Biographies

The genius of Marie Curie

If you want a glimpse of Marie Curie’s manuscripts, you’ll have to sign a waiver and put on protective gear to shield yourself from radiation contamination. Madame Curie’s remains, too, were interred in a lead-lined coffin, keeping the radiation that was the heart of her research, and likely the cause of her death, well contained. Growing up in Warsaw in Russian-occupied Poland, the young Marie, originally named Maria Sklodowska, was a brilliant student, but she faced some challenging barriers.

As a woman, she was barred from pursuing higher education, so in an act of defiance, Marie enrolled in the Floating University, a secret institution that provided clandestine education to Polish youth. By saving money and working as a governess and tutor, she eventually was able to move to Paris to study at the reputed Sorbonne. There, Marie earned both a physics and mathematics degree surviving largely on bread and tea, and sometimes fainting from near starvation.

In Paris, Marie met the physicist Pierre Curie, who shared his lab and his heart with her. But she longed to be back in Poland. Upon her return to Warsaw, though, she found that securing an academic position as a woman remained a challenge. All was not lost. Back in Paris, the lovelorn Pierre was waiting, and the pair quickly married and became a formidable scientific team. Another physicist’s work sparked Marie Curie’s interest. In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium spontaneously emitted a mysterious X-ray-like radiation that could interact with photographic film. Curie soon found that the element thorium emitted similar radiation. Most importantly, the strength of the radiation depended solely on the element’s quantity, and was not affected by physical or chemical changes.

This led her to conclude that radiation was coming from something fundamental within the atoms of each element. The idea was radical and helped to disprove the long-standing model of atoms as indivisible objects. Next, by focusing on a super radioactive ore called pitchblende, the Curies realized that uranium alone couldn’t be creating all the radiation. So, were there other radioactive elements that might be responsible? In 1898, they reported two new elements, polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, and radium, the Latin word for ray. They also coined the term radioactivity along the way. By 1902, the Curies had extracted a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride salt from several tons of pitchblende, an incredible feat at the time.

Later that year, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics, but Marie was overlooked. Pierre took a stand in support of his wife’s well-earned recognition. And so both of the Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize, making Marie Curie the first female Nobel Laureate. Well funded and well respected, the Curies were on a roll. But tragedy struck in 1906 when Pierre was crushed by a horse-drawn cart as he crossed a busy intersection. Marie, devastated, immersed herself in her research and took over Pierre’s teaching position at the Sorbonne, becoming the school’s first female professor.

Her solo work was fruitful. In 1911, she won yet another Nobel, this time in chemistry for her earlier discovery of radium and polonium, and her extraction and analysis of pure radium and its compounds. This made her the first, and to this date, only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Professor Curie put her discoveries to work, changing the landscape of medical research and treatments.

She opened mobile radiology units during World War I, and investigated radiation’s effects on tumors. However, these benefits to humanity may have come at a high personal cost. Curie died in 1934 of a bone marrow disease, which many today think was caused by her radiation exposure. Marie Curie’s revolutionary research laid the groundwork for our understanding of physics and chemistry, blazing trails in oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics, to name a few. For good or ill, her discoveries in radiation launched a new era, unearthing some of science’s greatest secrets.

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