|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. 
Below are three notable female nuclear scientists from the 19th and 20th century:
Marie Curie: Born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, Curie is best known for having discovered radioactivity, growing up to become a two-time Nobel prize winning scientist and helping to change the fields of physics and chemistry with her groundbreaking work. Curie became the first women to ever win a Nobel prize when she won it in 1903 for her work in physics, alongside her husband, Pierre Curie, and fellow scientist Henri Becquerel. She would not stop there. Not only was she the first woman to ever win a Nobel prize, she was also the first person to have won two Nobel prizes after winning the second for her work in chemistry in 1911. During her study of radiation within uranium, Curie is credited with discovering two new elements, radium and polonium, building on Henri Becquerel's discovery of radiation in potassium uranyl sulphate. This further opened the field of nuclear science to study the radioactivity of atoms as she discovered radiation to be an atomic property. While the cause of her death is unsure, it is rumored to have been linked to the harmful effects of radiation. [2,3]
Irène Joliot-Curie: Born in 1897 in Paris as the daughter of groundbreaking physicist and chemist Marie Curie, Joliot-Curie continued in her mother and father's footsteps, studying the sciences and establishing herself as a key contributing figure in nuclear science. Picking up where her mother left off, Joliot- Curie is best known for discovering the concept of artificial or induced radioactivity. Working jointly with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, the pair discovered that the production of γ rays from polonium caused the ejection of protons from paraffin wax. It was later discovered by another scientist, James Chadwick, that the radiation observed in these experiments was actually the neutron. Joliot-Curie's experiments lead her and her husband to create a new radioactive substance, P-30. The Joliot-Curies halted their work on nuclear energy in the 1930s, fearing that their discoveries would be used for harm by German Nazi scientists.  Irène Joliot-Curie died in 1956 from leukemia, a possible, but not confirmed, consequence of her work with radioactive materials. [s4]
Lise Meitner, Born in 1878, Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist, most known for her innovative study of radioactivity and nuclear energy. Meitner's study was encouraged by her mentor, Ludwig Boltzmann, a theoretical physicist under whom she studied at the University of Vienna in 1901. Boltzmann believed that all atoms were divisible, and his work, as well as that of Marie Curie, inspired Meitner to later study alpha particles in 1906.  Meitner partnered with fellow scientist, Otto Hahn, with whom she would work for the following thirty years, pursuing the study of the chemistry of radioactivity. At the time, women were not yet fully respected as scientists nor allowed to work at the Chemical Institute in Berlin where Meitner and Hahn were working. Not letting this stop them, the pair forged ahead, building an office for Meitner in an unused basement. Though interrupted by the outbreak of war, the duo was able to discover a new element, protactinium. After an appointment to the head of the Physics Department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1918, Meitner moved her focus of study to natural and artificial transmutation of elements. Unable to continue work on this project due to the Nazi presence in Germany and Meitner's status as a Jewish Austrian, Meitner fled to Stockholm to take up a position at the Nobel Institute for Physics.  Hahn continued their work and was later credited with discovering nuclear fission, winning a Nobel prize in 1944 for demonstrating that barium was a product of reaction created by bombarding uranium with slow neutrons. Though Meitner was never officially credited with this, and was left out of the list of contributors to Hahn's Nobel prize, she was not just a key female physicist, but a leading physicist (regardless of gender) of her time. [3,6]
|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).  Undark was a mixture of crystalline phosphorescent zinc sulphide, radium (Ra-226), mesothorium (Ra-228), and radiothorium in the form of insoluble sulphates.  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.  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. 
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.  While the exact radium intake of the radium girls is not known, they were ingesting radium-filled paint every day, every dial they painted. 
© 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.
 C. Dunn, "Multigenerational Warning Signs," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.
 M. Caballero, "Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radioactivity," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.
 B. H. Stuart, "Women in Nuclear Science," Phys. Educ. 31, 116 (1996).
 L. Mecum, "Irène Joliot- Curie," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.
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 E. Xie, "Lise Meitner," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.
 H. S, Martland and R. E Humphries, "Osteogenic Sarcoma in Dial Painters Using Luminous Paint" CA - Cancer J. Clin. 23, 368 (1973).
 M. Estrada, Radium Dials and Radium Girls," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.
 "Toxicological Profile for Radium," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 1990.
 R. E. Rowland, "Radium in Humans: A Review of US Studies," Argonne National Laboratory, ANL/ER-3, September 1994.