MADAME CURIE: WOMAN OF SCIENCE
by Stan Griffin
Marie Sklodowska-Curie was the first woman to achieve world-wide fame as a scientist. Her discoveries played a major role in (1) increasing our knowledge of the atom which ultimately led to the creation of nuclear energy; (2) developing radiation treatments for cancer, giving doctors a way to cure a fatal disease; and (3) widening our understanding of the sun, our solar system, and the entire universe.
Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. At the age of 24, she went to Paris, France to study at the Sorbonne (part of the University of Paris). She received degrees in physics and math. Interests turned her toward pure scientific research.
In 1894 Marie met Pierre Curie, a senior worker in a Paris physics laboratory. A year later they were married. They both went to work at the Ecole de Physique (School of Physics), studying "magnetic properties of various alloys."
Events of 1895 and 1896 brought the Curies to a new "arena." Two physicists, William Roentgen (in Germany) and Henri Becquerel (in France), discovered penetrating rays coming from an electric tube and from a piece of uranium. The name "X-rays" was applied because no one seemed to know what they were or where they came from.
Marie needed a study project for her doctor of science degree, and she chose to investigate these mysterious emissions. Pierre joined her in the work. They soon found a new chemical element, a metal which Marie named "polonium" (after her place of birth). She coined the word "radioactive" to describe substances like uranium and polonium that gave off these penetrating rays or, as the process came to be called, "radiation."
Next Marie "partly purified" a substance she thought contained another new element. She named it "radium" (after the Latin word "radius" meaning ray). By 1899 Marie was working to complete the radium purification process, a period of time she referred to as the "best of her life." And in 1902 she made a pure form of radium. It was only one gram, but she considered this accomplishment the peak of her research career. From her success arose earth-shaking changes in the 20th century scientific world.
The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to the Curies and Henri Bacquerel for their work in radioactivity.
The value of radium soared as its possible uses became clear, but the Curies never profited personally from the many radium clinics and "factories" that appeared all over the world.
In 1906, as he was crossing the street, Pierre Curie was struck by a heavy horse-drawn wagon and fatally injured. Marie continued her research alone, eventually producing larger amounts of pure radium. For isolating metallic radium, she won the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. She was the first woman to be so honored. It was also the first time anyone had received a Nobel Prize twice--and for success in two different sciences.
During World War I Marie learned how to transform ordinary automobiles into mobile X-ray vehicles. She also saw to it that about 200 of them were taken by railroad cars to the front lines. She even drove one herself for a while. These vans were called "petit curies" and became a familiar sight to the fighting men.. Hospitals used X-ray equipment to locate bullets and shrapnel in wounded soldiers.
At the end of the war (1918), Marie became Director of the Paris Radium Institute. Researchers there studied the chemistry of radioactive substances and their medical uses. In the 1920s, Marie " ... linked her institute to a cure for cancer in her pleas for donations ..."
The Curie family also included two daughters: Irene was born in 1897 and became interested in her parents' scientific work. She married Frederic Joliot, and the two of them won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artficial radioactivity. Eve was born in 1904. She was a lecturer, pianist, and author; among her books was a biography of Marie.
As the Curies conducted their work with radium, they took no special safety precautions. It wasn't until later that scientists realized radioactivity could be a health hazard. Through the last half of her life, Marie was frequently tired and plagued with a variety of ailments. She eventually came to believe that she suffered from radiation sickness.
On July 4, 1934 Marie Curie died of leukemia (a form of cancer) caused by her lifelong exposure to radiation. Because of her work, however, many cancer victims have survived.
The Curie name also remains as an international unit of measurement. One curie is the amount of radioactive substance from which a set amount of atoms decay every second.
A motion picture, "Madame Curie," was released by Metro Goldyn Mayer in 1943 and enjoyed considerable success at the box office. It starred Greer Garson in the title role and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre.
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