The Atomic Age begins
Name: Marie Curie-Skłodowska
Fields: Chemistry and physics
Claim to fame:First person to win two Nobel Prizes; discovered polonium and radium
Marie Curie-Skłodowska (1867-1934) discovered two new elements, demonstrated that radioactivity is a property of atoms and promoted the use of radiation to treat cancer. The first woman professor at the University of Paris, she was among the first scientists to realise the importance of quantum theory. It is fair to say that her achievements ushered in the Atomic Age.
Top of her class
Polish-born Marya Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of respected teachers. Her mother had tuberculosis but ran a prestigious boarding school for girls. During the Russian occupation of Poland, Russians replaced Polish teachers and life became very difficult for the family. Marya‘s mother and older sister died by the time she was 11.
Marya graduated at the top of her class in 1883, and supported herself and her sister Bronya by working as a governess for six years. She continued her education via letters with her father and using the technical library in her employer‘s factory. She and Bronya made plans to move Paris and to take turns supporting one another through university.
In 1891, she moved to Paris, changed her name to Marie and enrolled at the University of Paris. She lived in a primitive garret and completed a master-level degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics. One of very few women at the university, she came top in her class. During her periodic visits home, Marie participated in Warsaw’s clandestine Flying University, an ongoing series of secret lectures that were open to women.
A perfect partnership
Marie met Pierre Curie in 1894. A physicist teaching at a technical school, he shared her passion for science. They married in 1895 and spent the next 14 years building a family and conducting ground-breaking research. They had two daughters: Irène and Eve. While Marie worked, Pierre‘s widowed father looked after the children.
In choosing a doctoral thesis, Marie looked for something completely new: a topic that would let her conduct laboratory experiments rather than simply library research. She chose to focus on Henri Becquerel‘s discovery of radioactivity. Marie and Pierre conducted most of their experiments in an unventilated shed, and the two suffered physically. But their work led to their sharing a Nobel Prize with Bequerel for their work on radiation, and Marie received another for her discovery of radium.
Pierre died in a tragic accident in 1906. To say that Marie was devastated by his death would be an understatement. The university gave her a professorship and, after a couple of years, Pierre‘s position as chair of the physics department.
Radiation and health
During World War I, Marie developed mobile X-ray units to use in front-line hospitals. These units were used to help around a million soldiers. At the same time, she promoted the use of radon gas to treat tumours, sending samples to several hospitals.
Marie had largely ignored the growing evidence of the health effects of radiation, despite having lost many of her laboratory workers to leukaemia and anaemia. In 1934, she died of leukaemia in Passy, France.
A radiant intellect
Marie studied museum samples of two uranium ores, and realised that they must contain other substances more radioactive than uranium. Recognising the importance of her experiments, Pierre dropped his own work on crystals and joined her. The two spent years working in their ramshackle, leaky laboratory developing new ways to separate out different elements from mineral ores. In 1898, they published their discoveries of radium and polonium, which are many times more radioactive than uranium.
Marie concluded that radioactivity originates from atoms themselves, a finding which hailed a whole new era in science. Pierre Curie and Henri Bequerel were nominated alone for their work, but Pierre made it clear that he would not accept the Prize if his wife were not included. The three were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their work on radiation.
Marie‘s original findings were well documented, and her ownership of the ideas undisputable. Nevertheless, she struggled throughout her career against accusations that the work was wholly Pierre’s. Fortunately, she published her findings quickly and recorded everything. (Unfortunately for us, her notebooks are so highly radioactive that they are too dangerous to handle.)
To patent or not to patent?
After her husband died, Marie was given an assistant professorship by the University of Paris and became the university‘s first female professor in 1908. The Curie laboratory welcomed many visiting scientists, including several women who made important contributions to radiation research.
In 1911, amidst public scandal over her candidacy for the French Academy of Sciences and supposed liaison with a fellow scientist, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of radium. Although they had spent years developing a process to isolate pure radium, the Curies did not patent it in their belief that science should advance unhindered.
In the 1920s, Marie carried out two successful fundraising campaigns in the US in order to set up the new Radium Institute in France (now the Institut Curie) and the Warsaw Radium Institute. By this point, she had
changed her mind about scientists patenting their inventions.
Marie Curie-Skłodowska found that the strength of radiation depends only on the amount of uranium or thorium in a given amount of ore, and deduced that radioactivity originates from atoms themselves. At
the time, many scientists thought of atoms as being unchangeable. Her revelation that radioactivity was a property of atoms, and not a result of the way they are arranged in molecules, was astounding.
Marie discovered radium and polonium, and was awarded Nobel Prizes for her contributions to physics and to chemistry. She also directed a large amount or research into the potential uses of radiation in medicine, and developed separation processes that made the study of radium possible.