Aspirations come from hopes and dreams only a dedicated person canconjure up. They can range from passing the third grade to making the localhigh school football team. Marie Curie’s aspirations, however, were muchgreater.
Life in late 19th century Poland was rough. Being a female in thosedays wasn’t a walk in the park either. Marie Curie is recognized in history bythe name she took in her adopted country, France. Born in Poland in 1867, shewas christened Manya Sklodowska.
In the year of her birth, Poland was ruled bythe neighboring Russia; no Pole could forget it, or at least anyone involved ineducation, as both Manya’s parents were. Manya’s mother was a headmistress of agirls’ school. The Russians insisted that Polish schools teach the Russianlanguage and Russian history. The Poles had to teach their children their ownlanguage and history in secrecy. Manya enjoyed learning but her childhood was always overshadowed bydepression. At the young age of six, her father lost his job and her familybecame 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 diedof typhus as well. Her oldest sister, Bronya, had to leave school early to takecare of the family. Despite all these hardships and setbacks, Manya continuedto work hard at school.
Although her sister Bronya had stopped going to school to act as thefamily’s housekeeper, she desperately wanted to go on studying to become adoctor. This was almost impossible in Poland, however. In Poland, women werenot allowed to go to college. Many Poles took the option to flee from Russianrule and live in France; this is exactly what Bronya did. She had set herheart on going to Paris to study at the famous Sorbonne University (TheUniversity of Paris). The only problem now was that she had no money to getthere.
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 andeducation in return. Manya went to live in a village called Szczuki with afamily called Zorawski. Aside from teaching the two children of the family forseven hours a day, she organized lessons for her own benefit as well. Manyaspent her evenings, late evenings, and even mornings devouring books onmathmatics 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. Manyadidn’t want to leave her country and most importantly, her family. Hereagerness for the quest of knowledge overcame her fear of the unknown,nonetheless. She travelled to Paris in an open railroad car on a trip thatlasted 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 benearer to her work, so she eventually ended up moving out of her sister’s homeand 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 shehad completed two courses. In her final exam-inations, she came in first inthe 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 alsobecame a totally fluent speaker of the French language. Marie had always ruled love and marriage out of her life’s program.
Shewas obsessed by her dreams, harassed by poverty, and overdriven by intensivework. Nothing else counted; nothing else existed. She did, however, meet ayoung man every day at Sorbonne and at the laboratory. Marie and her destinyactually met on coincidence.
Marie needed somewhere to conduct her experimentsfor 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 theright equipment. A friend of hers suggested a friend’s labratory. His name wasPierre Curie. Marie soon completed her commitment to her adopted country bymarrying this Frenchman. Marie and Pierre Curie got married in 1895.
The two of them combinedprobably made up the best team of scientists ever. Pierre had made importantdiscoveries about magnetism. Marie decided to follow this up by looking at themagnetic properties of steel. In the same year of their marriage, a Germanscientist by the name of Wilhelm Roentgen made an accidental discovery.
Hefound that certain substances produced rays of energy that would pass throughsoft materials as opposed to hard materials. Due to the fact that scientistsoften use the symbol “x” to stand for anything unknown, he called his mysteriousdiscovery the “x-ray. ” The x-ray was more than an ammusing puzzle. By directingx-rays and photographic film at a solid object that consisted of both soft andhard substances a positive image can be made of the hard substance.
A primeexample would be the human body. This discovery now made it possible to lookinside the human body without performing surgery. Within the few days of thefindings, x-rays were used to locate a bullet in a man’s leg. The world ofmedicine had acquired a major new tool for examining the sick and injured. The year after Roentgen’s discovery, a French researcher and a friend ofthe Curie’s, Antoine Henri Becquerel found that a rare substance called uraniumgave off rays that seemed to be very much like the x-rays that Wilhelm Roentgenhad described.
In 1897, the year of Roentgen’s discovery, Marie Curie gave birth to hervery first daughter, Irene. Despite being caught up in family life, Marie wasstill determined to go on with her scientific work. She decided to follow upBecquerel’s discovery and do special research on the study of uranium and therays it produced. Elements are the raw materials of our universe. Everything is made upof these basic substances. Scientists are able to break things down into theirvarious 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 Physicsand Chemistry, Marie began a long, tedious and painstaking series of experimentsthat tested every element known to man. She found that only the two elementsuranium and thorium gave off rays. “Radioactivity” was the name Marie gave tothis property. Marie soon again made another important discovery about amineral called alled pitch-blende, a black substance, somewhat stiff like thatof 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 thatpitchblende must therefore contain another element,which was also radio-activethat no one had discovered as of yet. Pierre was so overwhelmed with thisdiscovery, he quit his own work to join in his wife’s research and find out moreon this new element. The Curie team decided to call it radium.
Marie realized that the new element within the pitchblende was in minutequantities only, therefore, to isolate any respectable amount to test andmeasure large portions of pitchblende were needed. To separate the radium fromthe pitchblende, it would have to be heated, which purifies the substance. While working with the pitchblende, another element was discovered which wasn’tradioactive, therefore not radium. Marie named this element polonium, in honorof 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. Oneevening, in 1902, after four long years of exhausting work, Marie decided to goback 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 thedarkness; 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 twomillion times more radioactive than uranium. The smallest amount of radium wascapable 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 withradioactive materials, both Pierre and Marie suffered from many illnesses andpains. They encountered aching arms and legs, sores, colds and blisters thatnever seemed to go away. They often pinned these problems to their lack of restdue to being in the laboratory. Only later did the two connect theirimprovement in health with their absense from the radium.
The Curie’s greatdiscovery prompted scientists and doctors to work and further develop its uses. It was found that radiation could be used to destroy unhealthy growth in thehuman body, thus helping to stop cancer. Besides being able to cure, radium canalso kill. Handling and controlling the radium is the first and foremostdilemna. The Curie’s found this out the hard way.
. . The discovery of radium did, however, bring the Curies something theywere 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 newdress. The Curies were then showered with awards and honors from then on.
Thatsame year, Pierre was invited to London to give a lecture on radium. InNovember of that year, the Royal Society, Britain’s leading association ofscientists, presented Pierre and his wife with one of its highest awards, theDavy Medal. Not a month later, they heard from the Academy of Sciences inSweden that the Nobel Prize for physics was to be awarded to the Curies alongwith Henri Becquerel. Marie and Pierre felt too ill to make the jounrney toSweden 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.
TheCuries accepted the money finance for their experiments. This released Pierrefrom his teaching so that he could concentrate on research and to repay tokindness and support they had received from their friends and family over theyears. They also gave gifts to poor Polish students and made a few improvementsto 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 andteaching, as their first child Irene had threatened. The Curie’s lust forscience still lingered. In the year of 1905, Pierre was elected a member of the French Academy ofSciences and became a Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne. Early in thefollowing year, tragedy struck. Crossing the road in a shower of rain, Pierrestepped out from behind from a cab straight into the path of a heavy horse drawnwagon.
The driver tried to stop the wagon, but all was in vain. The weight ofhis load was too great for him to stop, and the left back wheel crushed Pierredas he lay stunned in the road. Pierre Curie died instantly. Marie was shattered by the news of her husband’s death but soonrecovered the determination to carry on with her work. The French govern-mentproposed to recognize Pierre’s work to the nation by granting Marie a pentionfor herself and her children. She refused saying, “I am young enough to earn myliving and that of my children.
. . “The Sorbonne agreed with her because The Faculty of Science votedunanimously that she should succceed Pierre as Professor. It was a uniquetribute, for she became not only the first woman professor at Sorbonne but thefirst at any French university.
Marie had felt it was her duty to succeed her husband. He had alwayssaid he would have liked to see Marie teach a class at Sorbonne. Marie at lastshowed her final feeling on the matter by the way in which she gave her firstpublic speech lecture to a packed crowd. In the year of 1910, four years after Pierre’s death, Marie published along account of her discoveries of radioactivity. This led to her being awardeda second Nobel Prize.
Not for another fifty years would anyone accomplish sucha remarkable honor. This time, Marie went to Stochholm in Sweden to accept herprize in person. 1911 should have been a year of triumph, but it turned out tobe a awful year of anguish, however. The awarding of Marie’s second Nobel Prizewas 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 ofSciences.
Worse yet, some newspapers said that her close friendship with thescientist Paul Langevin was wrong because he was a married man with fourchildren. Marie received many spiteful letters and became distressed. A spell inthe nursing home and a trip to England helped her to recover. Marie’s real curefor her problems was definitely her work. The Sorbonne at last decided to giveher what she needed to do it properly – a special institute for the study ofradium, newly-built on a road renamed in honor of her husband, “Rue PierreCurie.
” Marie was thrilled with this new project and gave it, as her ownpersonal gift, the precious radium she and Pierre had prepared with their ownhands. This radium was precious in every sense. It was vital for furtherscientific research. It was essential for it’s use in medicine and it was worthmore than a million gold francs. The Radium Institution was finished on July 13, 1914. Less than a weeklater, World War I broke out.
Marie gave up all thought of scientific work inher 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, inwestern France and put the precious gram of radium away in a bank vault. Marie donated all her money toward the war efforts including her ownpersonal savings in gold to be melted down. She even offered her medals, butthe bank refused them.
Marie quickly saw that there was one service that shecould do for France that no one else could – organize a mass x-ray service forthe treatment of wounded soldiers. During the course of the war, Marie, alongwith volunteers, equipped 20 cars as mobile x-ray units and set up more than 200hospital rooms with x-ray equiptment. Over a million men were x-rayed, whichsaved tens of thousands of lives and prevented an untold number of amputations. Between 1916 and 1918, Marie Curie trained 150 people including 20 AmericanExpeditionary Force members in x-ray technology of radiology. After the warended, Marie continued to train radiologists for another two years.
Marie disliked reproters and kept away from journalists. One Americanreporter, Mrs. Marie Melaney was persistent. Marie finally gave in to her andagreed to an interview. The two quickly became friends.
Mrs. Melaney understoodhow Marie had put aside her scientific work during the war and knew that in thewhole of France there was only one gram of radium that Marie had presented tothe newly-established institute. Mrs. Melaney went back to the United Statesand asked the country for a sum of $100,000 for another gram of radium forMarie’s research.
Marie was widely known and millions dutifully complied. In1921, Marie was invited to the United States to receive her radium. Afterstepping out into the public just once, the world fell in love. She became sort of and ambassador for science, travelling to othercountries, educating as well as still receiving honors. In 1925, the Polishgovernment erected another radium institute, this time in her honor – The MarieSklodowska/Curie Institute.
The President of Poland laid the first corner stonewhile Marie laid the second. The women of the United States acknowledged her asecond time and collected enough money to produce yet another gram of radium tobe 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 theFrench Alps. She was quietly buried on July 6, 1934 and laid to rest next toher husband Pierre. Marie Curie was a woman of the ages.
She represented true humanity inthe pusuit of perfection. Marie found humanity’s perfection in chemistry andher work. Loving what she did and devoting herself to the sciences is what madeher happy in the sense that true perfection was found.Category: Science