Meet Marguerite Catherine Perey the discoverer of Francium
Marguerite Catherine Perey was a French physicist and a student of Marie Curie. In 1939, Perey discovered the element francium by purifying samples of lanthanum that contained actinium. In 1962, she was the first woman to be elected to the French Académie des Sciences, an honor denied to her mentor Curie.
Perey was born in 1909 in Villemomble, France, just outside Paris where the Curie’s Radium Institute was located. Although she hoped to study medicine, the death of her father left the family in financial difficulties.
Perey earned a chemistry diploma from Paris’ Technical School of Women’s Education in 1929; while not a “degree”, it did qualify her to work as a chemistry technician. At the age of 19, she interviewed for a job with Marie Curie at Curie’s Radium Institute in Paris, France, and was hired. Marie Curie took on a mentoring role to Perey, taking her on as her personal assistant.
Under Marie Curie’s guidance at the Radium Institute, Perey learned how to isolate and purify radioactive elements, focusing on the chemical element actinium (discovered in Curie’s laboratory in 1899 by chemist André-Louis Debierne). Perey spent a decade sifting out actinium from all the other components of uranium ore, which Curie then used in her study of the decay of the element. Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia only five years after Perey began working with her, but Perey and Debierne continued their research on actinium and Perey was promoted to radiochemist.
It was during her work on actinium, Perey noticed something odd: unexpected radiation was being emitted through the process. She suspected it was another element, and after confirming her theory, she named the new, extremely radioactive element after France: Francium.
In 1949, Perey was made the head of the department of nuclear chemistry at the University of Strasbourg, where she developed the University’s radiochemistry and nuclear chemistry program and continued her work on francium. She founded a laboratory that in 1958 became the Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry in the Center for Nuclear Research, for which she served as director. She also served as a member of the Atomic Weights Commission from 1950 to 1963.
During her time at the Radium Institute, Perey improved the safety measures in the labs under her control, and although it was too late to save her own life from radiation-linked illness, these improvements were a lifesaver for future generations of nuclear scientists.
Perey’s archives with materials dating from 1929 to 1975 were left at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg. They include laboratory notebooks, course materials from her work as professor of nuclear chemistry, papers from her laboratory directorship, and publications. All documents are now currently held at the Archives départamentales du Bas-Rhin (Departamental archives of the Bas-Rhin).
Perey was elected to the French Academy of Sciences in 1962, making her the first woman elected to the Institut de France. Although a significant step, her election as a “corresponding member” rather than a full member came with limited privileges.