Marie Sklowdowska Curie
1867 - 1934
It is hard to know how to impress upon the reader, in such a short synopsis of her life, the greatness of Marie Curie. She was a tenacious, hard working, highly intelligent, resourceful, and gifted scientist. She was also a pioneer for women in her field, which was and, to some extent, still is highly male dominated. Perhaps more importantly, though, she was a woman of great character, with a love of humanity. She believed that her work could benefit mankind, and she shunned wealth in an effort to provide doctors with better tools with which to help patients. In her efforts to do so, she inadvertently gave her own life.
Born Marie Sklodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, she was the youngest of five children. Manya, as her family called her, was the child of two teachers who valued education highly. Raised primarily by her father (her mother died when she was a child), she was exposed at an early age to science and physics. At the time, Poland did not place much emphasis on the higher education of women. In fact, the University of Warsaw didn’t admit women. So it was that, after graduation from high school at the age of 15, Marie and her older sister, Bronya, joined a "Floating University." This was an informal, illegal night school that taught pupils and subjects which were illegal under czarist rule. The classes were held at night, and floated from location to location, so as to remain clandestine. So began her relentless pursuit of knowledge.
Marie and Bronya both dearly wanted to obtain higher degrees, so they made a pact to help one-another. Marie would remain in Poland and work to pay for Bronya to attend college in Paris. Upon graduation, Bronya would do the same for Marie. By the fall of 1891, with help from her father and sister, Marie was able to gain acceptance to and attend the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris. Her attendance was not without challenges, though. She lived in a community which consisted primarily of students and artists, and got by on very meager means. At times, she wore every piece of clothing she owned in an effort to stay warm. As well, her lack of education and lack of proficiency in French put her at an academic disadvantage. Her diligent work paid off, though, and in 1893, she earned a Master’s Degree in Physics. The following year, she earned one in Math.
In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie. Marie was working on a study on the magnetic properties of steel in relation to their chemical compositions, and needed lab space. A mutual friend thought that Pierre might be able to help her. Their affinity for each other was at first intellectually motivated. Before long, though, they fell in love. In July of 1895, Marie and Pierre were married in a simple civil ceremony.
Marie and Pierre juggled their careers and family life from the onset of their marriage. Marie earned a certificate that allowed her to teach science to young women, and continued her research on the magnetic properties of steel. In 1897, their first child, Irene was born. Just a few weeks after the birth of their daughter, Pierre’s mother passed away, and his father moved in with the young family. This turned out to be a blessing, because he was an excellent babysitter for Irene, which in turn allowed Marie to continue her work.
It was time for Marie to consider a topic for her doctoral thesis, and there were two recent discoveries in which she was interested. The first was that, in 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered X-Rays. And just a couple of months later, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium compounds gave off rays that fogged photographic plates. The scientific community did not pay much attention to Becquerel’s work because they were so interested in that of Roentgen. However, Marie Curie was intrigued, and began experimental work on uranium rays. Her experiments confirmed Becquerel’s theory that the effects of uranium’s rays are constant, regardless of the form (solid, crushed, wet, dry, etc…). Further, she found that minerals with higher concentrations of uranium emitted more intense rays. This led her to form a hypothesis, that the rays emitted were an atomic property of uranium.It must be understood that, at the time, it was believe that the atom was the most elementary particle in matter. It was inconceivable that atoms could be divided, a
nd no one could comprehend how energy could come from them. She found that thorium also emitted "Becquerel rays," as they were called, and it, too, seemed to take place at an atomic level. To describe the phenomenon, she invented the word "radioactivity," which stemmed from the Latin word for ray. She did not know it at the time, but this was to be the beginning of a course of study that would change science and medicine forever.
Pierre became so interested in Marie’s work that he joined her. She had found two uranium ores which were more radioactive than pure uranium, so she felt certain that the ores contained elements which were heretofore undiscovered. With Pierre’s help, the research eventually led to the discovery of polonium, which was named after Marie’s home land of Poland, and radium. The work was difficult and exacting. They had to invent ways of isolating the material, and never patented the methods or machinery. Had they done so, they likely would have secured their financial future and then some. However, they believed that scientific research should be for the good of all people, and felt it would have been immoral to attempt to become wealthy from their discoveries. It took them over three years to isolate one tenth of a gram of radium chloride. They never did isolate polonium. They did not understand why at the time, but we now know it was because of the phenomenon of radioactive decay, and the fact that polonium has a half life of only 138 days. So the element was decaying before they could isolate it.
In 1900, at the first International Physics Conference, the Curies presented their research findings, including their exact methods for isolating radium. Pierre had done some research, using himself as the subject. He strapped radium salts, wrapped in rubber, to his arm for 10 hours, then studied the wound and recorded the healing process daily. After 52 days, a permanent gray scar was left, which showed that the tissue was permanently damaged. This information was soon used to develop the use of radiation as a treatment for cancer, among other maladies.
Financial demands dictated that Pierre take on additional work, so he found a position at the Sorbonne. With the doubled workload came a deterioration in his health, which was attributed to exhaustion. He had severe generalized pain that often kept him awake at night, and his legs shook so badly that it was often difficult to stand. The skin on both of the Curie’s hands was cracked and permanently scarred from their unprotected handling of radioactive materials, and Marie had lost 20 pounds while doing her doctoral research. However, it did not occur to anyone that radiation could be the cause of his ills. So certain were they of the safety of the substances that Pierre often carried a sample of uranium around in his pocket, and Marie kept radium salt by her bed because it glowed in the dark. It is now known that radium has a half-life of 1,620 years, and it is for this reason that the notebooks that the Curies kept are, today, still giving off radiation. If you want to review their papers at the Bibliotheque Nationale, you are required to sign release forms.
Marie wanted to make financial contributions to the household, so she became the first woman to be appointed lecturer at the Sevres College for teachers. It was a school that trained female teachers, and she was the first instructor there to include lab work in the physics curriculum.
1903 held both great achievement and sorrow for Marie. She delivered her formal thesis and became the first woman in France to earn a doctorate. However, in August of that same year, she had a miscarriage, and shortly thereafter, one of Bronya’s children died. As well, Pierre’s health continued to deteriorate, and no one quite knew why. Also that year, Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie were nominated as candidates to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie’s name was conspicuously omitted. Pierre was notified in advance by Magnus Goesta Mittag-
Leffler, who was an advocate of women in science, of Marie’s exclusion. Pierre replied and indicated that it would be a travesty to deny Marie’s role in their research. Thus it was that Marie was also nominated and, in December of 1903, Becquerel and both of the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on Becquerel rays. The Curies were too ill to travel to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, and had to put off their obligatory lecture until June of 1905.
Winning the Nobel Prize had its benefits and its drawbacks. It made Pierre a more attractive faculty member, and the Sorbonne, therefore, offered him a professorship with the promise of a lab. The press, though, hounded them relentlessly, and disrupted their lives to such an extent that Pierre was not able to work productively for almost a year. On December 4, 1904, just a month after their move to the Sorbonne, the Curie family increased their number with the birth of their second daughter, Eve. Clearly, life was becoming more complex for the Curies.
Right around the time that Pierre got a better handle on his public life, tragedy struck. On April 19, 1906, Pierre was hit by a horse-drawn carriage, and was killed instantly. Marie’s world was turned up-side-down. The French government offered her a state pension to support her and the children, but she refused it flatly, saying that she was perfectly capable of providing for her family. She began immediately to work more than she had ever before. The Sorbonne offered her Pierre’s old academic post and, in accepting it, she became the first female professor at that institution. When she delivered her first lecture there on November 5, 1906, Marie, who suffered terrible stage fright, found herself faced with a lecture hall packed with students and curious onlookers. Shortly prior, she had been taken to task with regard to whether or not radium was actually an element, so she set about establishing radium’s atomic weight, thus confirming its status, and ensuring it a place on the Periodic Table. As well, she set out to create a laboratory in Pierre’s memory. With help in the form of a grant from an American philanthropist, the government funded University of Paris, and the privately funded Pasteur Foundation, she was able to establish the Radium Institute. Marie herself was to head the radioactive lab, and a prominent physician was to head the medical division. In addition, she and several of the professional parents that she knew set up a co-operative school for their own children, in which each parent taught a class per week in their field. The only thing she gave up during this period was her post at the Severes School. Surely, this was a period of intense concentration and difficulty for Marie.
1910 also proved to be a year of great achievement and loss for Marie. Her father-in-law, who had been such a help and friend to her over the years, died. As well, she isolated pure radium, and she published her first textbook, A Treatise on Radioactivity. She secured the right to define an international standard for radium emissions, and the unit of measure was called a "Curie." Also in 1910, Marie became romantically involved with a married physicist named Paul Langevin. The press coverage was relentless, and caused the spread of wild rumors. Some, appealing to an anti-Semitic readership, claimed that her Polish heritage and maiden name made her Jewish. Others accused her of beginning the affair prior to Pierre’s death, intimating that he killed himself in anguish. The situation came to a head when, upon her return from an out of town conference, she found an angry mob outside her home. She was forced to take the children and stay with friends until the commotion died down. Whether because of the unwanted publicity or just because the relationship did not work out, she never married Langevin, and she dedicated most of the remainder of her life to the Radium Institute.
In December of 1911, Marie was awarded a second Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry for her work in the discovery of two new elements. She was recognized for revolutionizing the way scientists thought of the atom, and for opening up new avenues in the medical field with the use of radioactive elements. It was around this time that Marie went into an unproductive period. She was suffering from depression and kidney troubles, and she spent most of January, 1912 in a private clinic under an assumed name. In March of that year, she had a kidney operation, after which she spent some time in London, recuperating at the home of a friend. On December 3, 1912, she made her first entry in a lab notebook in 14 months. It was at about this point that she began working again.
In 1914, Marie wanted to contribute to the war effort. She used her connections with the French elite to gather funds to develop what would later be called "petites Curies," or little Curies. These were mobile radiology trucks that took X-ray equipment to the wounded. She and her daughter, Irene, actually took these machines to the battle front in the autumn of 1914 and ran the machinery themselves. She established 20 mobile units and 200 stationary ones. By 1916, she was training women as radiological assistants at the Radium Institute. In 1915, she was able to isolate radon, a radioactive gas emitted by radium. She sealed the gas in thin glass tubes, which were then encased in platinum. Doctors could place the tubes inside their patients’ bodies to target specific diseased tissues. Truly, her efforts to help during the war saved countless lives.
By 1920, Marie Curie’s medical problems were intensifying. She had double cataracts, which took four operations to correct to an extent which allowed her to perform lab experiments and to drive. We now know that exposure to radiation can cause this disease. She progressively became more and more ill, though none of the doctors she consulted could account for her deterioration. When she was too sick to drive to the lab, she attempted to work from home. Finally, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder, from which she died of July 4, 1934. The director of the sanitarium at which she was staying suggested that she had anemia to which her bone marrow did not respond (leukemia), and that it was probably due to damage from overexposure to radiation. Marie’s remains were interred twice: The first time, upon her death, she was buried with her husband and in-laws in a cemetery in Sceaux. Over 60 years later, the Curies were both moved to the Pantheon in Paris, which is France’s National mausoleum. Perhaps as a grand finale in the long list of firsts for women that Marie Curie pioneered, she became the first woman to earn the right to rest there.