Marie Curie: Scientific Excellence Beyond Measure

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Marie Curie was a towering figure in the history of science, the only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice, and someone who literally gave her life to her work.

She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, in Russia-occupied Poland, on Nov. 7, 1867. Her parents were teachers, who had six children in all. Maria was the youngest.

Marie's mother operated a boarding school for girls for several years; she died of tuberculosis when Maria was 10. Marie's father, Wladyslaw, taught math and physics and brought laboratory equipment home for his children to use.

Marie found that she liked the subjects that her father was teaching; and she studied them, as well as chemistry, with vigor. Most schools in those days did not admit girls, and Marie had to study in secret; she got part of her education at Warsaw's Flying University, an informal, underground education system. She graduated first in her high school class, when she was 15, and ended up at the University of Paris, enrolling in 1891.

Marie's family never had much money, and this influenced her decisions in both her career and her matchmaking. She worked as a governess and then a tutor to help pay her way through university. She also fell in love with a man who was from an equally poor family, and her family and his denied the two permission to marry.

Marie earned her degree in physics in 1893 and a second degree, in chemistry, the following year. In that year, 1894, Marie met the man who would become her husband and regular colleague, Pierre.

Pierre Curie was an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Another colleague, Professor Jozef Kowalski-Wierusz, introduced the two because he thought that Pierre could provide Marie with laboratory space to continue her studies.

Marie and Pierre worked together closely and grew to like each other a great deal. Pierre proposed marriage, but Marie initially refused. She wanted to move back to Poland; Pierre said that he would go with her, even if it meant that he had a non-science-related job. Marie went back to Poland to live with her family for awhile, but her application for a job on staff at Krakow University was denied, ostensibly because she was a woman.

Marie moved back to Paris in 1895, and she and Pierre were married in July. As life and work partners, they set about furthering their scientific endeavors.

The same year that they had married, Pierre had earned his Ph.D. Marie, in searching for a topic for her doctoral thesis, found a likely candidate in the study of uranium rays. German physicist Wilhlem Roentgen had discovered X-rays in 1895; the following year, French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium gave off rays that looked like X-rays. Neither physicist understood how X-rays were produced. Marie set about to investigate further. Using an updated version of an electrometer developed by Pierre and his brother, Marie found evidence that the radiation came from the uranium atoms themselves. She thus created the study of atomic physics.

Marie and Pierre carried out their research not in their own laboratory but in a converted shed, which used to be a dissecting room and was leaky and had poor ventilation. The Curies didn't make a whole lot of money, and the university gave them no money for their uranium research; so, they went to outside companies and organizations to secure funding. As well, in 1897, their daughter Irene was born; to help fund their research and to support their daughter, Marie took another job, at the École Normale Supérieure, whose alumni include many other famous scientists. She was the Ecole's first female faculty member.

The Curies conducted a series of tests on pitchblende and chalcolite, both uranium minerals. The tests seemed to show the existence of another element, which emitted far more radiation than uranium. Marie and Pierre published, in 1898, scientific papers in which they argued for the existence of two new elements, which they named polonium, in honor of Marie's homeland of Poland, and radium, from radius, the Latin word for ray. They also were the first to use the word radioactivity.

During the next four years, they published a total of 32 scientific papers. One of those papers foreshadowed the cause of Marie's death, reporting that exposure to radium destroyed diseased cells faster than healthy cells.

Marie earned her doctorate from the University of Paris in 1903; she was the first woman in Europe to do so. She and Pierre accepted an invitation to speak at the Royal Institution in London, which denied Marie the right to speak because she was a woman. That same year, Marie and Pierre and Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Again, however, Marie was nearly denied this honor because of her gender.)

The Nobel Prize brought with it a grant of money, and the Curies were able to hire their first lab assistant. They still did not have a proper lab, however, and so Pierre, using his status as a the chair of the physics department and, more importantly, a recent Nobel laureate, made a complaint to the university, which relented; the new lab was ready in 1906.

Pierre saw little of the new lab because he died in a road accident in April 1906. During heavy rain, a horse-drawn wagon struck Pierre and he fell under the wheels. His death made a widow of Marie and left her to rear two children by herself. (Their second daugther, Eve, had been born in 1904.)

The University of Paris offered Pierre's position as chair of the physics department to Marie, and she became the first university's female professor. The Curies' quest for a proper laboratory resulted in the creation of the Radium Institute, a joint creation of the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute.

In 1911, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for her work in the discovery of polonium and radium and in the isolation of radium. She is one of only four people who have won more than one Nobel Prize and the only one of the four to win in two different fields.

Marie saw the need to contribute during World War I, and she designed mobile radiography machines and vehicles, which were soon called petites Curies. Among the services performed by the petites Curies were to use hollow needles containing a radioactive gas that helped sterilize infected tissue. Some historians think that up to a million soldiers received treatment from Curie's equipment. She served as director of the Red Cross Radiology Service.

She also tried to donate her Nobel medals to the war effort, but the French National Bank wouldn't accept them. She did use some of the money that came with the Nobel medals to buy war bonds.

In the 1920s, Curie raised money to help start a radium research institute in her hometown, Warsaw. Part of her fund-raising efforts involved two trips to the United States; she returned from one of those trips with a $50,000 gift presented by President Herbert Hoover, on behalf of American scientists.

Marie had carried in her pocket test tubes containing radioactive material. She had stored such test tubes in her desk drawer, noticing a faint light given off by the material inside. She absorbed X-rays given off by her mobile equipment during World War I. Her long years of studying radioactivity had included long years of exposure to radiation. She died in 1934, from anemia tied to that long-term exposure. She had been writing a book, Radioactivity, which was published a year after she died.

To this day, Marie Curie's papers (and even a cookbook) are kept in lead-lined boxes and anyone wishing to study them must wear protective clothing.

Two museums, one in Paris and one in Warsaw, are devoted to her, and several scientific institutions have been named in her honor.

Marie and Pierre Curie now reside in the Pantheon in Paris, the final resting place of many famous French people. An element discovered in 1944 is named curium in their honor. In 1935, their daughter Irene, together with her husband, Frederic, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in part for continuing her parents' work in radioactivity.

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