One more update for you within our month of scientific discovery and inventions that impacted history! Today we will talk about Marie Curie and her discovery of radio which drove her entire career, and that of her husband. Marie Curie lived a very interesting life, however I will be focusing more on her discovery of radiation and how it has impacted us now. I do apologize for the shortness of post in advance, but I have been incredibly busy in the last few months!
So, first off, I had better tell you of the life of this remarkable woman. Her maiden name was Marie Sklodowska and was born in Warsaw in 1867. Coming from a poor family, Marie seize the opportunity to go Paris when her elder sister offered her lodgings knowing the financial constrain their father was suffering. Once in France she studied at the Sorbonne University to graduate in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894. Clearly a bright woman! She would soon meet a man by the name of Pierre Curie. He was a professor at the School of Physics, and with the help of his brother, had discovered piezo-electricity.
Marie had made headways into the research of radiation, and was soon joined by her husband who was fascinated by what she had done and found and constructed sensitive laboratory equipment. The couple worked together as researchers for the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris. Their goal was to attempt to find a new element which Marie had been intrigued by for a while since Professor Henri Becquerel discovered uranium. Her theory was that the incredibly large readings of radiation she was seeing in pitchblende, a mineral containing uranium ore (as compared to the pure element) could not be coming just from Becquerel’s element. She whole heartedly believe something was missing from this equation despite the scepticism of the vast majority of her peers. According to the Science Museum, Marie carried out the chemical separations and her husband, Pierre took the measurements. ‘In July 1898, using basic chemical refining methods, they isolated a product from pitchblende about 400 times more active than uranium. This they named polonium in honour of Marie’s native Poland’. However this was just the start of it all, they would carry on with the refining which was noted by Marie as exhausting until the winter of 1898 where the couple announced the discovery of an even more radioactive substance which they would call radium. Nevertheless, the announcement was done to the scientific community without no prove, so the publication of their theories was still met with disbelieve. Another issue they encounter was the fact that the mineral they were studying was incredibly expensive, and their research required large quantities of it. Therefore, Marie got in touch with a factory in Austria that would provide them with just the uranium component rather than pitchblende, which made their experiment decrease in cost. What they did not expect or consider, was the fact that the materials they were working with were a serious risk to their health, and the measures taken throughout their investigation proved to be insufficient, and with grave consequences with regards their well being. But their work paid off and in 1902 Marie managed to isolate radium and determine its atomic weight. Now she did have prove that her journey had not been in vain. The following year, the couple was awarded with the Noble Prize, alongside Becquerel
Sadly Pierre would die in 1906, which would leave Marie alone with her two remaining daughters: Irene (born 1898) and Eve (born 1904). However, Marie would not give up on her work. During the First World War she had established a front-line X-ray service in the battlefields of Belgium and France, she would do many tasks such as fundraising, training staff and driving the X-ray vans. In fact during this time Marie acted as the Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service. This could be labelled as even a bigger achievement as she used her knowledge to help the front line soldier, saving many lives.
Her work would however prove fatal as she eventually died in 1934 from the cumulative effects of radiation exposure. She was 66 at the time of her death that the Sancellemoz Sanatorium (Passy). She was reported to have been suffering from a terribly weakening anaemia, which for sure was the result of several years of being exposed to radiation.
The New York Times has her obituary available online, from which is evident the appreciation given to this woman:
She was also the first woman to be reburied in the Pantheon in Paris. Nevertheless, Marie’s legacy was continued by her daughter Irene who also went into science, married a scientist, and together they studied the nucleus in atoms, eventually also awarded a Nobel price for this work. Like her mother, Irene died due to the effects of radiation as well, supposedly in relation to leukemia. In any case, there is no doubt that the effort of the Curie family throughout the generations has provided the world with a greater understanding in the field of science, with such a passion and dedication that even endangered their lives.