Marie Skłodowska-Curie – Martyr to Science

Day 184 of Colourisation Project – November 7

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

What a remarkable tower of intellect is today’s choice for colourisation; an icon in the scientific world and a modest, self-effacing woman the world knows as Mme. Curie. Her discovery of radium has to be one of the greatest discoveries of modern science; a discovery which changed the way scientists think about matter and energy, and our understanding of atomic world.

Marie_Curie Bef & Aft

Photographer Unknown – Marie Curie c1920 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Born Marie Skłodowska-Curie on this day, 7 November 1867, Curie was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who pioneered research on radioactivity at a time when opportunities for women in male dominated fields were scarce. Indisputably the most famous female scientist of all time, Curie broke many paradigms for women and made many scientific breakthroughs in her lifetime. She was:-

  • the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903)
  • the first person (and only woman) to win twice (1903 for Physics and 1911 for Chemistry)
  • the only person to win twice in multiple sciences
  • the first person to use the term ‘radio activity’
  • the first person to discover xrays
  • the first woman to receive a PHD from University of Paris
  • the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris (Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences)
  • the founder and Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris established in 1914
  • the first person to establish the field of radiation therapy for treatment of cancer
  • part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes
  • the first and only woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris (in 1995) the final resting place of France’s greatest minds.

Although she became a French citizen, Marie Skłodowska Curie (she used both surnames) maintained a strong sense of Polish identity; even naming the first chemical element that she discovered in 1898 – polonium – after her native homeland, Poland.

She and her husband, Pierre, also a distinguished physicist, and with whom she shared the 1903 Nobel Prize, had two daughters; Eve, a dramatist and pianist of considerable talent, and Irène Joliot-Curie, who with her husband carried on the work of her famous parents at the radium institute. She even followed in her mother’s footsteps, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, sharing the honor with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, for their synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Knowing what we know now, Curie may have conducted her research differently. Curie was known to carry test tubes containing radioactive isotopes around in the pocket of her lab coat, and to also store them in her desk drawer, causing her to remark on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark. Curie had also been exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.  After many decades working with and exposure to radioactive materials, her work impacted on her health.

In 1934, Curie was admitted to the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France, ostensibly for some rest and to regain her strength but she never got to recuperate. She died there on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, a disease of the bone marrow, most likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. Interestingly, throughout her life, Curie had never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.

Because of their levels of radioactivity, her papers and notebooks are too radioactive and dangerous to handle and are kept under lock and key. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. They are all kept in lead-lined boxes, and anyone wishing wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

In her last year she worked on a book, Radioactivity, which was published posthumously in 1935. Today several educational and research institutions and medical centers bear the Curie name, including the Institute Curie and the Pierre and Marie Curie University, both in Paris.

Curie was well regarded and respected by her peers. Her legacy through her life’s work, and as a role model for women in the Sciences, can best be summed up by another great scientist of our times, Alfred Einstein who said…

“Not only did she do outstanding work in her lifetime, and not only did she help humanity greatly by her work, but she invested all her work with the highest moral quality. All of this she accomplished with great strength, objectivity, and judgment. It is very rare to find all of these qualities in one individual.”

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“We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity”  –  Marie Skłodowska Curie

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One Response to Marie Skłodowska-Curie – Martyr to Science

  1. Pingback: The Curie Dynasty | Random Phoughts

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