A retrospective: Marie Curie

Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867, and at the time, Poland was part of the Russian Empire. Both of her parents were teachers, but at the age of 10, her mother died, leaving her father to bring her up alone. He constantly encourages her to study sciences, but when she came of an age where she could attend university, not only was her father not wealthy enough to pay the tuition fees, but girls were not granted the privilege of higher education in Poland.

Her sister, Bronya, faced the same challenge, and Maria worked as a part-time tutor to pay for Bronya to attend a university in Paris, where education wasn’t suppressed by the Russian tzar. Eventually in 1891, at age 24, she saved enough money to follow Bronya to Paris, and there she studied the three main sciences, physics, chemistry, biology and also chose to study mathematics, at Paris’ most prestigious university, Sorbonne.

She had now chosen to use Marie instead of her birth name Maria, and in 1894 met Pierre Curie, who was a professor of physics. Their mutual love for science immediately brought them together, and they married a year later, and she became Marie Curie. They both began research studying invisible rays given off by uranium, which Professor Henri Becquerel had discovered. He found that the rays would go through solid surfaces. Marie began studying pitchblende which contained uranium, and it was far more radioactive than pure uranium; this led her to believe pitchblende contained something else. She was convinced that she’d discovered a brand new element, but her peers remained extremely sceptical.

Pierre and Marie took pitchblende into their laboratory and began to dissect it. They dissolved samples in acid until they were able to separate the elements, and this is where they discovered a blank powder 330 times more radioactive than uranium, that they called polonium, which became atomic number 84. They were convinced that another element was present. They called it radium, and now they had to trace it, but pitchblende was expensive. She found a company in Austria that removed the uranium from the pitchblende and then discarded it as a useless substance; she now had all the pitchblende she needed. They finally managed to isolate the radium, which became atomic number 88, but during this time they both battled with illness, and it’s more than likely early stages of radiation sickness as they wore no protective clothing, or researched it in a controlled environment. This was down to plain ignorance as they genuinely didn’t realise how dangerous radiation was.

In 1903, Marie, Pierre and Henri Becquerel, were all awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their separate work on radioactivity, which would eventually lead to the creation of the X-Ray. That very same year she gained her doctorate in physics, but their harmonious marriage would last only a few more years before Pierre was tragically killed by a horse and cart. Despite losing her best friend, she continued with her research and in 1911 she gained her second Nobel Peace Prize in chemistry, once again regarding radioactivity, a word that was of her making. To this day she remains the only person to get two prizes in two separate fields.

By the time The Great War (World War I) began, in 1914, she’d already created mobile X-Ray machines that were named ‘Little Curies’. After the war, her fame had increased and she used it to gain funds to build a radium research institute in Warsaw.

In 1934, Marie died from aplastic anemia, which is overexposure to radiation. Her legacy lived on and her name is synonymous with cancer research and there’s a charity bearing her name.