Science Biography: The Life Of Marie Curie

About the work of the scientist Marie Curie, and how she risked her health in her attempts to unlock the secrets of radiation.

When speaking of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, the name of Marja Sklodowska does not spring readily to mind. That is the original name though of the scientist who, with her spouse Pierre Curie, formed the husband and wife partnership studying radiation. Their study at the time was, unknowingly, both brave and foolish. They were exposed to high levels of radiation for prolonged periods, and they paid for it with their lives.

Marie Curie was born under her former name in the city of Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. Her parents were both teachers, so there was a strong emphasis on education within the household and therefore in her formative years. Marie was a keen student of the sciences anyway, but the law in Poland at the time stated that it was illegal for women to enter into higher education. After several years being forced to study covertly in Poland, and also because of the death of her mother and sister from disease, Marie decided upon a move to Paris. In the French capital she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who at the time taught physics at the University of Paris.

They married in 1895, and found that as well as having a passion for one another, they were both in love with science. Pooling their resources they began to research the phenomenon of radioactivity. When studying a uranium ore called pitchblende, they discovered that it was more radioactive than what they would have assumed it to be, when taking into account the amount of uranium present in the ore. The obvious conclusion to this was that there was some other element(s) present that was/were extremely radioactive, which nobody had previously detected. After many hours researching and experimenting they were able to identify another element, Polonium, which they named after Marie Curie's home country. From polonium they derived another element that emitted a great deal more radiation, which they named radium.

In 1903 Pierre and Marie Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the research that they had conducted. A third person, Antoine Becquerel, shared the prize with them, as he had discovered natural radiation. Marie Curie was the first woman ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Tragically, three years later Pierre Curie was killed in a car accident, although he was already showing the signs of being weakened by radiation poisoning. Unwittingly, Marie Curie continued her dangerous work, and was rewarded in 1911 with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which had been all her own accomplishment. The award was given for her studying the chemical properties of radium, after she had managed to isolate it.

The death of her husband and several of her assistants from seemingly unexplainable causes didn't put Marie Curie off her work. Perhaps, if she had taken a step back and analysed the situation, it would have become glaringly obvious. However, by now it seemed that she was obsessed with radium. Ultimately it led to her contracting leukaemia in the 1930's. She died, a shadow of her former self in 1934.

Her work was not in vein though. Radium was used extensively in World War One to provide x-rays of injured bodies. Also, in more modern times it has been used to exterminate cancerous cells. Marie Curie was held in such high esteem as a scientist that after her death, they renamed the Radium Institute the Curie Institute, and her surname is also used as a measure of the radioactivity of an element.


Marie Curie


Nobel Prize


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