Marie Curie and Her Discovery of Radium

Marie Curie was born Manya Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. Her mother was the director of a boarding school for girls. Her father was a professor of physics and math at a high school in Warsaw. Manya was the youngest of her brother and three sisters. Her brothers name was Joseph and her sisters names were Zosia, Hela, and Bronya. In 1871, when Manya was at the age of four, her mother died of tuberculosis. This left her father and four siblings alone. Maries father later lost his teaching position and had to take in borders at their home.

In spite of having to ork hard at home preparing meals, Marie was able to win a medal for excellence at the local high school, where the examinations were held in Russian. After completing her high school education in 1883 at the age of sixteen, Marie began earning her living as a tutor and governess for a family in Poland. This was a time when Russia dominated Poland and girls could not attend universities in Poland. Maries older sister, Bronya, had already left Poland to study medicine at a university in Paris.

Marie sent a portion of her earnings as tutor and governess to Paris to help pay for her lder sisters medical studies. In 1891, when Marie was twenty-four years old, she was invited to live with Bronya upon her completion of medical school. This enabled Marie to enroll at the University of Paris and begin her own dream of becoming a university student. Marie studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry. It was upon enrollment in college when she changed her first name from Manya to Marie. After three years of her education at college, she graduated top of her class and earned her degrees in physics and mathematics.

The year that Marie graduated with honors from the University of Paris, she met Pierre Curie, who also studied and later taught at the School of Physics and Chemistry of the University in Paris. The following year, in 1895, Marie and Pierre were married. For a wedding present he got her a bicycle. Cycling turned out to be something that they both loved to do. Not long after they married, Marie became pregnant and had a baby girl that they named Irene. A few years later she was to become pregnant again with another baby girl that she would name Eve.

In 1896, Marie heard that Antoine Henri Becquerel, also a French scientist, found that rays coming from a ranium ore affected a photographic plate in the same manner as X-rays. These rays did not seem to be related to any external source of energy, such as the sun, and were more powerful than the radiation from pure uranium. “Becquerels discovery fascinated the Curies. They asked themselves whence came the energy ~ tiny, to be sure ~ which uranium compounds constantly disengaged in the form of radiation,” (Eve Curie p. 53).

Hearing this great news, Marie was determined to find out what caused this great discovery. This is when she decided to study the mysterious mineral called uranium. Like all scientists must do, she began er research by finding all the resources that she could on the substance. Shortly after she began studying uranium, Pierre decided to join his wife in her search for the radioactive element. All of their work took place in an old storage shed not far from the university under very primitive conditions.

Pierre supplied all of the materials that were needed for her experiments, including his own invention, an electrometer (an instrument which measures the differences in electrical charge or potential). “From 1896 the Curies worked together on radioactivity, building on the results of Wilhem Rontgen (who discovered X-rays) and Henri Becquerel (who had discovered that similar rays are emitted by uranium salts),” (Roy Porter p. 156). A co-worker named Gustave Bemont was hired by Pierre to assist them in working with the uranium.

The Curies, while studying uranium, discovered two highly radioactive chemical elements, radium and polonium,” (Romualdas Sviedrys, p. 1194). The new radioactive element polonium was named after Maries native country, Poland. This discovery could have made them millionaires, but they decided not to patent the elements and left them to the government to freely benefit everyone. Although Marie was poor most of her life, she did not personally benefit from her research. The Nobel prize money and other rewards of money were used to pay for further research.

She named the term radioactivity to describe the mysterious particles given off by certain rare elements. These “mysterious particles” that Marie saw were the colors of a light blue. “She didnt think that the rays were deadly but suspected that it was responsible for her illness and tiredness while working with it,” (Darlene R. Stille p. 50). Marie did not know of the dangers of radium or polonium because it had ust been discovered and little was known about it. On April 19, 1906, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn wagon and died instantly. Over night Marie became a widow and had to finish raising Irene and Eve herself.

This great loss in her life did not slow her down from reaching more great achievements in her line of work. Marie took over Pierres teaching position at the university, becoming the first woman to teach there. In 1911, Marie won the Nobel prize in chemistry for her discovery of the new elements radium and polonium, and for her work in isolating radium and studying its chemical properties. She was the first oman to receive the Nobel prize. In the year 1914, Marie helped found the Radium Institute (now known as the Curie Institute) in Paris and served as the first director.

Her now grown daughter, Irene, assisted her at the institute teaching medical orderlies and doctors how to use the new technique of X-ray equipment. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Marie realized that X-rays could be used to locate broken bones, bullets, and pieces of shrapnel. Marie organized mobile X-ray units to equip ambulances with which she drove to the front line for the French Army Medical Corps, set up more than 200 battlefield X- ay units, and trained 150 women to operate them. The International Red Cross made her head of its Radiological Service.

In the late 1920s, Maries health began to deteriorate because of constant exposure to high-energy radiation. She entered a sanitarium and died there on July 4, 1934, Marie died of leukemia formed by the exposure of radiation. Her research also led to the understanding of the atom. Her discovery of radium was later used to fight cancer caused by cigarette smoking. Without her discovery of radium, the atomic bomb would not have been made. It has been said that she was and still is the most famous woman scientist in history.


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