Maria Salomea SkŇāodowska: November 7, 1867‚ÄďJuly 4, 1934


‚ú™ Maria Salomea SkŇāodowska-Curie, known simply as¬†Marie Curie, was a Polish and French¬†naturalized¬†physicist¬†and¬†chemist¬†who conducted pioneering research on¬†radioactivity. She was the¬†first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to¬†win a Nobel Prize twice. She was also the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. Her husband,¬†Pierre Curie, was a co-winner of her first Nobel Prize, making them the¬†first-ever married couple¬†to win the Nobel Prize and launching the¬†Curie family legacy¬†of five Nobel Prizes.

1n 1906, she was also the first woman to become a professor at the¬†University of Paris. The physical and societal aspects of the Curies’ work contributed to shaping the world of the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries.

Maria SkŇāodowska was born in¬†Warsaw, Poland¬†in the¬†Russian Empire, on November 7, 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronislaw, nee Boguska and WŇāadysŇāaw SkŇāodowski. On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family had lost their property and fortunes through patriotic involvements in Polish national uprisings aimed at restoring Poland’s independence (the most recent was the January Uprising¬†of 1863‚Äď65).¬†This condemned the subsequent generation of the family, including Maria and her elder siblings, to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life.

Marie’s father WŇāadysŇāaw SkŇāodowski taught mathematics and physics, subjects that Maria would also pursue; and was also director of two Warsaw¬†gymnasia¬†(secondary schools) for boys. After Russian authorities eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish schools, he brought much of the laboratory equipment home and instructed his children in its use.¬†He was eventually fired by his Russian supervisors for pro-Polish sentiments and forced to take lower-paying posts. The family also lost money on a bad investment and eventually chose to supplement their income by lodging boys in the house.

Maria’s mother BronisŇāawa operated a prestigious Warsaw boarding school for girls; she resigned from the position after Maria was born.¬†She died of¬†tuberculosis¬†in May 1878, when Maria was ten years old.¬†Less than three years earlier, Maria’s oldest sibling, Zofia died of¬†typhus she¬†contracted from a boarder.¬†Maria’s father was an¬†atheist, and her mother a devout Catholic.¬†The deaths of Maria’s mother and sister caused her to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.

When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding school of J. Sikorska; next, she attended a gymnasium for girls, from which she graduated on 12 June 1883 with a gold medal. After a collapse, possibly due to depression, she spent the following year in the countryside with relatives of her father and the next year with her father in Warsaw, where she did some tutoring.

Maria took a position first as a home tutor in Warsaw, followed by two years as a¬†governess¬†in¬†Szczuki¬†with a landed family, the ŇĽorawskis, who were extended relatives of her father.¬†While working for the latter family, she fell in love with their son,¬†Kazimierz ŇĽorawski, a future eminent mathematician.¬†However, his parents rejected the idea of his marrying the penniless relative, and Kazimierz was unable to oppose them.¬†Maria’s loss of the relationship with ŇĽorawski was tragic for both of them. He soon earned a doctorate and pursued an academic career as a mathematician.

In late 1891, Marie left Poland for France. In Paris, Maria (or Marie, as she would be known in France) briefly found shelter with her sister and brother-in-law before renting a garret closer to the university, in the Latin Quarter, and proceeding with her studies of physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris, where she enrolled in late 1891.

She subsisted on her meager resources, keeping herself warm during cold winters by wearing all the clothes she had. She focused so hard on her studies that she sometimes forgot to eat.¬†SkŇāodowska studied during the day and tutored evenings, barely earning her keep. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory¬†.

SkŇāodowska began her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels, commissioned by the¬†Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. That same year,¬†Pierre Curie¬†entered her life: it was their mutual interest in¬†natural sciences¬†that drew them together.

Their mutual passion for science brought them increasingly closer, and they began to develop feelings for one another. Eventually, Pierre proposed marriage, but at first SkŇāodowska did not accept as she was still planning to go back to her native country. Curie, however, declared that he was ready to move with her to Poland, even if it meant being reduced to teaching French.

On 26 July 1895, they were married in¬†Sceaux;¬†neither wanted a religious service. Curie’s dark blue outfit, worn instead of a bridal gown, would serve her for many years as a laboratory outfit.¬†They shared two pastimes: long bicycle trips and journeys abroad, which brought them even closer. In Pierre, Marie had found a new love, a partner and a fellow scientific collaborator on whom she could depend.

In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen discovered the existence of X-rays, though the mechanism behind their production was not yet understood. In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power. He demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself. Influenced by these two important discoveries, Curie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis.

She used an innovative technique to investigate samples. Fifteen years earlier, her husband and his brother had developed a version of the¬†electrometer, a sensitive device for measuring electric charge.¬†Using her husband’s electrometer, she discovered that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity.

She hypothesized that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself. This hypothesis was an important step in disproving the assumption that atoms were indivisible entities.

The Curies did not have a dedicated laboratory, so most of their research was carried out in a converted shed next to ESPCI. The shed, formerly a medical school dissecting room, was poorly ventilated and not even waterproof. They were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation exposure attendant on their continued unprotected work with radioactive substances.

Curie’s systematic studies included two uranium minerals, pitchblend and torbernite (also known as chalcolite).¬†Her electrometer showed that pitchblende was four times as active as uranium itself, and chalcolite twice as active. She concluded that, if her earlier results relating the quantity of uranium to its activity were correct, then these two minerals must contain small quantities of another substance that was far more active than uranium.¬†She began a systematic search for additional substances that emit radiation, and by 1898 she discovered that the element¬†thorium¬†was also radioactive.

At that time, no one else in the world of physics had noticed what Curie recorded in a sentence of her paper, describing how much greater were the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite than uranium itself: “The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium.” She later would recall how she felt “a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as rapidly as possible.”¬†On 14 April 1898, the Curies optimistically weighed out a 100-gram sample of pitchblende and ground it with a pestle and mortar. They did not realize at the time that what they were searching for was present in such minute quantities that they would eventually have to process tonnes of the ore.

In July 1898, Curie and her husband published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element they named “polonium,” in honor of her native Poland, which would for another twenty years remain¬†partitioned among three empires¬†(Russia,¬†Austria and¬†Prussia). On 26 December 1898, the Curies announced the existence of a second element, which they named “radium,” from the¬†Latin¬†word for “ray.”¬†In the course of their research, they also coined the word “radioactivity.”

To prove their discoveries beyond any doubt, the Curies sought to isolate polonium and radium in pure form. The discovery of polonium had been relatively easy. Radium, however, was more elusive; it is closely related chemically to barium, and pitchblende contains both elements.

The Curies undertook the arduous task of separating out radium salt by differential crystallization. From a ton of pitchblende, one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was separated in 1902. In 1910, she isolated pure radium metal. She never succeeded in isolating polonium, which has a half-life of only 138 days.

Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumour-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.

In December 1903 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Curie and her husband declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize in person; they were too busy with their work, and Pierre Curie, who disliked public ceremonies, was feeling increasingly ill.

On 19 April 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a road accident. Walking across the¬†Rue Dauphine¬†in heavy rain, he was struck by a¬†horse-drawn vehicle¬†and fell under its wheels, fracturing his skull and killing him instantly. Curie was devastated by her husband’s death.¬†On 13 May 1906 the physics department of the University of Paris decided to retain the chair that had been created for her late husband and offer it to Marie. She accepted it, hoping to create a world-class laboratory as a tribute to her husband Pierre. She became the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.

In 1910 Curie succeeded in isolating radium; she also defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named for her and Pierre: the curie. She was known for her honesty and moderate lifestyle.

International recognition for her work had been growing to new heights, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored her a second time, with the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes, and remains alone with Linus Pauling as the only Nobel laureates in two fields each.

She was appointed director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914. During¬†World War I, Curie recognized that wounded soldiers were best served if operated upon as soon as possible.¬†She saw a need for field radiological centers near the front lines to assist battlefield surgeons, including to obviate amputations when in fact limbs could be saved. After a quick study of radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics, she procured X-ray equipment, vehicles, and auxiliary generators, and she developed mobile¬†radiography¬†units, which came to be popularly known as¬†petites Curies¬†(“Little Curies”).¬†She became the director of the¬†Red Cross¬†Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology center, which became operational by late 1914.

Curie directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war. Later, she began training other women as aides.

In 1915, Curie produced hollow needles containing “radium emanation”, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as¬†radon, to be used for sterilizing infected tissue. She provided the radium from her own one-gram supply.¬†It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units. Busy with this work, she carried out very little scientific research during that period. In spite of all her humanitarian contributions to the French war effort, Curie never received any formal recognition of it from the French Government.

In 1920, for the 25th anniversary of the discovery of radium, the French Government established a stipend for her; its previous recipient was Louis Pasteur, who had died in 1895. In 1921, she was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium.

In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding received her at the White House to present her with the 1 gram of radium collected in the United States, and the First Lady praised her as an example of a professional achiever who was also a supportive wife. Before the meeting, recognizing her growing fame abroad, and embarrassed by the fact that she had no French official distinctions to wear in public, the French Government offered her a Legion of Honour award, but she refused.

In 1925 she visited Poland to participate in a ceremony laying the foundations for Warsaw’s¬†Radium Institute.¬†Her second American tour, in 1929, succeeded in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute with radium; the Institute opened in 1932.

These distractions from her scientific labors, and the attendant publicity, caused her much discomfort but provided resources for her work. In 1930 she was elected to the International Atomic Weights Committee, on which she served until her death. In 1931, Curie was awarded the Cameron Prize for Therapeutics of the University of Edinburgh.

Curie visited Poland for the last time in early 1934. A few months later, on 4 July 1934, she died aged 66 at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation, causing damage to her bone marrow.

Because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbooks remain highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and she stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark. Curie was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the First World War.

She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. Their remains were sealed in a lead lining because of the radioactivity.

She gave much of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates. In an unusual decision, Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered. She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than to her. She and her husband often refused awards and medals. Albert Einstein reportedly remarked that she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame. ✪

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