Marie Curie was a pioneer of modern science. Despite a career that was physically demanding and ultimately fatal, she discovered polonium and radium, championed the use of radiation in medicine and fundamentally changed the understanding of radioactivity.

Marie Curie, chronomèter in hand, measuring radioactivity in the laboratory on Cuvier Street, 1904 (© Association Curie Joliot-Curie)

Marie Curie was born Marie Skłodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, to a family of teachers who believed strongly in education. In 1891, she moved to Paris to continue her studies. She wrote her thesis on radiation, which French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered in 1896. She found that an ore containing uranium was far more radioactive than could be explained by its uranium content. This led her and her husband, Pierre Curie, whom she had met at the university, to discover a new element that was 400 times more radioactive than uranium. In 1898, it was added to the Periodic Table as polonium, named after Curie’s birth country.

“It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.” – Marie Curie

Then Curie discovered an even more radioactive element, radium. By observing it, she found that radiation wasn’t dependent on the organization of atoms at the molecular level; something was happening inside the atom itself. The atom was not, as scientists believed at the time, inert, indivisible or even solid.

In 1903, she received the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre Curie, in recognition of the extraordinary services they rendered by their joint research on the radiation phenomena. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

Curie continued to investigate these elements’ properties and, in 1910, she produced radium as a pure metal, which proved the new element’s existence beyond a doubt. She also documented the properties of the radioactive elements and their compounds. Radioactive compounds became important as sources of radiation in both scientific experiments and in the field of medicine, where they are used to treat tumors.

In 1911, Marie Curie received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.

One of Marie Curie’s mobile x-ray units used by the French Army (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie)

She was and still is the only person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in two scientific categories.

During World War I, Curie organized mobile X-ray teams to treat those who were wounded on the battlefield using radiological cars – which later became known as “petites Curies”. She and her elder daughter, Irène, traveled to battlefield hospitals to train surgeons on the use of these x-ray units so they could more easily find shrapnel and operate more accurately.

Unmindful of the dangers of over-exposure to X-rays, the mother and daughter were inadequately protected from the radiation that helped save innumerable soldiers’ lives. Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anaemia, a blood disease often caused by exposure to large amounts of radiation.

Featured image source: Nobel foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (Attribution 4.0 International, CC BY 4.0)

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