Scientists and Victims: Women in Nuclear Energy

Alana Cook
March 25, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Portrait of Marie Curie, commissioned after winning the Nobel prize. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From Marie Curie to the radium girls, women have been both creators of and victims to nuclear energy's various applications and advancements throughout history. Many of the female scientists faced opposition, often gaining little recognition or being outcast for the political and scientific stances that they held. With that said, their advancements in the field of physics and chemistry helped steer the study of nuclear energy for decades to follow. Both the female scientists and radium girls were unaware of the inherent dangers of being exposed to radiation, many dying as a result of their work. It remained this way until the mid-twentieth century, when Herman Muller was awarded the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that X-ray radiation could produce mutations at the molecular level. [1]

Notable Female Scientists

Below are three notable female nuclear scientists from the 19th and 20th century:

Radium Girls

Fig. 2: Advertisement for Undark paint, used to paint clock faces. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While there are many female scientists to celebrate through the history of nuclear energy, there are also women to be mourned. The radium girls were well paid, young women employed to paint the dials and numbers of watches and clocks with a commercially produced glow-in-the-dark paint, Undark (advertisement pictured right). [7] Undark was a mixture of crystalline phosphorescent zinc sulphide, radium (Ra-226), mesothorium (Ra-228), and radiothorium in the form of insoluble sulphates. [8] Ra-228, with a half life of 5.8 years, was estimated to be about 2.5 times more effective per µCi in causing bone sarcomas as its longer lived isotope, Ra-226, with a half life of 1600 years. [9] During their work, the women were often instructed to use your lips and mouth to make the paint brushes have a finer tip, allowing for cleaner work. When finished painting, the girls would often paint their teeth, face, and skin to give themselves a playful glow. Unknowingly, these women were inviting agonizing bouts of anemia, necrosis of the jaw, bone fractures, and cancer to consume their bodies. [8,10]

Unfortunately, society was unaware of these harmful effects, further believing radium to have a sort of "rejuvenating" effect on the body. Bottles of Radithor were sold, which was water containing about 2 µg of radium per 60 ml bottle. Expressed as an equation, radium dose levels can be estimated as: effective systemic radium intake = (µCi Ra-226) + 2.5 x (µCi Ra-228). Over a period of 5 years, a man was reported to have drunk 1,400 bottles of Radithor, estimating his radium intake to a total dose of approximately 2,800 µCi or 56 µCi/kg for a 50-kg human. [9]

From autopsy and exhumed materials, current techniques have helped researches to determine that the average systemic intake levels of previously studied cases. Four cases of sarcoma in 1931, for example, were found to have intake levels ranging from 243 µCi to over 400 µCi of Ra-226, and from 72 µCi to over 2,200 µCi of Ra-228. The average human intake of radium from water, deemed scientifically and medically safe to drink, is about 5 pCi per day or about 0.136 µCi over a 75 year lifetime. [10] While the exact radium intake of the radium girls is not known, they were ingesting radium-filled paint every day, every dial they painted. [8]

© Alana Cook. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] C. Dunn, "Multigenerational Warning Signs," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[2] M. Caballero, "Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radioactivity," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] B. H. Stuart, "Women in Nuclear Science," Phys. Educ. 31, 116 (1996).

[4] L. Mecum, "Irène Joliot- Curie," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[5] B. Ou, "Lise Meitner," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[6] E. Xie, "Lise Meitner," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[7] H. S, Martland and R. E Humphries, "Osteogenic Sarcoma in Dial Painters Using Luminous Paint" CA - Cancer J. Clin. 23, 368 (1973).

[8] M. Estrada, Radium Dials and Radium Girls," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[9] "Toxicological Profile for Radium," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 1990.

[10] R. E. Rowland, "Radium in Humans: A Review of US Studies," Argonne National Laboratory, ANL/ER-3, September 1994.