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Get to know Marie Curie

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Marie Curie is one of the most well-known scientists and her work was essential for understanding radiation. Born Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, she was the youngest of five children to her parents, who were both teachers. She grew up in Poland and learned how to use laboratory equipment from items her father brought home when laboratory instruction was eliminated from schools. She was fascinated by mathematics and physics, due in part that her father taught those subjects, and she perused these subjects in her learning.

In 1891, Sklodowska left Poland to attend the University of Paris, focusing on physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Studying during the day and tutoring during the evenings, she received her degree in physics in 1893. Her degree helped her to get a job in a research laboratory led by Gabriel Lippmann, who would later become her doctoral advisor. A year later in 1884, she received a degree in mathematics. While in France her collogues began calling her “Marie” and she later changed her name to it.

While working in Lippmann’s laboratory, she met Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1895. Working in a makeshift laboratory where Pierre was a professor, Marie Curie did most of her work. Using an electrometer developed by her husband, she discovered the air around a uranium sample was able to conduct electricity and that the radiation came from the atom itself and not from molecular interactions.

Inspired by Henri Becquerel, Curie experimented with two other uranium minerals and discovered that both were two or four time more reactive than uranium alone, prompting her hypothesis that the samples contained other substances than uranium. Her and Pierre both worked to isolate the more reactive elements from a sample of pitchblende and discovered two elements which they named ‘polonium’, after her home country, and ‘radium’ after the Latin word for “ray”. In their publications announcing the new elements, they coined the term “radioactivity”. Their experiments also showed that diseased cells were killed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium. The couple continued to experiment and study the new elements and would publish 32 scientific papers between 1898 and 1902.

In 1903, Marie Curie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris. In the same year, she, her husband, and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics with their work on radiation. Curie continued to work on isolating polonium and radium elements for the next several years and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and is one of two people who have been awarded a Nobel in two fields.

During World War I, Curie and her oldest daughter, Irene, developed mobile radiography units to aid surgeons on the battlefield. They recognized that soldiers needed immediate attention, and their devices helped save the lives and limbs of over a million wounded soldiers. She also found a way to sterilize infected tissues with radon, a gas given off by radium.

The risks of radiation exposure was not known at the time of her research. Her long-term exposure to radioactive elements and her exposure to the X-rays in field hospitals eventually caused her to develop aplastic anemia. She passed away on July 4, 1934 and left behind a legacy of discovery and hard work.

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