Marie Curie is one of the major figures in the history of medicine. Curie was a physicist and chemist who found international fame for her work on radioactivity. Such was the importance of her work, Marie Curie was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. However, her work with radioactivity also certainly played a part in her death.
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw on November 7th 1867. Her family, the Sklodowska’s, were respected teachers but they were never wealthy. Curie received a grounded education and was especially keen on Maths and Physics – subjects taught by her father. For a short time after graduating from school, Curie, like her parents, did some teaching. As a result of the family’s lack of money, Marie made an agreement with her older sister, Bronislawa, that she would work for two years to support Bronislawa’s education in Paris and that once her sister had graduated, she would reciprocate for Marie. Therefore for two years the future double Nobel Prize winner worked as a governess for several families in Poland but continued her studies when she had the time.
In 1891 Curie moved to Paris to continue her scientific studies at the Sorbonne. She was to remain in the French capital to continue her famous research on radioactivity.
In 1893 and 1894, Curie was awarded a degree in Physics and Maths respectively. She studied during the day and privately tutored at night to earn the money to pay her bills.
In 1894 she met Pierre Curie. He was a tutor at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris and they shared a great interest in magnetism. In July 1895 they married.
In 1896, Henri Becquerel found that uranium salts gave off rays and that these rays came from within the salts and were not an external force. However, he could not work out how this occurred. He had, in fact, discovered the radioactive property of uranium but did not know it. It was this scientific puzzle that Marie Curie took up. She found that the radioactivity that had baffled Becquerel did not come from the molecules within the uranium but from the much smaller atoms. Curie also found that the amount of measured radiation depended on the amount of uranium she was working on. The larger the source, the more radiation was measured.
Curie’s later writings make it perfectly clear that she made these discoveries and that they were not shared with her husband. In her biography of Pierre, written years after this discovery, Marie twice emphasised that they were her discoveries. Why did she take this approach? Almost certainly, this harkened back to the time she applied for a place as a student at Krakow University but was rejected because she was female. Marie almost certainly wanted these discoveries to be ‘attached’ to a woman – and not shared with a man, even if he was her husband.
Curie then tried to find other substances that were radioactive. As a result of this search, she found that thorium was also radioactive. However, credit for this discovery had already gone to a German scientist, Gerhard Schmidt.
1898 proved to be a momentous year for the Curies – they had effectively become a team in this year when Pierre dropped his studies into crystals and joined Marie in her studies around radiation. In 1898 after concentrating their work around pitchblende, they announced that they had discovered two new elements – polonium and radium.
In 1903, Marie was awarded a Doctorate of Science from the University of Paris. Her studies had been supervised by the man who had initially inspired her research – Henri Becquerel. In the same year the Curie’s along with Becquerel were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics.
The Nobel Prize made the Curie’s very famous within France. Marie was the first female to be so honoured and she became Director of Research at the research laboratory her husband established at the Sorbonne.
However, Curie’s research was not without problems no one understood at the time – radiation poisoning. Almost on a daily basis, Marie and Pierre worked in normal research clothing. Anything bordering on protective clothing was unheard of them unless it involved avoiding chemical splashes on clothes.
In April 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a street accident. Later some thought he did not survive the accident because his body had been weakened as a result of his exposure to radiation. However, this has never been proved and it does seem that he died simply because in heavy rain, he slipped under the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage. His death was a devastating blow to Marie.
In May 1906 she was appointed to head the laboratory that her late husband had run. Marie became the first women to made a professor at the Sorbonne. She now dedicated her life to her studies and in 1911, in recognition of the work she had done, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science awarded her a second Nobel Prize – this time for Chemistry. She was the first person to be awarded two such prizes – either individually or shared.
With her fame, she persuaded the French government into building the Radium Institute (now the Institut Curie). The centre concentrated its work on Chemistry, Physics and Medicine and it was to produce four more Nobel Prize winners.
During World War One, the French army used mobile radiography units nicknamed ‘Petities Curies’ to treat injured soldiers. The war clearly did much to disrupt the work done by Curie but she picked up her research after the end of World War One.
In 1921 and 1929 Marie Curie toured America to raise awareness about her work and to persuade individuals and companies to finance her research. She found that her tours raised enough money to build the Warsaw Radium Institute in her native Poland – Marie never forgot her homeland and ensured that her children were taught the Polish language despite living in Paris.
Marie’s reputation was such that she was put in charge of the famed Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris created her own radiation laboratory. However, it is generally accepted that her body, by the 1930’s, was suffering the effects of radiation exposure. Her writings had commented on how pretty she had found the blue-green colours given off by the radioactive isotopes she frequently carried around in her pockets. When they were not in her pockets, she simply kept them in desk drawers. There was not any knowledge of the dangers then.
Marie Curie died on July 4th, 1934.
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