How the Genius of Marie Curie Killed Her
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In 1927, 29 of the top physicists gathered at the prestigious Solvay Conference in Brussels. The only woman in attendance was Marie Curie. She had a lot of firsts. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. The first person to win the Nobel Prize twice. And the first person to win in two different fields. Curie is best known for her work in radioactivity which would save a million lives during the first world war. But would ultimately take her own. Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland then under the control of the Russian Empire on November 7, 1867. She was the youngest child of teachers. Her mother, Bronisława Sklodowska, was the headteacher of a prestigious boarding school for girls. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowski, taught physics and math and was proud of his Polish heritage.
As a result of his patriotism, his Russian supervisors forced him into lower-paying positions. He also lost his savings through a bad investment. To support their five children, they had to take in student boarders. This would be fatal. Maria’s eldest sibling, her sister Zofia, caught typhus from one of the lodgers and died. A few years later, when Maria was ten, her mother died of tuberculosis. The tragedies caused Maria to give up Catholicism - the faith of her mom - and become agnostic. Her father wouldn’t forgive himself for losing his family’s savings. However, his children would remember him as the man who nurtured them emotionally and intellectually. Maria finished high school at the top of her class but wasn’t allowed to attend university because she was a woman.
The Russian empire banned women from getting a university education. So she and her sister Bronisława enrolled in the secretive Flying University named after the ever-changing location of classes to avoid the watchful eye of Czarist authorities. Her sister then left for medical school in Paris. Maria hoped to eventually join her. The two made a pact: Maria would support her sister’s studies in Paris, and Bronya would return the favor in the future. So, from the age of 17, Maria worked as a governess, tutor, and also studied in her spare time. While working for relatives, the Zora skis, she fell in love with their son, Kazimierz, who would become a mathematician. But the Zora skis didn’t approve of her because she didn’t have a penny to her name.
It was said that as an old man, Kazimierz would sit contemplatively before the statue of her in front of the research institute she went on to found. In 1891, when Maria was 24, she finally had the means to join her sister in Paris, and now used the name Marie. She enrolled at the University of Paris - known as the Sorbonne - where she studied physics and mathematics. At first, she lived in the home of her sister who was now married but later opted to rent a little attic closer to the university. She often stayed at the heated library until closing rather than spend the evening in her unheated room. Her earlier education had been insufficient so there was a lot of catching up to do. She sometimes worked so hard she forgot to eat and would pass out.
Despite the difficulties, Marie marveled at her freedom, writing: “It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.” She earned a degree in physics, and then another in mathematics. She planned on returning to Poland but then Pierre Curie came into her life. He was eight years older, a well-known physicist, and an outsider who was educated by his father in his teens. They were introduced by a mutual friend who knew Marie needed lab space for her research and Pierre headed a laboratory at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry where engineers were trained. Marie would say of Pierre: “He had dedicated his life to his dream of science: he felt the need of a companion who could live his dream with him.”
And he hoped that companion would be her. But Marie turned down his marriage proposal since her plan was to return to her native country. However, she learned that it wouldn’t be possible to start a career in Poland. When she went back to visit her family during summer break in 1894, Krakow University denied her a job as a professor because she was a woman. Pierre convinced her to come back to Paris to pursue a PhD. She insisted that he, too, get his doctorate, which he did, pioneering research on magnetism. They married in 1895 at the town hall in Sochaux in the suburbs of Paris. Partners in life and in science. Marie wore a dark blue outfit on her wedding day that would become her trademark in the laboratory.
They bought bicycles with the money they received as a wedding gift - their way of relaxing in a life otherwise filled with research. Marie Curie would earn her Doctor of Science degree from the Sorbonne in 1903. She did her thesis on radiation, which was recently discovered in uranium by Henri Becquerel. Curie was intrigued by Becquerel’s discovery and investigated further. She used an electrometer invented by her husband and his brother to measure radioactivity in many substances and minerals. She realized through her experiments that radiation was a property of the element of uranium. Yet when she observed the mineral pitchblende which primarily contains uranium - she noticed it was far more radioactive than uranium could explain.
How could this be? It would only be possible if there were something else in the pitchblende. Pierre was so intrigued that he dropped his own work to join her in her search. They ground up tons of pitchblende and discovered an element that was 400 times more radioactive than uranium. Polonium. Named after her country of birth. And then, they discovered another element that gave off 900 times more radiation than polonium: radium. The unglamorous work of extracting and isolating the elements took place in a leaky and drafty shack near Pierre’s work as they didn’t have a dedicated lab space. Their efforts paid off. The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 went to Marie, Pierre, and Becquerel for their research in radiation.
French academics originally proposed that only Pierre and Becquerel receive the prize. Leaving Marie out. A sign of the times. However, a sympathetic member of the nominating committee, Swedish mathematician Gösta Mintage-Leffler alerted Pierre to the situation. He insisted that his wife share the honor. Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She and her husband were too busy with their research to accept the award in person in Stockholm. Pierre was also sick, suffering from pain and fatigue. They had no idea at the time that radiation could be detrimental to their health. It is said that Marie would carry tubes of radium in her pockets.
She was fascinated by what she described as "faint fairy lights". Little did she know this was slowly killing her. The glowing green radium captivated the public. It would be a key element in early cancer treatment. And would also find its way into everyday products: toothpaste with a promise of benefitting teeth and facial creams in the belief that it would firm muscles and smooth out wrinkles. The element was so popular that in the 1920s, a single gram of radium cost more than $100,000 - well over a million today! The Curies could have tried to patent radium and cash in big time, but they didn’t. Marie declared: “Radium is a chemical element, a property of all humans.” After their ground-breaking work, it was Pierre who would be promoted as head of the physics department at the Sorbonne.
Yet he still didn’t have a proper lab. Pierre complained and the university relented, however, he would never get his dream of working in a new laboratory because tragedy struck less than two years after the birth of their second daughter. On a rainy day in April 1906, Pierre was walking across the Rue Dauphine when he was run over by a horse and carriage. He died instantly. Pierre’s father implied that his son’s preoccupation with his own thoughts contributed to his death. Marie was offered his academic post at the Sorbonne instead of accepting a widow’s pension. She became the first female professor in France. Hundreds of people lined up outside the university hoping to attend her first lecture.
The period following her husband’s death would be the most difficult of her life. In 1911, the French Academy of Sciences, the gathering place for prominent scientists, rejected her for membership when she put herself forward for a vacant seat. They passed her over for physicist and inventor Edouard Branly. Many suspected it was because she was an immigrant and a woman. Despite getting snubbed by the Academy, she went on to win something even greater later that year. A second Nobel Prize - this time in chemistry, for the discovery of polonium and radium, the isolation of radium, and the study of the nature of that remarkable element. But the buzz around her wasn’t great.
The French press was all over her affair with her husband’s former student, physician Paul Langevin, who was married but estranged from his wife. She was labeled as a homewrecker and even warned that it might be best if she didn’t pick up the Prize in person. Curie sank into a deep depression. Only to be slowly pulled out with the support of a fellow scientist. Albert Einstein struck up a friendship with Curie at the Solvay conference in 1911. He wrote her a letter of encouragement during this dark period. “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty...” He then told her to pay no mind to the stories in the press: “simply don’t read that hogwash…” Curie went to Stockholm to accept her second Nobel Prize and the headlines about the affair eventually blew over.
She would slowly recover and was in the middle of setting up a giant laboratory at her newly created Radium Institute when war broke out. As German troops headed toward Paris, she took her stash of precious radium to a bank vault in Bordeaux, in southwestern France, the new capital. She also tried to sell her two gold Nobel prize medals to help the war effort but the national bank refused to accept them. She would buy war bonds using her prize money but this self-sacrifice wasn’t enough for her. She was determined to use her research to save the lives of French soldiers. She had studied the work of German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen who had discovered x-rays.
Curie then brought x-ray machines to the battlefield by inventing mobile units called “little curies” to help surgeons locate and remove shrapnel and bullets from wounded soldiers. She and her daughter Irène trained 150 women to drive these little cars and drove one herself, despite the danger. Curie also oversaw 200 radiological rooms in field hospitals. It’s estimated that by the end of the war, her efforts saved the lives of a million men but may have cost her own. Curie knew that over-exposure to x-rays would pose risks to her health. But there wasn’t any time to improve on safety practices. Years later, she would die of aplastic anemia - a blood disease likely due to exposure to large amounts of radiation over her lifetime.
Despite her humanitarian efforts, the French government never gave her any official recognition whereas she was gaining increasing fame abroad. In 1921, U.S. President Warren Harding invited her to the White House and gave her a gift of a gram of radium to aid in her research. The French government was apparently embarrassed by the fact that they gave her no distinctions so, before that trip to DC, they offered her the country’s most distinguished honor, the Légion dehorner - the Legion of Honor. She declined. During her later years, she headed the Radium Institute - later the Curie Institute in Paris. And opened another in Warsaw, where her sister Bronya became the director.
Both remain major research institutions to this day. She was already in ill health by then. On July 4, 1934, Curie died at the age of 66 at a sanatorium in the town of Passy in eastern France. She didn’t live to see her daughter Irène win her own Nobel Prize in Chemistry a year later for the artificial creation of new radioactive elements, sharing it with her husband, physicist Frédéric Joliot. Curie was buried at a cemetery in Sochaux, the suburbs of Paris where she married, and where her husband lay. In 1995, both were moved to the Panthéon in Paris, the resting place for many distinguished French citizens like Victor Hugo, Rousseau, and Voltaire.
Curie was the first woman to be honored in the Panthéon on her own merits. Her remains remained radioactive, so they were placed in a coffin lined with nearly an inch of lead. Even her papers are still radioactive today. Anyone who wants to examine them must wear protective gear and sign a waiver. Curie’s tireless work was surpassed only by her fight to overcome the barriers in her way to become one of the greatest scientists of all time. It wasn’t only her work that was impressive but also her work ethic.
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