Marie Curie, or rather Marya Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. At the time, the Polish capital was occupied by the Russians, who were seeking to weaken the local elite . Based on the value of experience and scientific reality, and applied to society, it was for many intellectuals the path of progress, it was to leave an indelible mark on Marya. Born into a family of teachers and brought up in an environment marked by a sense of duty and a lack of money, she led the most remarkable life.
From the premature death of one of her sisters, and later of her mother, she drew the agnosticism that would later ncrease her faith in science. As a brilliant and mature student with a rare gift of concentration, Marya followed the dream of a scientific career, a career inconceivable for a woman at that time. But lack of funds meant she was forced to become a private tutor. She made huge financial sacrifices so that her sister Bronia could fulfill her wish of studying medicine in Paris, hopeing that the favor might be returned. In 1891 Marya arrived in Paris.
Ambitious and self-taught, she had but one obsession, to learn. She passed a physics degree with flying colors, and went on to sit a mathematics degree. It was then that a Polish friend introduced her to Pierre Curie, a young man. In 1895 Pierre Curie acknowledged for his work on crystallography and magnetism, became her husband. In her pioneering way, Marie Curie decided, in 1897, to take a physics doctorate. Henri Becquerel, who was studying X-rays, had recently observed that uranium salt left an impression on a photographic plate in spite of its protective envelope.
And so his frail wife set about her work, handling tons of minerals’ she noted that another substance, thorium, was “radioactive”, a term she herself had coined. Together, they emonstrated in a major discovery that radioactivity was not the result of a chemical reaction but a property of the element or, more specifically, of the atom. Marie then studied pitchblende, a uranic mineral in which she measured a much more intense activity than is present in uranium alone.
She found that there were other substances besides uranium that were very radioactive, such as polonium and radium, which she discovered in 1898. Pierre tested radium on his skin. It caused a burn, and then a wound. Its effect on man was proven. Soon radium was being used to treat malign tumors, Chemotherapy was born. In 1903, Marie defended her discovery. Together with Becquerel, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of natural radioactivity. Their happiness was short lived.
In 1906, Pierre, weakened by radiation and overworked, was run over by a car. Marie was forced to continue alone. She took charge of educating her two children; she took up the position which her husband had finally obtained at the Sorbonne, and then became the first woman to be appointed professor there. But then war broke out. Motivating her daughter Irene to follow her research. She felt hat X-rays would help to locate shrapnel and bullets, and facilitate surgery, also that it was important not to move the wounded, whenever possible. And so she created X-ray vans.
But she did not stop there, and went on to provide equipment for hospitals. The only protection at that time was a metal screen and fabric gloves. All she needed to do was convince reticent doctors and find well-trained manipulators. Marie trained 150 female manipulators. She also had to fight the prejudices of her day. Hatred of foreigners and sexism which, in 1911, prevented her from entering the Academy of Science. And yet, soon after, she was honored with a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for determining the atomic weight of radium. But her real joy was easing human suffering.
The founding of the Radium Institute by the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute in 1914 would enable her to fulfill her humanitarian wish. With the war over, she went back to work in her institute, with Irene, her daughter, by her side. Marie ran the research laboratory while Dr. Claudius Regaud headed the applied biology laboratory. Their co-operation proved progressive, sharing as they did similar ideals and he same disinterest in financial matters. Physicians and chemists provided the radium, and physicists treated cancer patients.
Marie set about collecting funds and raw materials, the price of which had soared, going as far as the United States, but she found it hard to accept that dark economic interests should prevail. Marie died of leukemia in July, 1934, exhausted and almost blinded, her fingers burnt and stigmatized by her dear radium. This sixty-seven-year-old woman, who, according to Dr. Claudius Regaud, “under a cold exterior and the utmost reserve , concealed in reality an bundance of delicate and generous feelings”, had been exposed to incredible levels of radiation.
Other researchers after her, her daughter in particular, would also pay the price. In January Irene, who had been working in the same laboratory and with the same relentless determination as her mother, discovered artificial radioactivity, for which she, too, was awarded the Nobel Prize. Radioactivity is the starting point for cancer treatment, for the dating techniques used on ancient objects, rocks and the universe, and for molecular biology and modern genetics. It is also the source of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.