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Marie Curie

Marie S Curie (1867-1934) was a Polish-born, French scientist known for her work in discovering radioactivity. Her work shaped medicine, warfare and scientific research for countless generations, earning her Nobel prizes in both physics and chemistry 1,3.

Early life

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born 7th November 1867 Warsaw, Poland into a once noble Polish family under heavy Czarist Russia oppression 1. Marie’s upbringing would focus heavily on the gift of education and the power of passing it onto others, a mantra to which Marie abided wholeheartedly 1,3. She excelled in both private and public education, considered gifted among her peers. Upon graduation, Marie and her sisters embarked on what is now known as a ‘gap year’ traveling to outskirts of the country visiting relatives and indulging in festivities.

Marie eventually sought further education at the ‘Flying University’, an illegal university based in Warsaw dedicated to the education of female scientists under Russian oppression 2.

Education

Marie agreed to provide financial support to her sister, Bronisława, while she studied medicine in Paris. The agreement was that the favor would be repaid in turn. While working as a governess in Warsaw, Maria would work in secret with her cousin Jozef Boguski, studying chemistry and performing 'wet chemistry' experiments, the birth of her passion 2.

In 1891, at the age of 23, Marie enrolled to study at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1893 with a “Licence des Sciences”, furthermore receiving a licence in mathematics in 1894. In that same year, she would eventually meet her future husband, a scientist named Pierre Curie 1-3.

Research into radioactivity

Pierre and Marie examined magnetism in their laboratories for years, though it was the 1895 discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen that would change the direction of their research 1-3.

An experiment in which uranium rays, like x-rays, were observed to ‘electrify’ the air sparked Marie's interest so much that she decided this to be the basis of her doctrine. Marie measured radioactivity using piezoelectric electrometers developed by her husband, Pierre. In 1898, a paper was presented to the Academy of Sciences titled ‘"Rays emitted by uranium and thorium compounds", in which it was proposed that each element had unique ‘radioactivity’ and one could conclude the composition of a material based on its ‘radioactivity’.

Polonium and Radium

Curie then proposed one could isolate a new element in the radioactive substance known as ‘pitchblende’ (now known as uraninite).

For years Marie and her husband worked on isolating, purifying and describing polonium and radium thanks to a sizeable donation of 10 tonnes of pitchblende by the Austrian Government.

The Curies' shed was known to have beamed with luminescence from the radioactive materials, a fact today that would concern any occupational health and safety pundit. Consequently, the entire family would develop signs of ill health.

Marie succeeded in extracting radium and polonium, concluding her thesis in 1903 successfully obtaining a ‘Docteur des Sciences Physiques’.

Radiology cars

Marie went on to design ‘radiology cars’ to assist soldiers in the front line during the First World War. The cars were equipped with x-ray units and darkrooms, bringing these facilities to tents throughout the front lines​ 1. During this time Marie oversaw the training of 400 physicians as radiologists and over 1000 technologists to operate the machinery.

Death

Curie passed away on the 4th July 1934 in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from what is now believed to be aplastic anemia from long-term exposure to radiation.

Awards

  • Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903
  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911

Legacy

  • discovery of radioactivity
  • discovery of polonium and radium

 

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