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Science and Problem Solving Techniques

Writing Project

Radium: Narrative of a Moral Dilemma


  1. Background
  2. Scenario
  3. Questions
  4. Grading
  5. Also, be certain to read the Introduction
We are all faced on occasion with a hard choice in life. Telling a narrative about a conflict in which you have had to make a difficult decision contributes to your personal growth. This assignment is about becoming a character in an ethical real life dilemma faced by medical researchers and patients whenever there is a breakthrough in the development of a procedure or drug to cure a disease. Take the time to explore how you might feel if you were the patient. I plan to explore these ideas in other assignments throughout the year. Hopefully, science will become more relevant as you are given an opportunity to examine your own values.

After you have read the following directions, you may see me if you have personal knowledge of a similar dilemma that you would be willing to share with just me. I will allow you to substitute your personal narrative for this assignment IF WE HAVE DISCUSSED THE IDEA THOROUGHLY FIRST AND I HAVE GIVEN YOU CLEAR WRITTEN DIRECTIONS ABOUT YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES.

Read the following article: "Radium Time Bomb" from the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, August 14, 1994. Your narrative must contain very specific information about Radium and its discovery in addition to the creation of a fictional character whose feelings, behavior and responses you must describe as if they were your own.

Background Information: You may combine the answers to questions in a paragraph, but include the requested information.

  1. What are the chemical properties of the element, Radium? Where did the name of this element come from?
  2. Briefly describe the life of Marie Curie. Was she always a scientist or did she have other occupations? Be sure to include when and how she discovered Radium. What are the theories about how she died? What was unusual about her life as a scientist?
  3. What knowledge was available about the hazards of Radium exposure prior to 1940?


You have been notified that old medical records, thought long lost by the military, have been located in an old basement. These records show that you were treated on four occasions with Radium by placing a capsule in your nose to treat chronic nose bleeds that you experienced when you were a soldier (male or female) in World War II during 1943. You were told at the time when you received the 2 hour exposures that the treatment was safe and that you were also a part of a group of military personnel who were undergoing the experimental use of Radium to control superficial bleeding vessels. You considered the treatment very successful, having been freed from what had become an unpleasant and dangerous health problem.

For the past several years you have been facing chronic sinus infections and pain. A recent x-ray of your skull has revealed some abnormal bone growth in the area of you nasal passages, but there is no evidence of cancer. You are also experiencing gum disease and having some trouble with your teeth becoming loose from the bone tissue. It is now 1994 and you are trying to assess the impact on your life.

Some personal information: You were born in 1924, and are currently married with three adult children, one of whom is mentally challenged, still lives at home and is financially dependent. You are receiving a veteran's pension with medical coverage for yourself but the money does not take care of the expenses of your dependent 45 year old son, who has a heart defect. A reporter has approached you for a magazine article about how this medical news might affect you and your family.

Be creative and invent some dialogue to respond to the questions asked by the reporter. You are considering your options with the Army, who is denying responsibility, and are interested in having the truth told. Weave a story in first person incorporating some of the ideas below. I encourage you to create your own questions too. It is important that what you have your character say is believable and consistent with common sense and medical knowledge. You might need to look at information about sinuses, gum disease and birth defects associated with Radium if that is part of your response.

Provide an introductory statement which includes a physical description and the sex (the person may be either male or female) of your character. Any comments to the following reporter's questions should be gender consistent. At some point in the essay clearly state the moral dilemma) that you think your character is facing.


  1. What caused you to seek the assistance of the Army doctors? How much was explained to you in 1943 about your treatment? Did the Army doctors give you any information about the side effects of Radium exposure? What did they tell you? Did you know Radium was inside the capsule?
  2. How did you feel physically after the treatments? Were they painful? Did you feel ill afterwards? Did they fix your problem?
  3. When did you find out that there may be some long term problems associated with the treatments? Has the Army notified you of any potential problems yet? Are you part of a group of people being watched now for complications? Do you have any current health complaints? Do you think any of your complaints are related to your old exposure?
  4. Can you share with me what went through your mind when you first read the article after you found out about your old records? How did this affect you? How did this affect your family?
  5. Are you worried about having any complications now? Do you think your sinus or dental problems are related to the Radium treatments? What do your current doctors or dentists say?
  6. What do you think the Army should have done differently in 1943? Do you think it was a mistake for you to participate in the trials?
  7. What do you think the Army should do now about the 80,000 documented Radium exposures to military personnel and their families? The Army's official position is that Radium was and is a safe treatment for certain types of medical problems. Do you think the Army should be responsible for long term care of victims? What types of conditions do you think the Army should be responsible for?
  8. Has any one suggested that your son's problems might have been related to your Radium? Have you asked the Army doctors for additional help in this area? What were their responses?
  9. What are your plans for the future? What would you like to see happen?

THIS ASSIGNMENT IS DUE: ______________________________


Your grade will be based on the following specific criteria:

  1. Format:

    a. The story is neatly typed/written and sufficient in length to write at least a one page magazine article from the information provided. This represents about 1,000 words.

    b. Spelling and grammar have been checked. There are no sentence fragments, run-ons or paragraphs which lack good construction.

  2. Content:

    1. The story line is believable and contains sufficient facts to demonstrate that you have researched the required areas. Some of the material maybe fiction, but must be consistent with known facts.
    2. The character is developed in a compassionate fashion so that the reader (me) could easily feel the position of the character described.
    3. The story clearly describes at least two ethical dilemmas and offers insight into the feelings of the individuals involved and potential plans of action.

Additonal Sources of Information

Bioethics in Science Index

Science Education Reform Index

Let's Collaborate Index

Custom Search on the AE Site