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Marie Curie was the tragic heroine of C20 science

Posted in Historical articles, History, Science on Monday, 10 June 2013

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This edited article about Marie Curie originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 286 published on 8 July 1967.

Marie Curie, picture. image, illustration

Marie Curie stirring another vat of pitchblende by Peter Jackson

In the darkened laboratory, specimens in a row of test-tubes shone like blue glow-worms. Madame Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, gazed at them in silent wonder. After years of near-poverty and ceaseless work, this was their moment of triumph. They had isolated a new element.

The element was to become known to the world as radium. Its discovery established Marie as the world’s greatest woman scientist, and fulfilled a dream which had begun long ago in Poland.

Marya Sklodovski was born in Warsaw on 7th November, 1867. For a century, the city had been dominated by the Russians, who did everything they could to suppress the Poles’ desire for independence. At Marya’s school Polish history was taught secretly from forbidden books, the teacher risking imprisonment for helping to keep the traditions of his country alive.

As Marya grew up, she realised that while her homeland was dominated by outsiders, there was little chance of her or her sister studying as they wished. Her sister dreamed of becoming a doctor, while she wanted to study chemistry.

The only solution was for Marya to work as a governess in Poland to support her sister at the Paris university.

When her sister qualified, Marya, then aged 24, was able to go to Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne. For four years she worked hard, and passed her exams brilliantly.

Soon afterwards she married a professor, Pierre Curie, and together they began to do research work into the phenomenon of radio-activity. In those days a little was known about its effects, but the element responsible for the radiation had not been isolated.

Marie, as she was now called, devoted herself to the discovery of this element. Even after her daughter, Irene, was born, she continued to work in the cold and draughty room which served as a laboratory. But she was only tolerated here because of her husband’s position, the university authorities making no secret of the fact they disapproved of a woman doing scientific research.

This attitude changed dramatically in 1898, when Marie and Pierre actually produced the world’s first pure radium. Friends urged them to take a patent out on it, but when they realised radium could be used medically, they refused to take this advice even though they would have become very wealthy.

Tragedy came to Marie in 1906, when Pierre was killed in a street accident, but her grief did not prevent her continuing the work they had begun together. She accepted the university’s offer of her husband’s post as Director of Research, and carried on with her studies of radium.

In 1911, Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and eight years later she returned to her beloved Warsaw where she became Professor of Radiology.

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