This week’s edition of People Power tells the story of one of the world’s most influential and prolific scientists – Marie Curie.
Marie Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867. She was one of five children born to parents who taught in Warsaw. From an early age, Marie developed a thirst for knowledge and learning stemming from her parent’s passion for education.
However, life in a teachers household in 19th century Poland was far from rosy. A teacher’s pay at this time was meager and with a large family to support, means were very lean.
Things became even tougher in the Sklodowska home when Marie’s mother passed away while the children were still young. With their mother gone, their father was left to support the family but the burden proved to be too much for him to manage. Aside from struggling to make ends meet, this level of poverty prevented Marie from entering into formal education.
In spite of this, Marie read studiously and developed her education through sheer determination. It paid off, in 1891 when Marie followed her sister to Paris and enrolled at the University of Sorbonne where she was instantly recognized for her raw, but undeniable academic talent.
Three years after arriving in Paris and while still studying at Sorbonne, Marie Sklodowska met a working scientist named Pierre Curie. Soon after they were married. Through a mutual interest in science and a determination to make the world better, Marie and Pierre jointly entered into work at the Paris School of Chemistry and Physics and it was here that they began their work into radioactivity.
At the time radioactivity was a new phenomenon pioneered by Professor Henri Becquerel who discovered invisible rays being given off by uranium. Captivated by his work, the Curie’s replicated his methods but noticed an anomaly in his findings. The anomaly related to the amount of radiation given off by a mineral called pitchblende, which was much more potent even than pure uranium. And so it was that after continued testing, that the Curie’s first discovered the element that became known as Polonium, a black powder some 300 times more radioactive than Uranium and then subsequently theorized the presence of something even more powerful, in an as yet uncaptured element Radium.
With issues surrounding cost and the still unproven nature of the discovery, research was halted until a cheaper alternative to the extremely expensive pitchblende could be found. When it was, the Curie’s returned to their work with renewed fervor.
By now, the Curie’s were working with large samples of the pitchblende, sometimes as much as 20kg at a time. The work was physically demanding and led to sickness, that at the time could not be attributed, but what we now know was radiation sickness.
It took 5 years of excruciating work for Marie to eventually prove her theory by isolating this elusive element, Radium. It was for this work and the extension of Becquerel’s work that collectively they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.
It was with great sadness that Pierre’s life was cut short in 1906 when he was knocked down and killed by a carriage, but Marie took over his teaching post, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Following Pierre’s death, Marie devoted herself to continuing the work that they had begun together and in 1911 received a second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry.
The legacy of Pierre and Marie’s work was notable in the development of x-rays in surgery and later in treating cancer patients with radiotherapy.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Marie died on the 4th of July, 1934 from leukemia, caused by exposure to high-energy radiation from her research. However by then, her contribution to science was cemented into time and her incredible work was continued by her eldest daughter Irene, who herself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.
Today the legacy of the Curie’s is continued and celebrated through the work of the Marie Curie Cancer Care, who provide care and support for people living with terminal illness, and their families.
I think we can all agree that this is one woman that should be celebrated unreservedly and we leave you with some words from the great scientist herself:
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” Marie Curie