Remembering Marie


Remembering Marie

Marie Curie’s painstaking scientific research has benefited mankind in many ways. The scientist was exceptional not only in her contributions to science but continues to inspire generations of women scientists even to this day, write Laasya Samhita and Veena Rao.

Maria Sklodowska, better known by her French name Marie Curie, needs no introduction. As a path-breaking woman scientist in the male-dominated field of scientific research in the late 1800s, stories about the life of this intensely private person have entered the realm of legend.

A Nobel prize-winner for her work on radioactivity, Curie’s rise to fame began while she was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. Marie Curie became aware of the existence of “X rays”, discovered in 1895 by William Roentgen. Henri Becquerel had earlier found out that salts of the element uranium emitted rays similar to X rays. Maria was intrigued by this property of uranium and the “Becquerel rays”. She decided that for her doctoral work she would investigate if uranium was the only element with this mysterious property, and what it might be due to.

She attacked the problem with concentrated energy and quiet determination that characterised her academic career. In order to assess the intensity of the rays, Marie Curie used a device conceived by Pierre Curie and Jacques Curie (his brother) called the piezoelectric quartz. She found that the air around uranium conducts electricity, and also that the amount of radiation she detected was proportional to the amount of uranium present. She used the mineral pitchblende as a source of uranium. From the amounts of radiation that could be attributed to the content of uranium alone in it, she concluded that there must be other substances capable of emitting radiation hidden in the pitchblende. This observation, the key to the discovery of radioactivity and all that has followed after it, is truly remarkable considering that tonnes of pitchblende had to be ground to isolate the minute quantities of the two new elements present in them (One tonne of pitchblende has about one tenth of a gram of radium, successfully isolated by Marie in 1910). Anyone less careful could have easily dismissed it as an artefact or difference due to manual error. The precision of the measurements taken by Marie still stands out as a model of painstaking scientific research.

Marie’s husband Pierre Curie joined his wife, abandoning his own work, as the intriguing story of the phenomenon to be christened “radioactivity” took shape. Most of their research work was carried out in an ill-ventilated shed next to the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. It had served previously as a medical dissection room, and was so poorly built as to frequently allow rain water to drip in. A far cry from the protected areas and equipment used to handle radioactivity in research labs these days, and tragically, the pioneers of it had no way of knowing the danger they were putting themselves in. In July 1898, the Curies published a joint paper announcing the discovery of a new element named in honour of Maria Sklodowska’s homeland - “Polonium”. In December the same year came the discovery of another radioactive element, “radium”.

Although the term “radioactivity” was used by Marie Curie in 1898 to designate the spontaneous radiance emitted by some elements, a formal definition was put forth by scientists Rutherford and Soddy only in 1902: “Radioactivity, an atomic phenomenon, is the spontaneous transmutation of one chemical element into another involving the emission of radiation”.

At every stage of life, Marie Curie had to battle against the existing conventions, not relaxed for her inspite of her increasingly brilliant contributions to science. She was earlier refused a position at the University in Poland for being a woman. More shockingly, even after the discovery of radioactivity, she was refused a faculty position at the Sorbonne. Again, when invited to speak about their joint discoveries at the Royal Institution in London, only Pierre Curie was given permission to speak.

In December 1903, she was awarded the Nobel prize for Physics jointly with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel–again her inclusion was made against opposition. Ironically, it was only after the death of Pierre Curie that the chair occupied by him was offered to Marie, making her the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. Her daughter Eva Curie writes that after her father’s death, it appeared that the already concentrated energy of Marie became intensified in her crusade to make the physics department a world-class one as a tribute to Pierre Curie.

In 1910, she succeeded in isolating the elusive radium. In 1911, she again received the Nobel prize, this time singly and in the field of Chemistry. Although private pressures continued – she was hospitalised for depression that year – Marie Curie managed to get the French government to set up a radium institute and threw herself completely into running it. She, along with Pierre, decided not to patent the process of isolating radium so that it would benefit the scientific world and humanity on the whole. A friend of the Curies, Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that Marie was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame.

Marie Curie’s pioneering research work on radioactive elements was a boon to mankind. The hope of treating cancer with radioactive isotopes was kindled, and nourished by her own active involvement in setting up the Institute of Oncology in Poland, and the establishment of France’s first military radiology centre by 1914. During World War I, she personally led a medical team and established “Mobile Radiological Centres” near the warfront in order to assist the surgeons. These radiography units were popularly known as “petites curies” (little curies). She became the director of the Red Cross radiology service and established France’s first military radiology centre by 1914.

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 at the sanatorium of Sancellemoz in the French Alps from aplastic anaemia caused by prolonged exposure to radioactive elements. The extent of exposure can be gauged by the fact that even today her research papers and tools on display at the Curie museum in Paris are kept in lead- lined boxes because they are judged to emit high and unsafe levels of radiation.

Marie Curie, later honoured as “Madam” Curie, was exceptional not only in her contributions to science but through the attitude she brought to it. She continues to be a great source of inspiration to all women, especially those in the field of scientific research, even today.

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