Marie Curie

Marie Skłodowska Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) was a Polish-born French physicist and chemist famous for her work on radioactivity. She was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity and the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry. She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris.

She was born Maria Skłodowska in Warsaw (then in Vistula Land, Russian Empire; now in Poland) and lived there until she was twenty-four. In 1891, she followed her older sister Bronisława to study in Paris, where she obtained her higher degrees and conducted her subsequent scientific work. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw. Her husband Pierre Curie shared her Nobel prize in physics. Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, also shared a Nobel prize. She was the sole winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and she is the only woman to win the award in two different fields.

Her achievements include the creation of a theory of radioactivity (a term she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms (cancers) using radioactive isotopes.

Curie in a World War I mobile X-ray vehicle

While an actively loyal French citizen, she never lost her sense of Polish identity. She named the first new chemical element that she discovered polonium (1898) for her native country, and in 1932 she founded a Radium Institute (now the Maria Skłodowska–Curie Institute of Oncology) in her home town, Warsaw, headed by her physician sister Bronisława.

Curie visited Poland for the last time in the spring of 1934. Only a few months later, on July 4, 1934, Skłodowska-Curie died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, eastern France, from aplastic anemia, which was almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were not then known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed, without proper safety measures. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark.

1935 statue, Warsaw

She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honour of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. She became the first – and so far the only – woman to be honoured with interrment in the Panthéon on her own merits.

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

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2 Responses to Marie Curie

  1. alfy says:

    Marie was a most remarkable woman. I have admired and respected her personal qualities as well as her achievements ever since I first read a short biography of her when I was a student. She met her future husband Pierre when they were both physics students at the Sorbonne. Tragically, he was killed in a rather antique road accident, when he was knocked down in the road outside their laboratories by a horse-drawn dray, and the wheel crushed his skull.
    Her later achievements were set against this background of a young widow, raising her child alone.
    One of the other aspects of her Nobel research was that Marie did much of the hard manual work of refining the pitchblende ore in vats to extract the polonium and radium, while Pierre concentrated on the fine physical measurements.with instruments.
    I am sure that this was done by mutual consent but it does mean that Marie’s exposure to radio-active materials was inherently much greater than was Pierre’s.

    Finally, if we look around at our modern world and take a host of useful, taken -for-granted devices, we find that so many of them lead directly back to Marie Curie, in a somewhat similar way to Faraday’s 19 C work.

  2. Deskarati says:

    As you say Alfy, a remarkable woman. One whose work ethic and tenacity is an excellent example to all of us.

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