Curie, Marie

August 17, 2011

Marie Curie lived from 1867 to 1934 and made enormous contributions to science. She won two Nobel Prizes (in 1903 for physics and in 1911 for chemistry) and had a daughter, Irene, who also won this high honor of science in 1935. Born in Warsaw during the time that Poland was under Russian rule, Marya (nicknamed Manya) Sklodovska was first in her high school class and later studied in the “Floating University,” an outlawed night school. She worked as a governess to earn money to allow her to further her studies, then moved to Paris, adopting the French form of her name, Marie.

In Paris, Marie enrolled in the Sorbonne and was the first woman to earn a degree in physics in 1893. In 1894, she earned a degree in mathematics. Also in 1894, she met Pierre Curie, a French physicist whom she married the following year in a small civil ceremony. Two years later, their first child, Irene, was born.

Toward the end of 1897, Marie began work on her doctoral thesis, with the goal of earning her PhD. She and Pierre had become intrigued by the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen; the rays were called “x” rays since it was not understood where they came from.

Roentgen had made a photographic image of the bones in his wife’s hands using the rays. A colleague of the Curies, Professor Henri Becquerel, began a search for the source of the rays and discovered that uranium salts emitted rays.

Marie used a piezo-quartz electrometer to test mineral samples, and quickly discovered that the strength of the rays was directly related to the amount of uranium in the sample. She also found that another element, thorium, produced rays similar to those produced by uranium. From these discoveries, she postulated that the ability to give off rays was an atomic property, which she called “radioactivity.”

She examined hundreds of compounds and found that two uranium ores, pitchblende and chacolite, were more strongly radioactive than pure uranium. Marie and Pierre directed their efforts at studying pitchblende, which is uranium oxide (a compound of uranium, oxygen, and other elements). They hypothesized that pitchblende must have another component that was responsible for the increased radioactivity. They found a new element, which they called “polonium” in honor of Poland. Six months later they added the discovery of a second element previously unknown in pitchblende. They called this element “radium,” and it was the more strongly radioactive of the two new elements.

The Curies chose to focus their efforts on extracting radium and studying its properties. Because radium is a very small component of pitchblende, the couple spent a great deal of time in physically intensive labor refining and purifying pitchblende to yield radium. During this period, Marie also began to work as a teacher at a girls’ school.

In 1903, Marie earned her “doctor of physical science” degree. In November 1903, the Curies along with Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their work on radioactivity. In 1904, Pierre received a promotion to Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne and was given funds to hire three assistants for his laboratory. Marie became a laboratory chief, thus starting her first paid research position.

The Curies had a second daughter in December 1904, whom they named Eve. Tragedy befell the family on April 19, 1906, when Pierre was killed while crossing a busy street. Eve Curie later wrote in her biography of her mother that Marie became a “pitiful and incurably lonely woman” when she was widowed. Refusing a pension, she later assumed the chair given to Pierre with the title of Assistant Professor, becoming the first woman to take a position in French higher education.

Marie’s second Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry for the preparation of a gram of pure radium, came in 1911. Several years later, during World War I, Marie became the Director of the Red Cross’ Radiological Service. In this position, she worked tirelessly to establish x-ray installations in the field to aid diagnosis and treatment of the war-wounded. She conceived of radiological cars as portable x-ray units; these were nicknamed “les Petites Curie,” or “the little Curies.” Marie and her daughter Irene worked during the war establishing radiological services and training men to run the equipment.

Following the war, Marie set up the Curie Pavilion of the Institut du Radium. Her later years were spent directing the laboratory and raising money to allow further studies. Throughout her time working with radioactive substances, Marie had been plagued with health problems, including cracked hands, fatigue, cataracts, and kidney problems. In 1934, she died; the doctor’s report listed the cause of death as “an aplastic pernicious anaemia of rapid, feverish development.” Despite radiotherapy’s multiple uses in medicine, the long-term unprotected exposure to radiation had done irreparable damage to Marie Curie’s own health.

SEE ALSO: Cancer, Women in the Health Professions, Women in Health: Advocates, Reformers and Pioneers

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