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I learnt in school that Marie Curie died from her work at 66 years. On the other hand, Enrico Fermi, who also handled a lot of radioactive substances died of stomach cancer at the age of just 53. It is highly likely that his work also was the cause of his disease. But I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere like it is in the case of Curie. What is the reason that this isn't acknowledged? Is it simply that the causation between the work and the disease is more clear in the case of Curie but not Fermi?

Additionally, given that a lot of Fermi's work was happening once Curie had already died, it is plausible he knew the risks of working with the materials he was working with. Is this supported by any sources?

We do know that he felt an urgency to develop a nuclear weapon on behalf of the allies before the nazis got one. If the above is all true, it would mean he intentionally put himself in harms way for the sake of the war effort and ended up ultimately paying the price. Is this theory plausible or completely off?

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe it is more relevant for Curie as she (kinda) co-discovered radioactivity while Fermi only worked on it. $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ Why? If you discover radioactivity and it kills you vs you craft a very significant application and it kills you, radioactivity still killed you. In fact Curie didn't know its dangers but Fermi might have. Making it even more noteworthy in his case imo. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ Curie is also more famous than Fermi for most people outside physics. $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 19:12

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Is it simply that the causation between the work and the disease is more clear in the case of Curie but not Fermi?

Marie Curie died of Aplastic anemia which was most likely due to exposure to radiation from her work. The link between Aplastic anemia is well known, and is even a side effect of radiation therapies. Enrico Fermi died from stomach cancer. Which may have been a symptom of his work with radioactive material or it could have been from his diet, his weight, or his smoking. Stomach cancer is much less of a smoking gun than Aplastic anemia is.

Additionally, given that a lot of Fermi's work was happening once Curie had already died, it is plausible he knew the risks of working with the materials he was working with. Is this supported by any sources?

Marie may not have known how dangerous radiation exposure was early in her career, but by 1929 she most certainly did. She would be aware of industrial workers succumbing to radiation sickness such as the radium girls. She would state,

“I particularly would stress the fact that radium is dangerous in untrained hands,”

That does not change the fact that while she was making her discoveries she, and her colleges, did very dangerous things. They were moving radioactive material around with little or no shielding, pouring radium between containers without even a pair of gloves for protection, and mouth-pipetting polonium. When she died her notes were so radioactive they are still kept in a lead box in Paris.

Fermi would have been most certainly aware of the dangers of radiation. He worked at Los Alamos, and warned Louis Stole that he would be dead within a year before the second Demon Core incident occurred. Fermi's wife was a nurse in Health and Safety office at Los Alamos, where they regularly took blood tests for radiation exposure. In the 40's and 50's they may not have had the same level of safety around radiation as we do today, but they certainly weren't carrying ampules of polonium and radium in their breast pocket.

Is this theory plausible or completely off?

Marie Curie was a female scientist in the heroic age of science. There is a certain mythology about her. Her life plays out like Icarus. A parable were she flew too close to the sun, and then dies from it. It's such a good story they made a comic book out of it. Then made a movie out of the comic book.

Why doesn't Fermi get the same treatment? Why would he? I'm sure his life is fascinating. He's a less known scientist known more for a musing about aliens than his work on the atomic bomb. He died from a disease that may have been associated with radiation. That just can't compare to the woman who first discovered radioactive elements dying from a disease that's still associated with radiation sickness.

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  • $\begingroup$ Was he overweight? Doesn't look it from any photos. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Also I couldn't find any evidence online that he smoked. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ The point I tried to make was that their isn't a direct line you can draw between radiation, and his stomach cancer. It could have been a number of things including diet, or smoking. Where as Aplastic anemia is a known result of ionizing radiation. $\endgroup$
    – SBoZon
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I see, gotcha. I don't think Fermi in particular smoked or was overweight. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 23:17

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