Out of several physicists I have read about, Marie Curie is the one that stood out to me. Last summer while riding her bike, my seven-year-old daughter fell and broke her leg. Normally she is a child who gets right up and shakes it off, that was not the case this time. At the hospital, she received an x-ray that showed a horrific tibia fracture that gave her a full leg cast for eight weeks and a splint for four weeks after the cast came off. Without Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, which is one of the main components in the x-ray, my precious daughter would have suffered longer. I also can relate to this brilliant woman as a mother. Shortly after her first daughter was born, she began looking for a research topic that would earn her a doctorate in science. No woman in the world had yet to accomplish that task. I feel a bit overwhelmed at times with raising three daughters with my husband, working full time, taking eleven college credits, and not to mention volunteering at church and my kids’ schools. I am in awe of Marie’s dedication to her love of her family and her passion about scientific discoveries.
She was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Before reaching her preteen years, her family witnessed the deaths of her oldest sister and mother. Even with these tragic losses, Maria graduated high school at 15 with the highest honors. Despite her accomplishments, she suffered from depression. She was sent by her father to visit family in the countryside for a year to recuperate. After that, education drew Maria back to Warsaw, however women were not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw. Maria and her sister, Bronya, took part in a secretive “floating university,” where they met at night and at different locations to avoid detection by the authorities. The sisters realized that their chance at a professional education would have to be at a different major university in Europe. To make this happen, the sisters would work to put each other through school, first Bronya, and then Maria. During her three years as a governess for three children, whose father was an owner of a beet-sugar factory, she had scrimped and saved for her education at Sorbonne University in Paris (where she changed her name to Marie). Her outstanding work in physics won her a scholarship. On top of that, Marie was being paid by a group of industrialists, The Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, to investigate the magnetic properties of different steels. Her research required a lab. At the lab she was researching at, she met her husband-to-be, Pierre Curie, who had made important discoveries on crystals and magnetism. Marie encouraged him to finish his doctoral thesis, and he convinced her to call Paris her home. They were married in July 1895, and had their first daughter, Irene, in September 1897. Before her birth, Marie submitted her final results of her magnetic properties of steel research and began to search for another research topic that would help earn her doctorate degree in science. What a multitasker, no woman in the world had yet earned that degree!
In late 1895, a German physicist, Wilhelm Roentgen, had discovered rays that could travel through solid wood or flesh. A few months later, a French physicist, Henri Becquerel, made a discovery that minerals containing uranium also gave off rays. Marie decided to experiment with the uranium rays since there was so little to go on. During her research, the discovery of the mineral pitchblende, rich in uranium, gave off more radioactivity then could be accounted for with the amount of uranium in it. This mineral may contain up to 30 different chemical elements. After long labor, Marie and Pierre succeeded in finding two new elements. This was huge! In 1898 they published a paper revealing their discoveries. Marie named the element “polonium” after her homeland. Their name for the second element “radium” came from the Latin word for ray. Radium, which gives out heat and visual light, would lead way to amazing inventions. Pierre also had proof that radium could damage living flesh. This opened up a new way to treat cancers and other illnesses. During their experimentation, both Marie and Pierre were ill. Marie lost more than 20 pounds and Pierre was often in pain. Marie was insistent on her belief that radiation wasn’t harmful, but today doctors think otherwise. In 1903 they, along with Henri Becquerel, were awarded the highest honor of the Nobel Prize for physics for their joint discovery of the two new elements. Marie accomplished yet another first; she was the first woman in the world to win a Nobel Prize.
Also in 1903, Marie completed her doctoral thesis, becoming the first woman in France to do so. She also became the first woman faculty member at France’s top training school for women teachers. All this hard work and dedication at first did not make them rich, however when the prestige of the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded, the honor changed their lives. Pierre was hired as a professor at Sorbonne and the university funded a lab for him. The university also hired Marie as laboratory chief. As mentioned before, Pierre had been ill and was not able to travel to Sweden to deliver the traditional lecture accepting the Nobel Prize until 1905. In December 1904, the Curie’s welcomed their second daughter, Eve. As in every life it seems, you have your ups and you have your downs. Pierre was tragically killed in April 1906 when he slipped on a wet street just outside his laboratory, and fell in front of a heavy horse drawn wagon that ran over his head, killing him instantly. I can only begin to imagine Marie’s grief in the loss of her husband, and partner, and the father of her children. Still, she knew her life’s work was unfinished and she had to be strong for her family. Less than a month after her loss, the university made her its first woman professor, filling Pierre’s position. This incredible woman, with the help of her scientist friends, persuaded the French government and the private Pasteur Foundation to fund a Radium Institute in order to establish a scientific institute worthy of Pierre’s memory.
This woman was not only busy with her teaching, research, and setting up the institute, but also as a mother. She taught physical science at a co-op school once a week, where her daughters attended. In 1911, Marie traveled to Sweden to accept her second Nobel Prize for chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. Shortly after that, her depression and health problems took a toll on her. After she was able to return to work in late 1912, she devoted her life to the Radium Institute. The building was completed in August 1914. At this time Germany invaded France. Most of Curie’s staff at the institute enlisted in the war effort. Research halted during the World War and once again she looked for ways science could help. There were two specific ways radium helped in the war; one by x-rays and the other by preparing tiny glass tubes containing radon, a radioactive gas, that were inserted into patients at the areas where radiation would destroy diseased tissue. The use of x-rays would help save countless lives by detecting bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. Marie talked many wealthy people into donating their cars so the x-ray machines could be a mobile station for the front lines. Her daughter, Irene, and she operated these machines at times in dangerous conditions.
After the war ended in 1918, Marie did whatever she could to raise money for the Radium Institute. The tales of her early struggles could inspire others to give scientists more help. On behalf of the women of America in 1921, President Harding presented Marie with a gram of radium. It was only a pinch, but so fiercely radioactive that it could fuel thousands of experiments. Another gift of $50,000 was given by President Hoover in 1929, for the purchase of more radium to further her research on radioactivity. Her love for her work was also what was thought to have killed her. In July 1934, Marie Curie died of leukemia, a blood disease that often results from too much exposure to radiation. In 1995, the remains of Pierre and Marie Curie were transferred to rest in the majestic Pantheon in Paris, where they now lie amongst France’s greatest citizens.
Marie Curie impacted countless lives with her zeal and quest for discovery of the unknown. She accomplished all of this while being a student, a wife, a mother, and a teacher. I feel connected to this amazing woman, not as a physicist myself, but as a working mother, wife, and student. It’s also mind boggling to me that she accomplished what she did while suffering bouts of depression. I wonder what she could have done further with modern medicine to combat her illnesses. Marie Curie is my favorite physicist because of her love of family, her love of helping others and her perseverance in difficult times. She was a phenomenal person who over a century later helped my child when she broke her leg, get the help she needed. Thank you, Marie.
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Goldsmith, Barbara. Obsessive Genius:The Inner World of Marie Curie. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, INC., 2005.
Keller, Alex. The Infancy of Atomic Physicists: Hercules in His Cradle. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.
"Marie Curie- Biography." Nobel prize. 13 Oct. 2005 <http://www.Nobelprize.org/physics/laureates/1903/marie-curie-bio.html>.
Poynter, Margaret. Marie Curie: Discoverer of Radium. Berkeley Heights: Enslow, 1994.
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