Marie Curie and Radioactivity

Core Concepts

In this article, you will learn a little about the life of Marie Curie. You will also learn more about her various contributions to chemistry and science as a whole.

Marie Curie’s Early Life

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. She was the daughter of two teachers and the youngest of five children. She received her education from local schools and got scientific training from her father, who taught mathematics and physics. In 1891, she left for Paris, France, to continue her physics and mathematics studies at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, she adopted the French spelling of her name, Marie. She received a degree in physics in 1893 and began working in the laboratory of Gabriel Lippmann. Not long after, in 1894, she earned a second degree in mathematics. In that same year, she met Pierre Curie, a professor at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI Paris). After about a year of getting to know Pierre, they married in July 1895.

The Curie Family; Marie, Pierre, and their first daughter Irene.
The Curie Family; Marie, Pierre, and their first daughter Irene.

Work and Discoveries

Marie and Piere began their work looking into the invisible rays given off by uranium; this was inspired by the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896. She looked at two minerals that contained uranium ore for her studies, pitchblende and torbernite (also known as chalcolite). Using an electrometer developed by her husband, she found that torbernite was two times as active as uranium itself. Marie also found that pitchblende was four times as active. After finding this, she proposed that the two minerals must contain small quantities of another substance that was more radioactive than uranium.

The Cuire’s started the search for the unknown element. In April 1898, they initiated their work by grinding a portion of pitchblende using a pestle and mortar, unaware that what they were searching for existed in such minuscule amounts that they would require tons of ore. In July 1898, they found an element that was more radioactive than uranium and called it polonium, after Poland. Later that year, in December 1989, the Curies announced the discovery of a second element that was far more radioactive than polonium and present in even smaller quantities. They called this new element radium. The discovery of radium proved monumental in the study of nuclear physics, as such a radioactive substance allowed for the work of scientists like Ernest Rutherford to expand our knowledge of atomic structure.

Wanting to prove their findings, the Curies wanted to isolate polonium and radium in their pure forms. In 1902, they started processing the ton of pitchblende they obtained and received one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride. She was able to isolate pure radium metal from this in 1910. Unfortunately, she was never able to isolate polonium due to its very short half-life of 138 days.

Nobel Prizes

In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences intended to award Pierre Curie and Henrie Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics. After receiving complaints, they added Marie to the nomination. Marie Curie achieved the distinction of being the first woman to receive a Nobel prize. In 1906, Pierre tragically died in a street accident. Following this event, she devoted more of her time to completing their scientific research, eventually succeeding him as a professor at the Sorbonne. A few years later in 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry due to her discovery of the elements radium and polonium.

Pierre and Marie Curie.

Marie Curie in Later Life

During the First World War, Marie Curie saw a need for X-ray units that could be used near the front lines to assist surgeons. She studied radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics to develop these mobile radiography units in 1914. When the first machines, known as “Petits Curies”, were ready, Marie headed to the front lines. She directed the installation of these radiological vehicles and trained women as aides.

Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia in 1934, at 66 years old, which was likely caused by radiation exposure. Some of the books and papers that the Curies worked on are still so radioactive that they are stored in lead boxes today.

Further Reading