Marguerite Perey: When The Lab Assistant Gets The Credit

Most people obtain a bachelor’s degree before getting their masters, and even that is a prerequisite for a doctorate. Most people, however, don’t discover a new chemical element.

Marguerite Perey graduated with a chemistry diploma from Paris’ Technical School of Women’s Education in 1929, and applied for work at the Curie Institute, at the time one of the leading chemistry and physics labs in the world. She was hired, and put to work cataloging and preparing samples of the element actinium. This element had been discovered thirty years before by a chemist who had also been working in the Curie laboratory, but this was the height of the chemical revolution and the studies and research must continue.

When Marie Curie died in 1934, the discoverer of actinium, André-Louis Debierne, continued his research and Perey kept providing samples. Marguerite’s work was recognized, and in time she was promoted from a simple lab assistant to a  radiochemist. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Marguerite was, at the time, the world’s leading expert in the preparation of actinium. This expertise would lead her to the discovery of the bottom left corner of the periodic table: francium, element 87, the least electronegative element, and arguably the most difficult naturally occurring element to isolate.

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