In uncertain times like now, let’s remember and learn about the scientists who paved the way for modern medicine and cures in our history.
Marie Curie was a pioneer in the fields of Physics and Chemistry and along with her husband, Pierre discovered the elements Polonium and Radium. Throughout her life, she worked extensively with Radium and its approaches in Science. She died in 1934.
Today, she is recognized throughout the world not only for her groundbreaking Nobel Prize-winning discoveries but also for having boldly broken many gender barriers during her lifetime.
Curie became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from a French university, as well as the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. Not only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person (man or woman) ever to win the award twice and for achievements in two distinct scientific fields (Physics and Chemistry)
She was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867 to two educators who ensured she was educated as well as all her brothers. After graduating from secondary school, Marie wanted to pursue higher education but universities in Poland did not accept women at the time. Determined, she did not give up her pursuit and set sail for Paris in hopes of advancing her career.
A focused and diligent student, Curie was awarded many scholarships at The Sorbonne in Paris . These in turn helped her pay for classes to complete her degrees in physics and mathematics by 1894.
Pierre and Marie Curie performed their early research under difficult conditions. The laboratories and other arrangements were very poor. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquel in 1896 inspired the Curies in such a way that their brilliant minds were able to isolate the element Polonium, named after Marie’s country of birth as well as the element Radium. She managed to develop methods to separate these two elements in sufficient quantities so they could be studied further.
It may come as a surprise to know that Curie and Pierre conducted the bulk of the research and experimentation which led to the discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium in what was described by the respected German chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald, as “a cross between a stable and a potato shed.” In fact, when he was first shown the premises, he assumed that it was “a practical joke.” Even after the couple had won the Nobel Prize for their discoveries, Pierre died never having set foot in the new laboratory that the University of Paris had promised to build them. Nonetheless, Curie would fondly recall their time together in the leaky, drafty shack despite the fact that, in order to extract and isolate the radioactive elements, she often spent entire days stirring boiling cauldrons of uranium-rich pitchblende until “broken with fatigue”
After discovering Radium, the Curies never patented the elements to profit from its production despite the act that they had barely enough money to procure the uranium slag they needed in order to extract the element. On the contrary, the Curies generously shared the isolated product of Marie’s difficult labors with fellow researchers and openly distributed the secrets of the process needed for its production with interested industrial parties.
When asked about her generosity in later years she remarked, “Radium is an element, it belongs to the people,”
When World War I broke out in 1914, Curie was forced to put her research and the opening of her new Radium institute on hold due to the threat of a possible German occupation of Paris.Over the course of the next four years, Curie helped equip and operate more than twenty ambulances (known as “Little Curies”) and hundreds of field hospitals with primitive x-ray machines so as to assist surgeons with the location and removal of shrapnel and bullets from the bodies of wounded soldiers. Not only did she personally instruct and supervise young women in the operation of the equipment, but she even drove and operated one such ambulance herself, despite the danger of venturing too close to the fighting on the front lines. By the end of the war, it was estimated that Curie’s x-ray equipment, as well as the Radon gas syringes she designed to sterilize wounds, may have saved the lives of a million soldiers. Yet, when the French government later sought to award her the country’s most distinguished honor, la Légion d’honneur, she declined. In another display of selflessness at the outset of the conflict, Curie had even tried to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French National Bank, but they refused.
Humble, modest, quiet and dignified, Marie was held in high esteem by the world scientific community.
The importance of Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. She received many honorary science, medicine and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. Together with her husband, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 and in 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity.
However, when it came time for Marie and her husband to be awarded her first Nobel Prize, due to the times and the prevailing sexist attitudes, her names and contributions were completely omitted from the nomination by the academy. Luckily, a sympathetic member of the nominating committee, a professor of mathematics at Stockholm University College named Gösta Mittage-Leffler, wrote a letter to Pierre warning him of the glaring omission. Pierre, in turn, wrote the committee insisting that he and Curie be “considered together . . . with respect to our research on radioactive bodies.”
Eventually, the wording of the official nomination was amended. Later that year, thanks to a combination of her accomplishments and the combined efforts of her husband and Mittage-Leffler, Curie became the first woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize.
Today, more than 100 years after the Curies’ discovery of Radium, even the public is kept well aware of the potential dangers associated with the exposure of the human body to radioactive elements. Yet, from the very first years during which the scientists and their contemporaries were pioneering the study of radioactivity until the mid 1940s, little was concretely understood about both short and long-term health effects.
Pierre liked to keep a sample in his pocket so he could demonstrate its glowing and heating properties to the curious, and even once strapped a vial of the stuff to his bare arm for ten hours in order to study the curious way it painlessly burned his skin. Curie, in turn, kept a sample at home next to her bed as a nightlight. Diligent researchers, the Curies spent nearly every day in the confines of their improvised laboratory, with various radioactive materials strewn about their workspaces. After regularly handling Radium samples, both were said to have developed unsteady hands, as well as cracked and scarred fingers.
Though the life of Pierre was tragically cut short in 1906, at the time of his death he was suffering from constant pain and fatigue. Curie, too, complained of similar symptoms until succumbing to advanced leukemia in 1934. At no point did either consider the possibility that their very discovery was the cause of their pain and Curie’s eventual death. In fact, all the couple’s laboratory notes and many of their personal belongings are still so radioactive today that they cannot safely be viewed or studied.
Curie was buried next to her husband in southern Paris.The Curies received one of their biggest honors posthumously in 1944 when the 96th element on the periodic table of elements was discovered and named “Curium.”
The Curie family legacy poignantly lived on years after their death. Her daughter Irene along with her husband was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for the breakthroughs they made in the research of radioactive elements. In turn, her grandchildren would also go on to distinguish themselves in the scientific world. Her granddaughter, Helene became a nuclear physicist and, at 92 years old, still maintains a seat on the advisory board to the French government while her grandson Pierre became a prominent biologist.