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Marie Curie
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1911
7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934
 

 

 

Marie Sklodowska–Curie was a physicist and chemist of Polish upbringing and, subsequently, French citizenship. She was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, the only person honoured with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and the first female professor at the University of Paris.

She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Vistula Country, Russian Empire, and lived there until she was 24. In 1891 she followed her elder sister Bronislawa 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 was also a Nobel laureate, as were her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

Her achievements include the creation of a theory of radioactivity (a term coined by her), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. It was also under her personal direction that the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms ("cancers"), using radioactive isotopes.

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


Poland

Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowski. Maria's older siblings were Zofia (born 1862), Józef (1863), Bronislawa (1865) and Helena (1866).

Maria's grandfather Józef Sklodowski had been a respected teacher in Lublin, where he had taught the young Boleslaw Prus. Her father Wladyslaw Sklodowski taught mathematics and physics, subjects that Maria was to pursue, and was director successively of two Warsaw gymnasia for boys, in addition to lodging boys in the family home. Her mother, Bronislawa, operated a prestigious Warsaw girls' boarding school; she suffered from tuberculosis and died when Maria was twelve. Maria's father was an atheist, and her mother a devout Catholic.

Two years earlier, Maria's oldest sibling, Zofia, had died of typhus. The deaths of her mother and sister, according to Robert William Reid, caused Maria to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.

When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding school that her mother had operated while she was well; next Maria attended a female gymnasium, from which she graduated on 12 June 1883. She spent the following year in the countryside at her father's relatives, and next with her father in Warsaw, where she did some tutoring.

On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family had lost their property and fortunes through patriotic involvements in Polish national uprisings. This condemned each subsequent generation, including that of Maria and her elder sisters and brother, to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life.

Maria made an agreement with her sister Bronislawa, that she would give her financial assistance during Bronislawa's medical studies in Paris, in exchange for similar assistance two years later. In connection with this, she took a position as governess. First with a lawyer's family in Kraków, then for two years in Ciechanów with a landed family, the Zorawskis, relatives of her father. While working for the latter family, she fell in love with their son Kazimierz Zorawski, which the future eminent mathematician reciprocated. His parents, however, rejected the idea of his marrying the penniless relative, and Kazimierz was unable to oppose them. Maria lost her governess' position. She found another with the Fuchs family in Sopot, on the Baltic Sea coast, where she spent the next year, all the while financially assisting her sister.

At the beginning of 1890, Bronislawa, who had a few months earlier married Kazimierz Dluski, invited Maria to join them in Paris. Maria declined because she could not afford the university tuition and was still counting on marrying Kazimierz Zorawski. She returned home to her father, with whom she remained till the fall of 1891, tutoring, studying at the clandestine Floating University, and beginning her practical scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture run by her cousin Józef Boguski, who had been assistant in St. Petersburg to the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev.

In October 1891, at her sister's insistence and after receiving a letter from Zorawski definitively breaking up with her, she decided to go to France after all.

Maria's breakup with Zorawski was tragic for both. He soon earned a doctorate and pursued an academic career as a mathematician, becoming a professor and rector of Kraków University and president of the Warsaw Society of Learning; still, as an old man, a mathematics professor at the Warsaw Polytechnic, he would sit contemplatively in front of the statue of Maria Sklodowska before the Radium Institute that she had founded. Maria, in Paris, briefly found shelter with her sister and brother-in-law before renting a primitive garret and proceeding with her studies of physics, chemistry and mathematics at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris).


Sorbonne

Sklodowska studied during the day, and she tutored evenings, barely earning her keep. In 1893 she obtained a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory at Lippman's. Meanwhile she continued studying at the Sorbonne and in 1894 earned a degree in mathematics.

In the same year Pierre Curie entered her life. He was an instructor in the School of Physics and Chemistry, the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris (ESPCI). Sklodowska had begun her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Sklodowska and Curie together.

Her departure for the summer to Warsaw only enhanced their mutual feelings for each other. She was still laboring under the illusion that she would be able to return to Poland and work in her chosen field of study. When, however, she was denied a place at Kraków University merely because she was a woman, she returned to Paris. Almost a year later, in July 1895, she and Pierre Curie married, and thereafter the two physicists hardly ever left their laboratory. Their shared hobbies were only long bicycle trips and journeys abroad, which brought them even closer. Maria had found a new love, a partner and scientific collaborator that she could depend on.
 


New elements

In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power. He demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself. Becquerel had in fact discovered radioactivity.

Marie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis. She used a clever technique to investigate samples. Fifteen years earlier, her husband and his brother had invented the electrometer, a device for measuring extremely low electrical currents. Using the Curie electrometer, she discovered that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity. Her first result, using this technique, was the finding that the activity of the uranium compounds depended only on the amount of uranium present. She had shown that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction between molecules but must come from the atom itself. In scientific terms, this was the most important single piece of work carried out by her.

Marie's systematic studies had included two uranium minerals, pitchblende and chalcolite. Her electrometer showed that pitchblende was four times as active as uranium itself, and chalcolite twice as active. She concluded that, if her earlier results relating the amount of uranium to its activity were correct, then these two minerals must contain small amounts of some other substance far more active than uranium itself.

The idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity. It is likely that already at this early stage of her career she realized that... many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved.

In her systematic search for other substances besides uranium salts that emitted radiation, Marie had found that the element thorium was likewise radioactive.

She was acutely aware of the importance of promptly publishing her discoveries and thus establishing her priority. Had Becquerel, two years earlier, not presented his discovery to the Académie des Sciences the day after he made it, credit for the discovery of radioactivity, and even a Nobel Prize, would instead have gone to Silvanus Thompson. Marie chose the same rapid means of publication. Her paper, giving a brief, simple account of her work, was presented for her to the Académie on April 12, 1898, by her former professor, Gabriel Lippmann.

Even so, just as Thompson had been beaten by Becquerel, so Marie was beaten in the race to tell of her discovery that thorium gives off rays in the same way as uranium. Two months earlier, Gerhard Schmidt had published his own finding in Berlin.

No one else in the world of physics had, however, yet noticed what Marie recorded in a sentence of her paper in describing how much greater were the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite compared with uranium itself: "The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium." She would later recall how she felt "a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as rapidly as possible."

Pierre Curie was sure that what she had discovered was not a spurious effect. He was so intrigued that he decided to temporarily drop his work on crystals and join her. On 14 April 1898, they optimistically weighed out a 100-gram sample of pitchblende and ground it with a pestle and mortar. They did not then realize that what they were searching for was present in such minute quantities that they would eventually have to process tons of the ore.

In July 1898, Pierre and Marie together published a paper announcing the existence of an element which they named "polonium," in honor of her native Poland, which would for another twenty years remain partitioned among three empires. On 26 December 1898, the Curies announced the existence of a second element, which they named "radium" for its intense radioactivity — a word that they coined.

Pitchblende is a complex mineral, and the chemical separation of its constituents was an arduous task. The discovery of polonium had been relatively easy; chemically it resembles the element bismuth, and polonium was the only bismuth-like substance in the ore. But radium was more elusive; it is closely related chemically to barium, and pitchblende contains both elements. By 1898 the Curies had obtained traces of radium, but appreciable quantities, uncontaminated with barium, were still beyond reach.

The Curies undertook the arduous task of separating out radium salt by differential crystallization. From a ton of pitchblende, one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was separated in 1902. By 1910 Marie, working on without her husband, who had been killed in 1906, had isolated the pure radium metal.

In an unusual decision, Marie Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered.

Since they were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation exposure attendant on their chronic unprotected work with radioactive substances, Marie and Pierre had no idea what price they were paying for their research.

In 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, Marie received her DSc from the University of Paris.


Nobel Prizes

In 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel."

Maria and Pierre were unable to go to Stockholm to receive the prize in person, but they shared its financial proceeds with needy acquaintances, including students.

On receiving the Nobel Prize, Marie and Pierre Curie suddenly became very famous. The Sorbonne gave Pierre a professorship and permitted him to establish his own laboratory, in which Marie became director of research.

In 1897 and 1904, respectively, Marie gave birth to their daughters, Irène and Eve Curie. She would later hire Polish governesses to teach them her native language, and send or take them on visits to Poland.

Sklodowska–Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Eight years later, she would receive the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."

A month after accepting her 1911 Nobel Prize, she was hospitalized with depression and a kidney ailment.

Sklodowska–Curie was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes. She is one of only two people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different fields, the other being Linus Pauling (Chemistry, Peace). Nevertheless in 1911 the French Academy of Sciences refused to abandon its prejudice against women and she failed by two votes to be elected to membership, losing to Édouard Branly, an inventor who had helped Guglielmo Marconi develop the wireless telegraph. It would be her doctoral student, Marguerite Perey, who would be the first woman elected to the Academy — in 1962, over half a century later.
 


Pierre's death

On 19 April 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident. Walking across the Rue Dauphine in heavy rain, he was struck by a horse-drawn vehicle and fell under its wheels, fracturing his skull. While it has been speculated that he may previously have been weakened by prolonged radiation exposure, it has not been proven that this was the cause of the accident.

Marie was devastated by her husband's death. She noted that as of that moment she had suddenly become "an incurably and wretchedly lonely person." On May 13, 1906, the Sorbonne physics department decided to retain the chair that had been created for Pierre Curie and entrusted it to Marie together with full authority over the laboratory. This allowed her to emerge from Pierre's shadow. She became the first female professor at the Sorbonne, and sought in her exhausting work regime a meaning for her life.

Recognition for her work now grew to a crescendo, and in 1911 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her a second Nobel Prize. A delegation of celebrated Polish men of learning, headed by world-famous novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, besought her to return to Poland and continue her research in her native country.

In 1911, too, it transpired that in 1910–11 Marie had conducted an affair of about a year's duration with physicist Paul Langevin, a married man who had left his wife. This resulted in a press scandal, exploited by her academic opponents. Despite her fame as a scientist working for France, the public's attitude tended toward xenophobia—the same that had led to the Dreyfus Affair and that now fueled false speculation that Sklodowska–Curie was Jewish. Five years Langevin's senior, she was portrayed in the tabloids as a home-wrecker. Later, Sklodowska–Curie's granddaughter, Hélène Joliot, would marry Langevin's grandson, Michel Langevin.

Sklodowska–Curie's second Nobel Prize, in 1911, enabled her to talk the French government into funding the building of a private Radium Institute (Institut du radium, now the Institut Curie), which was built in 1914 and at which research was conducted in chemistry, physics and medicine. The Institute became a cradle of Nobel Prize winners, producing four more, including her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
 


World War I

During World War I, Sklodowska-Curie pushed for the use of mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies ("Little Curies"), for the treatment of wounded soldiers. These units were powered using tubes of radium emanation, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon. Sklodowska-Curie personally provided the tubes, derived from the radium she purified. Also, promptly after the war started, she donated her and her husband's gold Nobel Prize medals for the war effort.
 


Post-war years

In 1921, Sklodowska-Curie toured the United States, where she was welcomed triumphally, to raise funds for research on radium. These distractions from her scientific labors, and the attendant publicity, caused her much discomfort but provided resources for her work. Her second American tour in 1929 succeeded in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute, founded in 1925 with her sister Bronislawa as director.

In her later years, Sklodowska-Curie headed the Pasteur Institute and a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the University of Paris.

Sklodowska–Curie visited Poland a last time in the spring of 1934.
 


Death

Only a couple of months later, Curie was dead. Her death on 4 July 1934, at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, eastern France, was from aplastic anemia, almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were then not yet known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed without any 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.

She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. She became the first woman so honored.

Her laboratory is preserved at the Musée Curie.

Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s (and even her cookbook) are considered too dangerous to handle. They are kept in lead-lined boxes; those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.
 


Honours

Madame Curie was decorated with the French Legion of Honor. In Poland, she had received honorary doctorates from the Lwów Polytechnic (1912), Poznan University (1922), Kraków's Jagiellonian University (1924) and the Warsaw Polytechnic (1926).

The Curies' elder daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for discovering that aluminium could be made radioactive and emit neutrons when bombarded with alpha rays. The younger daughter, Ève Curie, wrote a biography of her late mother.

In 1936, Michalina Moscicka, wife of Polish President Ignacy Moscicki, unveiled a statue of the scientist in front of Warsaw's Curie Institute, the former Radium Institute. Eight years later, the monument suffered from gunfire during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; but after the war, when maintenance work was being done, it was decided not to remove these scars.

In 1967, a museum devoted to Sklodowska–Curie was established in Warsaw's "New Town," in her birthplace on ulica Freta (Freta Street).


Legacy

The Curies' work contributed substantially to shaping the world of the 20th and 21st centuries, in both its physical and societal aspects. L. Pearce Williams observes:

The result of the Curies' work was epoch-making. Radium's radioactivity was so great that it could not be ignored. It seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics. On the experimental level the discovery of radium provided men like Ernest Rutherford with sources of radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the atom. As a result of Rutherford's experiments with alpha radiation, the nuclear atom was first postulated. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked.

If the work of Maria Sklodowska–Curie helped overturn established ideas in physics and chemistry, it has had an equally profound effect in the societal sphere. In order to attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way as a woman in both her country of origin and her adoptive country. This aspect of her life and career is highlighted in Françoise Giroud's Marie Curie: A Life, which emphasizes Sklodowska's role as a feminist precursor. She was ahead of her time, emancipated, independent, and in addition uncorrupted. Albert Einstein is supposed to have remarked that she was probably the only person who was not corrupted by the fame that she had won.

 

 

 

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