Madame Marie Curie

Where can I learn about Madame Marie Curie? Read about her life and accomplishments in this article.

On November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland a girl named Marja Sklodowska was born, an event which went largely unnoticed, but this child's life and work was to one day have great significance for mankind. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of physics and mathematics, and her mother, Bronsitwa, who was a piano player and a singer, instilled in her from a very early age, the importance of hard work, perseverance, and a good education. The early loss of her sister Zosia, to Tuberculosis, and her mother two years later made Marja lose her faith in God, and believe firmly in Science.

In Russian-occupied Poland she completed her early education at the age of 16, at the Russian lycée, where she was noted for her memory powers, and won a gold medal. Being poor, she was forced to take a break from her education, and took up jobs as a governess and tutor. She used her savings to help educate Bronya, her elder sister, who was studying in medical school, and later when Bronya became a doctor she repaid Marja by financing her education at the Sorbonne in Paris. Here she changed her name to the French equivalent Marie, and obtained degrees both in Mathematics and Physics in 1893 and 1894.

During her studies at the Sorbonne, Marie met a French physicist called Pierre Curie, a scientist who won acclaim for his work in different fields like magnetism and piezoelectricity. On the 26th of July, 1895, Marie and Pierre Curie were married and thus begun a partnership which was not just based on love but also respect for each other's work. The money received by them as a wedding gift, was spent in purchasing bicycles, which they used to tour the country-side. Their marriage was blessed with the addition of two girls to their family, Irene who was born in 1897, and Eve, born in 1904.

Her maternal duties, however, did not keep Marie away from her work and studies. She began to study for her Doctorate in Physics, and as her thesis chose to study the newly discovered phenomenon radioactivity. She was joined by Pierre and in 1898 they announced the discovery of a new element which they named Polonium, after the country of her origin, Poland. This was followed, a short while later, by the announcement of the discovery of yet another element, Radium. In order to obtain just one gram of Radium, tons of pitchblende had to be processed. This was back-breaking work, performed in a broken down shed, which had very little protection against the weather. The noted German chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald, who wished to see the "laboratory" where this pioneering work was carried out, was surprised at how using such poor facilities, results of such great significance could be achieved.

In recognition of their work, the Curies shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, for the research done on the phenomenon of radioactivity, with Professor Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity. This made Marie Curie the first woman to receive this coveted award. Their work until then had been financed by themselves, leaving them in a state of permanent poverty. The Nobel Prize, and the resultant fame and financial rewards, ensured that there was now enough money to pursue further research. They published their findings freely and refused to patent their discoveries, insisting that these should be used for the benefit of mankind.

Even as their fame grew, tragedy struck the Curie family. The phenomenon of radioactivity was new and its effects were unknown at that time. The radioactive substances were handled with bare hands, and no protective equipment or clothing were used. The Curies and their colleagues did not know it was already beginning to affect them. Even to this day, the notebooks used by the Curies to record their work, are radioactive, and will continue to be so for a long time as the half life of Radium is 1620 years. Anyone wishing to inspect these books at the "Bibliothèque Nationale", has to sign a waiver absolving the authorities of all responsibility. The Curies loved their work so much, and carried the radioactive material in their pockets, or kept it by their bedside, without realising the danger they were exposing themselves to. On April 19, 1906, weakened and not being able to react quickly, Pierre Curie met with a road accident and died.

This calamity however did not deter Marie Curie. She continued to care for and educate her children and at the same time pursued her scientific work. She took up the post vacated by her husband, and became the first woman to be appointed professor at the Sorbonne. Being Polish, and a woman, she was discriminated against, and was unsuccessful in her bid, in 1911, to be elected to the Academy of Science (l'Académie des Sciences). In November of the same year, she was accused by the press of having an affair with her colleague Paul Langevin, and causing problems in his married life, a charge strongly denied by Marie Curie. The year 1911, however, ended on a high note for her, when in recognition of her work in discovering the new elements radium and polonium, and for the isolation and the study of radium, and its compounds, she received her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry. This made Marie Curie the first person, and still today the only woman to have received two Nobel Prizes. The only others to have received two Nobel Prizes are Bardeen, Linus Pauling, and Frederick Sanger.

In addition to her scientific achievements, Marie Curie was a humanitarian, who wished to use all her knowledge and research for the good of mankind. To this end, in 1914, she helped found the Pasteur Institute and the Radium Institute in Paris, whose laboratories are used to conduct research that finds ways to use radiation, to diagnose and treat cancer. During the first World War, accompanied by her daughter, she went to the front where she helped to fit vans with X-Ray facilities. She trained the X-Ray machine operators to provide a quick diagnosis of shrapnel and bullet injuries at the front itself, thus saving several lives.

After the war she used her fame and directed her efforts in raising funds to build a hospital and research laboratory. She travelled to the United States in 1921 for this purpose and met President Warren Harding, who gave her 1 gram of radium, collected by American women. She now had enough money and radium to pursue her work. She again visited the United States and met with President Herbert Hoover in 1929.

However, her work with Radium and Polonium were beginning to take their toll on her as they had done with her husband Pierre. Already she was beginning to suffer dizziness, fevers, constant fatigue, and problems with her hearing and eyesight. She suffered radiation burns on her hands and finally on July 4, 1934, at the age of 67, Marie Curie died of leukaemia caused by radiation exposure.

The parents of Marie Curie were both teachers and believed firmly in the benefits of science. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre distinguished themselves both separately and as a team. The daughter of Marie Curie, Irene Joliot Curie, and her husband Frederic Joliot continued the work started by her parents and discovered artificial radioactivity, and paved the way for the discovery of the neutron by Sir James Chadwick. Irène Joliot Curie and her husband Frederic Joliot, won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. This made Marie Curie and Irène Joliot Curie, the first mother-daughter winners of Nobel Prizes. Marie Curie's other daughter, Eve Curie although not a scientist worked hard as special adviser to the Secretary General of NATO. She also authored the biography of Marie Curie, and also the book "Journey Among Warriors", which recounts the experiences of her visits to the battle front during World War II. Marie Curie's grand-daughter, Dr. Helene Langevin-Joliot, as Professor of Nuclear Physics and Chemistry at the University of Paris also worked in the field of radioactivity.

After Marie Curie died she received several honours. The Radium Institute was renamed as the Curie Institute. Several countries have issued stamps in her honour and in appreciation of her work. Poland and France have minted coins, which record for posterity the contributions of Marie Curie. A unit of radioactivity, the Curie, which is the activity of 1 gram of Radium, has been named after the Curies, and equals 3.7x1010 disintegrations per second. (3.7x10 to the 10th. Power) The element no 96 was named Curium, in her honour. Craters on the Moon and on Mars, have been named after her, and NASA plans to name a Mars Rover after her. Books have been written about her and videos and movies produced regarding Marie Curie and her life, including an award winning film in 1943, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon called "Madame Curie".

The Panthéon holds the remains of famous personalities in France who have contributed extensively to the service of the country and bears the inscription "To the fatherland's great men, in gratitude". Before 1995, no woman in France had been honoured here for her own work (See note 1). On April 20, 1995, President François Mitterrand, corrected this by transferring the ashes of Marie and Pierre Curie from their original resting place in Sceaux near Paris to the Pantheon. This made Marie Curie, of Polish origin, the first woman to be thus honoured for her own accomplishments, giving an entirely new meaning to the inscription.

The work of Marie Curie, was not just important for her discoveries of new elements, but the process she used to isolate them, helped to create a "stockpile" of a few grams of radioactive material, which future scientists could use for further studies. As a result of her work X-Rays are very common today, as is Carbon dating, radiotherapy, and other medical applications for radiation. It is for no small reason that Marie Curie is considered by most to be the greatest woman scientist of all time. The world indeed owes a great debt to Marie Curie.

Note: The Pantheon already contained the remains of another woman, Sophie Berthelot, who received this honour just because she was the wife of the chemist Marcelin Berthelot, and not because she deserved it in her own right.

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