On this day – Marie Curie

Marie Curie was a Polish-born physicist and chemist and one of the most famous scientists of her time. Together with her husband Pierre, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903, and she went on to win another in 1911.

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw on 7 November 1867, the daughter of a teacher. In 1891, she went to Paris to study physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne where she met Pierre Curie, professor of the School of Physics. They were married in 1895.

She developed a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined) and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes.  She also discovered two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today.
During World War I, she established the first military field radiological centres.  After a quick study of radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics she procured X-ray equipment, vehicles, auxiliary generators, and developed mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies (“Little Curies”).  She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology centre, operational by late 1914.

Marie and her husband worked together investigating radioactivity, building on the work of the German physicist Roentgen and the French physicist Becquerel. In July 1898, the Curies announced the discovery of a new chemical element, polonium. At the end of the year, they announced the discovery of another, radium. The Curies, along with Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

Marie received a second Nobel Prize, for Chemistry, in 1911.

Curie died in 1934 due to aplastic anaemia brought on by exposure to radiation – including carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research (she also stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark) and her World War I service in mobile X-ray units created by her.  She was exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment.


Marie and Pierre Curie experimenting with radium, a drawing by André Castaigne


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

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Posted on November 7, 2014, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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