Marie Curie’s 144th Birthday – Who is Madame Curie?

Marie Curie’s 144th Birthday – Who is Madame Curie?

So Google told you that today is Madame Curie’s birthday. But who is this Madame Curie and what significance has she had in the world that we live in? In one line; she investigated radio-active substances and discovered the elements Radium and Polonium. In recognition of this work, as he was awarded the Nobel Prize twice! She ran her own research institute and gave several other women physicists jobs. Her daughter also followed in her footsteps.

Family and Childhood

Marie Sklodowski was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Both her parents being school teachers had high expectations of Marie and her siblings. The Sklodowski family was very learned and cultured, but they struggled financially. Poland was occupied by Russia and Germany. Marie’s father, Wladyslaw, a school principal lost his job to a Russian because he was loyal to Poland and a patriot. Marie’s family took in student boarders and the household was crowded with many people and these living conditions helped to spread tuberculosis, a major infectious disease in the late nineteenth century. Marie’s mother got the disease from Wladyslaw’s brother who came to live with them and died in 1878 from TB when Marie was only nine. Her sister Zosia followed suit. To cope with the loss, the children pretended to be miraculous doctors who could cure any disease and Marie decided to make this fantasy a reality. She studied in ‘the flying university’ an underground school for women to study sciences as they were not allowed to attend college in Poland.

Why She Chose Physics

Marie was encouraged to study physical science by her cousin, Jozef Boguski, the director of the Warsaw Museum of Industry. He allowed her to do experiments in physics and chemistry on the weekends at the museum. When Marie got to the Sorbonne in Paris, a revolution in science was underway. This was a very exciting time to study physics. The structure of the atom and the forces which hold it together were still unknown when Marie enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne.

Research in Radiation

With Pierre acting as her advisor, Marie spent several years purifying uranium ore. It was a grueling task to isolate the “radioactive” substances from tons of ordinary rock. Toiling over a giant vat, she worked out of doors or in a drafty shed. This was a blessing in disguise because the vat gave off poisonous radon gas. The Curies were not aware of this. Marie proposed that the radiation came from inside the atoms. Other scientists followed her lead and started to investigate the structure of atoms. She discovered two new elements which she named Radium (after “radiation”) and Polonium (after Poland). In 1903, the Curies and Henri Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in physics for their combined research and discoveries on radioactivity.

The Dangerous Beauty of Radium

Marie’s plan to become a teacher like her mother was changed by Pierre Curie who she met and married. He persuaded her to research a mysterious, invisible energy discovered by Henri Becquerel earlier. This was the research that would catapult her into scientific immortality. Both husband and wife were enamored by Radium and Marie kept a small vial of Radium salts by her bedside. Despite burns and symptoms of fatigue, they never admitted the negative effects of radiation. She thought only of its potential to heal people. Workers in her lab fell sick and yet she allowed her own daughter Irene to be exposed to high levels of X-rays.

The Curies had two daughters: Irene was born in 1897 and Eve in 1904. Pierre’s father took over the childcare duties as Marie and Pierre became more and more involved in their work. Marie became pregnant again, but she suffered a miscarriage probably due to high levels of radiation in her lab. In April, 1906, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn wagon and died. Marie was devastated, and she turned to a close friend of Pierre’s, Paul Langevin, for companionship. Their love affair was exposed by a tabloid newspaper, and a scandal resulted. Marie’s reputation and career were nearly destroyed.

Male Chauvinism and Discrimination

Then the Swedish Nobel committee announced she had won the Nobel prize for chemistry!
This probably saved her career in physics but the Nobel Committee asked her not to attend the ceremony in 1911. The French Academy of Sciences also voted down her membership. Angry mobs gathered around her home. The science community remained silent and did not come to her defense. Her friend and engineer Hertha Aryton gave her place to hide out. Bravely, she attended the Nobel Awards in spite of it all. In the following years she was very bitter about the way she was treated. She made a point of hiring people at her lab who also had suffered discrimination by the male science establishment. She also hired several women at her lab and gave them their start in physics. One was Marguerite Perey who began as a test tube washer and, a few years later, discovered the radioactive element Francium. Ellen Gleditsch came to the lab from Norway. At home, Marie was training Irene to become a physicist. Irene reminded her of Pierre; she had the same temperament and the same dislike of school.

Service to Nation and Community

During World War I, Marie and her daughter Irene took X-rays of wounded soldiers which located bullets and shrapnel for surgeons. They supervised over 1 million X-rays and Marie trained over a hundred women to take X-rays in trucks. She and Irene traveled in their own truck and lived out in the field much like the other soldiers. Because of her service to soldiers during the war, the French public began to think of Marie less as a foreigner and more as a patriotic French woman. She also toured America twice after the war and raised money for her Radium Institute. During these years, she controlled the largest supply of radioactive substances used in scientific research. She shared these with other physics labs engaged in studying the structure of the atom.

The End of A Legend

Marie had the constitution of a horse, but even she eventually succumbed to the lethal effects of radiation exposure. In the last decade of her life, she suffered from severe pains and aches like Pierre had. She also had cataracts in her eyes and constant ringing in her ears. In 1934, Marie’s bold adventure into the atomic universe came to an end. She died in Paris of leukemia, a cancer of the blood. In 1997, Marie’s remains were moved to the Pantheon, France’s monument to its heros. She is the first woman to be so honored. Marie Curie was a great Polish patriot, but she had won a place in the heart of the French people.

Irene and her husband Fred Joliot continued as Directors of The Radium Institute and secured radioactive materials during the Nazi Occupation in World War II. After the war, Fred became Chief Architect of the French Government’s Nuclear Program. Marie Curie’s grand daughter Helene became a nuclear physicist. Altogether the Curie/Joliot family won five Nobel Prizes.


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2 Responses to “Marie Curie’s 144th Birthday – Who is Madame Curie?”

  1. reddy2go says:

    In a world of multi-tasking, she displays stupendous singularity of purpose! Happy Birthday Marie Curie!

  2. Sonya76 says:

    Marie Curie is an inspiration, it was such a shame that she succumbed to radiation poisoning.

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