Marie Curie: A Pioneering Physicist

Aspirations come from hopes and dreams only a dedicated person can
conjure up. They can range from passing the third grade to making the local
high school football team. Marie Curie’s aspirations, however, were much
greater.

Life in late 19th century Poland was rough. Being a female in those
days wasn’t a walk in the park either. Marie Curie is recognized in history by
the name she took in her adopted country, France. Born in Poland in 1867, she
was christened Manya Sklodowska. In the year of her birth, Poland was ruled by
the neighboring Russia; no Pole could forget it, or at least anyone involved in
education, as both Manya’s parents were. Manya’s mother was a headmistress of a
girls’ school. The Russians insisted that Polish schools teach the Russian
language and Russian history. The Poles had to teach their children their own
language and history in secrecy.

Manya enjoyed learning but her childhood was always overshadowed by
depression. At the young age of six, her father lost his job and her family
became very poor. In the same year of 1873, her mother died of tuberculosis.

As if that wasn’t enough tragedy for the family already, two of her sisters died
of typhus as well. Her oldest sister, Bronya, had to leave school early to take
care of the family. Despite all these hardships and setbacks, Manya continued
to work hard at school.

Although her sister Bronya had stopped going to school to act as the
family’s housekeeper, she desperately wanted to go on studying to become a
doctor. This was almost impossible in Poland, however. In Poland, women were
not allowed to go to college. Many Poles took the option to flee from Russian
rule and live in France; this is exactly what Bronya did.She had set her
heart on going to Paris to study at the famous Sorbonne University (The
University of Paris). The only problem now was that she had no money to get
there.

Manya and Bronya agreed to help each other attain their educations.

Manya got a job as a governess and sent her earnings to support Bronya in Paris.

Then, when Bronya could afford it, she would help Manya with her schooling and
education in return. Manya went to live in a village called Szczuki with a
family called Zorawski. Aside from teaching the two children of the family for
seven hours a day, she organized lessons for her own benefit as well. Manya
spent her evenings, late evenings, and even mornings devouring books on
mathmatics and science.

Bronya finished her studies and married a Polish doctor, Casimir Dluski.

They invited Manya to live with them in Paris while she went to college. Manya
didn’t want to leave her country and most importantly, her family. Her
eagerness for the quest of knowledge overcame her fear of the unknown,
nonetheless. She travelled to Paris in an open railroad car on a trip that
lasted three days in the Polish winter. She arrived safely to her long-since-
childhood dream, the city of Paris. Manya Sklodowska quickly became Marie.

While Marie improved her French, she stayed with Bronya and her husband.

They lived more than an hour away from the university. Marie wanted to be
nearer to her work, so she eventually ended up moving out of her sister’s home
and into a single cold damp room, eating only enough to keep her alive.

Fortunate enough for a scholarship, Marie was able to go on studying until she
had completed two courses. In her final exam-inations, she came in first in
the subject of mathematics and second in physics. By 1894, at the age of 27,
Marie had aquired not one, but two degrees from France’s top university and also
became a totally fluent speaker of the French language.

Marie had always ruled love and marriage out of her life’s program. She
was obsessed by her dreams, harassed by poverty, and overdriven by intensive
work. Nothing else counted; nothing else existed. She did, however, meet a
young man every day at Sorbonne and at the laboratory. Marie and her destiny
actually met on coincidence. Marie needed somewhere to conduct her experiments
for research ordered by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.

The lab at Sorbonne was too crowded with students, in addition to not having the
right equipment. A friend of hers suggested a friend’s labratory. His name was
Pierre Curie. Marie soon completed her commitment to her adopted country by
marrying this Frenchman.

Marie and Pierre Curie got married in 1895. The two of them combined
probably made up the best team of scientists ever. Pierre had made important
discoveries about magnetism. Marie decided to follow this up by looking at the
magnetic properties of steel. In the same year of their marriage, a German
scientist by the name of Wilhelm Roentgen made an accidental discovery. He
found that certain substances produced rays of energy that would pass through
soft materials as opposed to hard materials. Due to the fact that scientists
often use the symbol “x” to stand for anything unknown, he called his mysterious
discovery the “x-ray.” The x-ray was more than an ammusing puzzle. By directing
x-rays and photographic film at a solid object that consisted of both soft and
hard substances a positive image can be made of the hard substance. A prime
example would be the human body. This discovery now made it possible to look
inside the human body without performing surgery. Within the few days of the
findings, x-rays were used to locate a bullet in a man’s leg. The world of
medicine had acquired a major new tool for examining the sick and injured.

The year after Roentgen’s discovery, a French researcher and a friend of
the Curie’s, Antoine Henri Becquerel found that a rare substance called uranium
gave off rays that seemed to be very much like the x-rays that Wilhelm Roentgen
had described.

In 1897, the year of Roentgen’s discovery, Marie Curie gave birth to her
very first daughter, Irene. Despite being caught up in family life, Marie was
still determined to go on with her scientific work. She decided to follow up
Becquerel’s discovery and do special research on the study of uranium and the
rays it produced.

Elements are the raw materials of our universe. Everything is made up
of these basic substances. Scientists are able to break things down into their
various elements and tests can be made to discover its array of properties.

In the small damp labratory in the back of Sorbonne’s School of Physics
and Chemistry, Marie began a long, tedious and painstaking series of experiments
that tested every element known to man. She found that only the two elements
uranium and thorium gave off rays. “Radioactivity” was the name Marie gave to
this property. Marie soon again made another important discovery about a
mineral called alled pitch-blende, a black substance, somewhat stiff like that
of tar, which contains tiny quantities of uranium but absent of thorium.

Pitchblende gave off eight times more rays than the uranium that it contained.

It was, utilizing Marie’s new term, more radioactive. Marie figured out that
pitchblende must therefore contain another element,which was also radio-active
that no one had discovered as of yet. Pierre was so overwhelmed with this
discovery, he quit his own work to join in his wife’s research and find out more
on this new element. The Curie team decided to call it radium.

Marie realized that the new element within the pitchblende was in minute
quantities only, therefore, to isolate any respectable amount to test and
measure large portions of pitchblende were needed. To separate the radium from
the pitchblende, it would have to be heated, which purifies the substance.

While working with the pitchblende, another element was discovered which wasn’t
radioactive, therefore not radium. Marie named this element polonium, in honor
of her native homeland Poland.

Marie’s experiments were now being conducted in an abandoned wooden shed,
furnished with only old kitchen tables, a cast-iron stove and a blackboard. One
evening, in 1902, after four long years of exhausting work, Marie decided to go
back to their lab and check on the experiments they had done earlier in the day.

When Marie and Pierre got to the laboratory, they saw a “faint blue glow” in the
darkness; it was the radium.

Radium proved to be one of the world’s most important discoveries,
especially for its miraculous medical uses. Radium was measured to be two
million times more radioactive than uranium. The smallest amount of radium was
capable of giving off immense radiation. Radium is extremely powerful and,
unless used with care and in a controlled environment, very dangerous.

Unfortunately, this was not known in the days of the Curies. While working with
radioactive materials, both Pierre and Marie suffered from many illnesses and
pains. They encountered aching arms and legs, sores, colds and blisters that
never seemed to go away. They often pinned these problems to their lack of rest
due to being in the laboratory. Only later did the two connect their
improvement in health with their absense from the radium. The Curie’s great
discovery prompted scientists and doctors to work and further develop its uses.

It was found that radiation could be used to destroy unhealthy growth in the
human body, thus helping to stop cancer. Besides being able to cure, radium can
also kill. Handling and controlling the radium is the first and foremost
dilemna. The Curie’s found this out the hard way…

The discovery of radium did, however, bring the Curies something they
were proud of. In 1903, Marie Curie was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science.

At the awards ceremony, Marie showed how grateful she was by wearing a new
dress. The Curies were then showered with awards and honors from then on. That
same year, Pierre was invited to London to give a lecture on radium. In
November of that year, the Royal Society, Britain’s leading association of
scientists, presented Pierre and his wife with one of its highest awards, the
Davy Medal. Not a month later, they heard from the Academy of Sciences in
Sweden that the Nobel Prize for physics was to be awarded to the Curies along
with Henri Becquerel. Marie and Pierre felt too ill to make the jounrney to
Sweden to accept the prize in person, so Becquerel accepted the medals for them.

The Nobel Prize included a rather large sum of money… 70,000 gold francs. The
Curies accepted the money finance for their experiments. This released Pierre
from his teaching so that he could concentrate on research and to repay to
kindness and support they had received from their friends and family over the
years. They also gave gifts to poor Polish students and made a few improvements
to their small apartment.

One new comer that the Curies didn’t mind was Eve, their second daughter,
born in December in 1904. Her arrival didn’t disrupt the Curies research and
teaching, as their first child Irene had threatened. The Curie’s lust for
science still lingered.

In the year of 1905, Pierre was elected a member of the French Academy of
Sciences and became a Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne. Early in the
following year, tragedy struck. Crossing the road in a shower of rain, Pierre
stepped out from behind from a cab straight into the path of a heavy horse drawn
wagon. The driver tried to stop the wagon, but all was in vain. The weight of
his load was too great for him to stop, and the left back wheel crushed Pierred
as he lay stunned in the road. Pierre Curie died instantly.

Marie was shattered by the news of her husband’s death but soon
recovered the determination to carry on with her work. The French govern-ment
proposed to recognize Pierre’s work to the nation by granting Marie a pention
for herself and her children. She refused saying, “I am young enough to earn my
living and that of my children…”
The Sorbonne agreed with her because The Faculty of Science voted
unanimously that she should succceed Pierre as Professor. It was a unique
tribute, for she became not only the first woman professor at Sorbonne but the
first at any French university.

Marie had felt it was her duty to succeed her husband. He had always
said he would have liked to see Marie teach a class at Sorbonne. Marie at last
showed her final feeling on the matter by the way in which she gave her first
public speech lecture to a packed crowd.

In the year of 1910, four years after Pierre’s death, Marie published a
long account of her discoveries of radioactivity. This led to her being awarded
a second Nobel Prize. Not for another fifty years would anyone accomplish such
a remarkable honor. This time, Marie went to Stochholm in Sweden to accept her
prize in person. 1911 should have been a year of triumph, but it turned out to
be a awful year of anguish, however. The awarding of Marie’s second Nobel Prize
was controversal because many say it was given to her out of pity of her husband.

That same year, Marie failed by two votes to be elected to be in the Academy of
Sciences. Worse yet, some newspapers said that her close friendship with the
scientist Paul Langevin was wrong because he was a married man with four
children.

Marie received many spiteful letters and became distressed. A spell in
the nursing home and a trip to England helped her to recover. Marie’s real cure
for her problems was definitely her work. The Sorbonne at last decided to give
her what she needed to do it properly – a special institute for the study of
radium, newly-built on a road renamed in honor of her husband, “Rue Pierre
Curie.” Marie was thrilled with this new project and gave it, as her own
personal gift, the precious radium she and Pierre had prepared with their own
hands. This radium was precious in every sense. It was vital for further
scientific research. It was essential for it’s use in medicine and it was worth
more than a million gold francs.

The Radium Institution was finished on July 13, 1914. Less than a week
later, World War I broke out. Marie gave up all thought of scientific work in
her new institute and threw herself behind the cause of her adopted country.

Before dedicating herself to the war, Marie made a special trip to Bordeaux, in
western France and put the precious gram of radium away in a bank vault.

Marie donated all her money toward the war efforts including her own
personal savings in gold to be melted down. She even offered her medals, but
the bank refused them. Marie quickly saw that there was one service that she
could do for France that no one else could – organize a mass x-ray service for
the treatment of wounded soldiers. During the course of the war, Marie, along
with volunteers, equipped 20 cars as mobile x-ray units and set up more than 200
hospital rooms with x-ray equiptment. Over a million men were x-rayed, which
saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented an untold number of amputations.

Between 1916 and 1918, Marie Curie trained 150 people including 20 American
Expeditionary Force members in x-ray technology of radiology. After the war
ended, Marie continued to train radiologists for another two years.

Marie disliked reproters and kept away from journalists. One American
reporter, Mrs. Marie Melaney was persistent. Marie finally gave in to her and
agreed to an interview. The two quickly became friends. Mrs. Melaney understood
how Marie had put aside her scientific work during the war and knew that in the
whole of France there was only one gram of radium that Marie had presented to
the newly-established institute. Mrs. Melaney went back to the United States
and asked the country for a sum of $100,000 for another gram of radium for
Marie’s research. Marie was widely known and millions dutifully complied. In
1921, Marie was invited to the United States to receive her radium. After
stepping out into the public just once, the world fell in love.

She became sort of and ambassador for science, travelling to other
countries, educating as well as still receiving honors. In 1925, the Polish
government erected another radium institute, this time in her honor – The Marie
Sklodowska/Curie Institute. The President of Poland laid the first corner stone
while Marie laid the second. The women of the United States acknowledged her a
second time and collected enough money to produce yet another gram of radium to
be presented to the Polish Institute for its research and treatment program.

In may of 1934, Marie Curie was stricken to her bed due to the flu.

Being too weak to fight against the virus, she died in a sanitarium in the
French Alps. She was quietly buried on July 6, 1934 and laid to rest next to
her husband Pierre.

Marie Curie was a woman of the ages. She represented true humanity in
the pusuit of perfection. Marie found humanity’s perfection in chemistry and
her work. Loving what she did and devoting herself to the sciences is what made
her happy in the sense that true perfection was found.


Category: Science