who knows about the
early radium mills.

Especially, thanks for the details on the Canonsburg radium works.
I’d not known of this; I’d thought that the radium work was done at a
place called “the Flannery Bulding” in downtown Pittsburgh. A friend
from Carnigie Melon had told me stories about a contaminated downtown
building that had been sold to a bank.

The medical use of radium pretty much ended in the late 50’s, as a
panoply of new radioisotopes became available from reactors. Radium has
several problems, not least of which is that its daughter product
(radon) is the source of alpha particles; the radium has a wide spectrum
of gammas. My understanding is that radiotherapy usually specifies one
or the other, but rarely both.

Incidentally, I hardly ever post to BoingBoing, partly out of a sense
of keeping a low profile, but partly because my (few) posts seems to
disappear or wind up in the wrong place. My attempt to say something
last night seems not to have reached the bbs. Sigh…

Again, thanks for the greeting - best wishes on a rainy Friday morning
in Oakland,


#4

Cliff, Ken is not the only one who remembers Cuckoo’s Egg. Me too.

Thanks!


#5

Hi Cliff. Just wanted to say that my Dad taped Ghostbusters after your Nova special so I grew up with it in easy reach and watched it fairly frequently. When I finally got around to reading the booki enjoyed that too. I would say it definitely influenced me to get into computers at a young age.


#6

another huge fan of the book, read it many time growing up. thank you.


#7

The 1 gram of radium given to Warsaw Institute was utilize in the 50’s.

According to this article (behind paywall): http://warszawa.gazeta.pl/warszawa/1,34882,13003472,Bezcenny_gram_radu__W_czasie_wojny_szukali_go_Niemcy.html?piano_t=1

This sentence (on page 2):

“Gram radu podarowany przez Skłodowską-Curie został zutylizowany w latach 50., gdy onkologia odeszła od napromieniowywania chorych tym pierwiastkiem.”

“Gram of radium given by Sklodowska-Curie was disposed of in the 50’s, when the irradiation oncology patients departed from this element.”

Here is google translated article: http://bit.ly/1lrfmty and the link to mobile accessible version.


#8

Cuckoo’s Egg was a ripping yarn, I loaned it to several non-geek friends who enjoyed it purely as a thriller. Great book!


#9

Smiles all around … I’m tickled that so many (well, several) remember m’book - oh, but it sends me back a quarter century. Way back to when hardly anyone had a 2400 baud modem, and pocket pagers were a rarity.

Now, of course, 2400 baud modems are a rarity, and hardly anyone has a pocket pager.


#10

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