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Discovery of Radium and Polonium
Poland-born Maria Sklodowska Curie is remembered as one of
the world's most brilliant scientists, male or female—her
achievements all the more remarkable, because she was a woman
working in a male-dominated field.
Born November 7, 1867, Maria was an outstanding student
who had a prodigious memory. Her father was a math and physics
teacher and her mother a pianist, singer and teacher. One
of five children, she worked as a teacher, then a governess,
to help her family make ends meet and to earn money for her
university education. In November 1891, she left Poland for
the Sorbonne in Paris, where she first began using the French
"Marie" instead of Maria. She graduated first in
her class in physical sciences in 1893.
The following year she began working in Gabriel Lippmann's
research laboratory. Soon after, she met Pierre Curie, an
acclaimed professor at the School of Physics at the University
of Paris. They married on July 26, 1895. Thus began their
research partnership, focused on the study of radioactive
substances, which would lead them to the discovery of two
new radioactive elements: radium and polonium.
The Curies brought their first daughter, Irene, into the
world in 1897. The following year Marie set up a lab at the
School of Physics, where she planned to work alongside her
husband. While studying uranium ore, or pitchblend, the Curies
found that the substance contained much more radioactivity
than could be attributed to the uranium in it. They developed
a very tedious method of refining large quantities of pitchblend
to produce tiny samples of radioactive material. The first
element they were able to isolate was polonium, named for
Marie's native country. They isolated radium next, which was
even more radioactive -- two million times more than uranium.
They confirmed both elements’ existence by 1902.
The discoveries earned Curie her doctoral degree, the first
to be awarded to a woman in Europe. Then, in 1903, she and
Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, presented
to them jointly with Antoine Henri Bacquerel, who had discovered
the phenomenon of natural radioactivity.
Eve, the Curies' second daughter, was born in December of
1904. Upon returning to work Marie was appointed chief assistant
in Pierre’s lab. The following year, Pierre was killed
in a street accident in Paris, leaving his wife to continue
her work on radioactive elements alone. In 1906, she took
on her husband's professorship and was the first woman to
teach at the Sorbonne.
In 1910, Curie published a treatise on radioactivity. She
was awarded an unprecedented second Nobel Prize in 1911—in
chemistry—for the isolation of pure radium. In 1914,
she helped establish the Radium Institute in Paris and was
its first director. She continued to innovate, creating portable
x-ray machines in World War I and training radiologist nurses
to operate them on the battlefield. She and her daughter Irene
worked together during the war on improvements to x-radiography.
Curie's research eventually gave birth to the field of atomic
physics. She began lecturing around Europe and in the United
States, focusing on research into the chemistry of radioactive
substances and possible medical applications for them. In
1932, she oversaw the founding of the Radium Institute in
Warsaw, of which her sister, Bronia, became director.
On July 4, 1934, Curie died of leukemia at the age of 67,
and her illness is believed to be a direct result of her frequent
exposure to penetrating radiation. In fact, years after her
death, physicists were able to use photographic film to discover
fingerprints left in her lab books by radioactive deposits.
In 1995, the French Government honored her memory by transferring
her ashes and those of her husband to the Pantheon in Paris.
Curie's work paved the way for her daughter, Irene, and
husband Frederic Joliot's discovery of artificial radioactivity,
for which the pair won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935.