Madame Curie

Marie CurieWhen I was 10 years old, I decided I wanted to be a biologist. In fact, I remember the moment I took that decision; I was quite sure. (It never came to be, but that's another story.) Almost immediately, I became quite the biology nerd: I carried around insect and bird guides in my school bag, so that when I saw an interesting critter I didn't recognize, I could look it up. From the moment I had learned to read, I gobbled up books faster than my parents could buy them for me (or afford) so I'd been a member of the youth library for quite some time. It had a few shelves with books about science and I started to read these, too: books about biology, of course, but also physics and chemistry, and I started to realize how they were related (to the extent a 10-12 year old mind can grasp such things). I still remember a few of the science books I read during those years. One that made a lasting impression was a book about Marie Curie.

It's done! This post is the fulfillment of my pledge for Ada Lovelace Day, celebrating women in technology. There are many women in science and technology whom I admire (including Ada Lovelace) so the choice wasn't easy, but Marie Curie was the one who inspired me as a child.

I remember it as "Madame Curie" and although I cannot be sure now, several decades later, it was quite likely Eve Curie's biography of her mother, in the Dutch translation by Willy Corsari. That wasn't a children's book, of course, but it was in the section for the oldest age group in the youth library, and not all those books were actually children's books. It can't have been an easy read, but I was captivated. Most science books for children tended to portray science as all fun and excitement. This book was different.

She was born Marie Skłodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. When she was 24, she joined her sister in Paris. Too poor to finance a study at the university there, Marie had made a deal with her sister who studied Medicine that she would financially assist her for two years, after which they would switch roles. She then studied physics, chemistry and mathematics during the day, and tutored in the evenings to make ends meet. Marie and Pierre Curie, wedding photographIn 1893 she got her degree in physics, a year later another one in mathematics, the same year she met her future husband and fellow physicist Pierre Curie. She still wanted to return to Poland, but Krakow University did not accept any women; she returned to Paris. The following year, she and Pierre Curie married and became partners in life as well as in science.

Soon after, her impressive work with radioactivity began, inspired by Henri Bequerel's discovery of the radiation emitted by uranium salts. It was the start of a series of remarkable firsts:

  • She was the first to use the term radioactivity for this phenomenon.
  • She was the first woman in Europe to receive her doctorate of science.
  • In 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics. The award, jointly awarded to Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henri Becquerel, was for the discovery of radioactivity.
  • She was also the first female lecturer, professor and head of Laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1906).
  • In 1911, she won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize (this time in chemistry) for her discovery and isolation of pure radium and radium components. She was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes.
  • She was the first mother-Nobel Prize Laureate of daughter-Nobel Prize Laureate. Her oldest daughter Irene Joliot-Curie also won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1935).
  • She is the first woman which has been laid to rest under the famous dome of the Pantheon in Paris for her own merits.

from: Science in Poland - Maria Sklodowska-Curie

All of these things must have been described in the book I read as a child, but what I remember best was the process of the discovery of first polonium (which she named after her native Poland), and later radium. It started with her discovery that not only uranium salts emitted a radation, but other uranium minerals, pitchblende and torbernite (chalcolite) did as well - and more so. Her conclusion was that if this radiation was stronger, these minerals must contain other, far more active, substances than uranium itself.

Her husband Pierre was so intrigued that he joined her and in early 1898 the pair began the work of isolating whatever it was that radiated stronger than uranium.

(…) we did not know where to do our chemical treatments. We had to organize them in an abandoned shed across a yard from the workshop containing our electrometric equipment. It was a wooden hut, with a bituminous floor and glass roof which let in the rain, devoid of all fittings. All that it contained was worn pine tables, a cast-iron stove which heated feebly, and the blackboard that Pierre loved to use. (…) In this makeshift laboratory, we worked virtually unaided for two years (…).

Pierre working on Radium extractionThey started with a 100-gram sample of pitchblende. It actually took months of processing of pitchblende, small piles of it, larger piles of it, ever larger piles of it - ever more ore to be processed piling up in the courtyard where their leaky laboratory was housed - before polonium, and traces of radium had been isolated later that year. Finally, in 1902, one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was separated from a ton of pitchblende. In 1903, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel together won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of radioactivity. Pierre, possibly weakened by exposure to radiation was killed in an accident in 1906; Marie carried on with the work, and it was only in 1910 that she managed to isolate the pure radium metal.

There was more: like another Nobel Prize 1911, the first experiments in treating cancer with radiation. But it was this long and tedious process of extracting first polonium and then radium that impressed me most as a child. It gave me a feel for science as a process, the reality of being a scientist and the day-to-day tedium of much of it. The exciting discoveries were there, of course, even fame, but I learned that was not all there was to practicing science.

It was only much later that I began to appreciate other aspects of Marie's life, in particular her struggles as a woman scientist in a world where that was still practically unheard of, where women would be refused entry to a university just because they were female. Still, in 1906, after Pierre's death, the Sorbonne offered her her husband's position as professor at the Physics department: thus she became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. But even by 1911, in spite of all her achievements, the French Academy of Sciences did not accept her as a member (only in 1962 was the first woman elected to the Academy). She died in 1934 almost certainly as a result of her exposure to radiation during her career, still unaware that radiation could not only cure, but also kill. She had such an enormous impact on physics, chemistry and medicine, she became one of the most famous women in the world during her lifetime.

As I have mentioned in my earlier post about Ada Lovelace Day, I am in the habit of naming my computers after scientists, and recently I named my new desktop computer Marie: this Marie, a scientist who was such an inspiration for me as a child, and whom I continued to admire as a woman and as a scientist long after that.

2 Responses to Madame Curie

  1. 297 Happy Ada Lovelace Day | Isle of Wight News:Ventnor Blog March 24, 2009 10:41pm

    ...there were many other wonderful women celebrated today.
    Marjolein Katsma wrote about the incredible Marie Curie, who remembers her as being Madame Curie. Marjolein tells in her blog post of how a book about Mari...

  2. 992 Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér (mjjzf) 's status on Thursday, 13-Aug-09 08:12:29 UTC - August 13, 2009 10:12am