Biography Marie Curie

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Marie Curie, nee Sklodowski, was born in Warsaw, Poland on the 7th November 1867 to parents who were both educators.

When Marie was growing up, Poland was in the grips of  Russians and German occupation.  This in practical terms meant that the ‘Strangers’ as they were known locally, had the best jobs and only Poles who supported their presence were rewarded with employment.  Marie’s father was a school principle and a patriot, which lost him his job and as a result caused his family to struggle financially.

These new financial constraints made Marie’s mother decide to take lodgers into what was already an overcrowded family home, housing several family members.  Hardly surprising that with such cramped living conditions the family accommodation became a hotbed for growth of disease.  Marie’s mother was struck down with Tuberculosis for which there was no cure at the time and eventually died in 1875 when she Marie was only nine.  Soon after, her older sister also died of typhus. Both deaths proved difficult for her to bear and so with her siblings they pledged to work towards discovering a miracle cure that would stop pain and suffering.

Marie first introduction to the science of Physics by her cousin, Jozeph Boguski who was a director of the Warsaw Museum of Industry.  He gave her free access to the science laboratory at the weekends.  From there she developed the idea that she would like to study medicine at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

Medicine was a difficult professional choice for her, because at the time women were not allowed to study science in Poland, therefore preparing for her pre-entry course work coupled with the lack of financial support proved extremely difficult.  To overcome these two obstacles she enrolled in a private college which called itself ‘The flying University’. So named because there was no college campus, but rather the students met covertly in each others homes to study and support each other, whilst the lack of money was resolved, when Marie took employment as a governess and also gave private tuition.

In 1897 aged 24, Marie arrived at the Sorbonne University, where she found herself to be one of only 23 women amongst 1825 students.  When she arrived in Paris, Radium had just been discovered by Henri Becquerel and in the science field a revolution was beginning to take place. In its infancy at the time, Physics was then a branch of science which focuses on the tiny atoms in the solar system.  How these worked and the relevance of atoms in the field of science was yet to be discovered at the time of her enrolment at the Sorbonne.

Not long after her arrival in Paris she met and fell in love with a young Physicist named Pierre Curie, whom she eventually married and had two daughters. He convinced her to join him in his quest to unravel the mysteries of the newly discovered invisible energy. Eventually she took on the greater part of the work with Pierre’s support, whilst he assumed the role of house-husband to a large extent, as she became more and more scientifically absorbed.

Marie began to investigate the structure of atoms eventually discovering two new elements which she named Radium after radiation and Polonium after her beloved Poland. As a result of her research Marie was able to proposed with some confidence to the scientific community that radiation came from within the atom. The work was gruelling and time consuming, taking many years to finally achieve the desired success and reach the desired goals. 

Her work earned her and Pierre along with Becquerel the Nobel Prize for Physics that year.  Marie kept a small vial of Radium at her bedside which gave off a soft blue glow in the dark, it also gave her fingertip burns and she miscarriage her third child, probably due to her exposure to radiation. Many of the laboratory staff also fell ill from time to time yet she refused to admit that there were negative aspects associated with her new discovery, preferring to focus on its potential for good.

In April 1906 Pierre was killed by a horse drawn wagon.  It was believed that he suffered from muscle weakness in his legs probably brought about by his exposure to radium.  Devastated by the loss of her husband and the loneliness which followed, she began a love affair with a married man named Paul Lengevin who was several years her junior.  This affair almost ruined her career when it was revealed in the press, which branded her as a home wrecker. 

That same year in 1911, she won her second Nobel Prize for chemistry and because of the public anger over her affair she was asked by the Nobel committee not to attend the ceremony, a request she chose to ignore. The French Science Academy working in concert with public opinion down-voted her membership and mobs gathered outside her home to protest about her immoral behaviour. Embittered by her experience, she later commented on the lack of support she received from the science community, that she complained remained silent whilst she suffered at the hands of the French public. 

This experience led her to make a conscious decision to mostly employ other women in her laboratory, especially those who had been discriminated against by the male scientific establishment.  One such person was Marguerite Perry who started as a lowly laboratory assistant and progressed to make the discovery of the radioactive element known as Francium.

Marie also trained her daughter Irene to become a Physicist  and during World War I they worked together taking X-Rays of injured soldiers locating bullets and embedded shrapnel and broken bones before surgery.  Marie and Irene are on record as having supervised the taking of over one million X-rays and was also responsible for training over 100 women how to used mobile X-Rays units. 

Marie Curie died on the 4th July 1934 aged 66.  The years before her death she suffered with severe aches and pains, constant ringing in her ears and cataracts in both eyes, believed now to have been the symptoms of aplastic anaemia, attributed to her prolonged exposure to Radium.

Marie, like her father was a Polish patriot through and through, however she opted to became a French citizen and although she suffered at their hands because of her indiscretions, she was eventually able to win her place in the hearts and minds of the French people. 

When she died in 1934 Marie Curie was buried in the Sceaux Cemetery beside her husband.  Sixty years later in 1997, in recognition of their achievements they were both re-interred in the Paris Pantheon, a place that is reserved for those deserving of high honour.  Marie Curie is the only woman so far to be buried in that place of high honour.

More about this author: Phyllis Logie

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