The Idiots Guide to Everything: Marie Sklodowska-Curie

Posted on January 9, 2013

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Maria Sklodowska

Marie Sklodowska-Curie

There are a lot of historical folk who the mass people don’t realise were in fact Slavs. Maybe it is because the word ‘Slav’ is so harsh sounding, I don’t know. Either way, the one who surprises people the most in this case is without doubt Marie Sklodowska, known to the world as Marie Curie. Yes, Marie Curie was a Slav. Despite spending the majority of her working life in France, she was born in Warsaw, Poland, and was as proudly Polish as you could find. But who was Marie Curie? Something to do with science right? Cancer? Well, notwithstanding how vague ‘something to do with science’ is, yes, Marie Sklodowska-Curie was a Polish physicist and chemist, and she pioneered research on radioactivity, a term she in fact coined with her French husband, Pierre. Not only did she pioneer in science, but it could also be said that she was something of a trailblazer for females worldwide, as she is known for a number of things in which she is the ‘first female to…’. A remarkable lady.

Born Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw on the 7th of November 1867, Maria was the fifth and youngest child of teachers, born at a tough time in Polish history. Although reading through Polish history you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another term for tough time. There were a number of Polish national uprisings at the time, and Maria’s parents would lose their fortune and property due to their involvement in these. Her Papa was reduced to teaching physics in school, and those pesky Russians weren’t finished as they eliminated lab work from school. Lab work of course being the only thing anyone really enjoys during physics at school. Still, this led Maria’s father to take all of the equipment home, where he was able to teach Maria and her siblings. He was soon fired for pro-Polish sentiments, although in nature with the treatment of Poles at this time, he could have been arrested for being Polish. Her eldest sister Zofid died of typhus when Maria was 10, and this was followed by her mother of tuberculosis when Maria was but 12 years old. The family deaths pushed Maria away from Catholicism and towards becoming an Agnostic.

Maria’s troubles would continue when she was refused permission to attend university on the grounds of her gender. She suffered with deep depression during this time, which was only slightly alleviated when she became involved with the Floating University, a clandestine educational movement in Warsaw. Her sister Bronislawa had already began the same path, and they reached an agreement to financially assist each other through studies abroad, in Paris. It was during her time at the Floating University that Maria fell in love for the first time, to Kazimierz Zorawski, who would go on to be an important Polish mathematician. They considered marriage on a number of occasions, but each time the plan was rejected by Kazimierz’s family, due to Maria’s poverty. Oh, what a grand mistake.

In 1891, Maria finally left Poland for France. She would live in the Latin Quarter, and survived on meagre (to say the least) resources. To pay her way she took up tutoring in the evenings, meaning she was non stop science. The exhaustion would have lasting effects on her health. She earned a degree in Physics in 1893, from which she went on to work in an industrial lab for Professor Gabriel Lippmann. A second degree followed in 1894. Her scientific career truly began not long thereafter, as she began investigating the magnetic properties of various steels, and it was through this research she would meet Pierre Curie. Their love blossomed, and after a quick courtship (this was 19th century after all), Pierre decided to propose, to which Maria answered no. Good on you! She was planning on returning to Poland, and although he was willing to follow her, there was still no dice. She indeed went home, but it quickly became apparent that she would be unable to work in her preferred field in her home country. Pierre sent her what I can only assume was a heart-wrenching letter, and she was convinced to return to Paris. On the 26th of July 1895, they married.

Now known as Marie, her scientific career exploded in 1896. A year earlier, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays, and in 1896 Henri Becquerel was to discover that uranium salts emitted rays similar to x-rays. This inspired Marie to delve deeper into uranium rays as a potential thesis, quickly discovering that they cause air around the sample to conduct electricity. After much work, she hypothesized that radiation must come from the atom itself. Her studies revolved around 2 uranium minerals, these being pitchblende and tobernite. Her electro meter showed that pitchblende was 4 times as radioactive as uranium itself, and tobernite twice as active. She began to search for other substances in them that could emit radiation. Pierre became more and more intrigued by her work, and indeed dropped his own work on crystals in 1898 to join her. This same year saw the discovery and publishing of a paper that changed everything for the Curies.

The month was July, and Maria Sklodowska had come across her greatest discovery to date. She quickly published a paper announcing the existence of a new element, an element she named Polonium after her native country. This was a fairly easy discovery (by her immense standards, personally I think its probably slightly beyond myself), but her next proved more evasive. This was the discovery of Radium, her second new element within a year. This discovery required the isolation of radium salt, a process I know nothing about but which must be pretty freakin’ difficult. Naturally, this was led by a flurry of recognition, and in 1900 she became the first female faculty member at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and in 1902 she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Paris. Her biggest award to date would come in 1903. She was, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, awarded the joint Nobel prize in Physics. She was the first female to be awarded a Nobel prize. What is quite amazing throughout all of this, is that she didn’t even have a proper laboratory at this time, still working in a poorly equipped shed. She also had 2 daughters, named Irene and Eve.

Tragedy struck in 1906 when her husband Pierre was knocked over by a horse wagon and killed. Marie would struggle with depression, understandably, following this, and plunged herself deeper into work. She took over his chair at the Sorbonne, and pledged to create world class laboratory in tribute. She became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. In 1910, she achieved a life’s work and isolated radium, defining the international standard for radioactive emissions in the process, a standard known as the ‘curie’. Difficult times continued in 1911 when it was revealed that she had a year long affair with physicist Paul Langevin, who was estranged from his wife at the time. The ensuing press scandal was exploited by her academic opponents, proving that being an academic does not stop you from being a complete gossip, as Marie was portrayed as a Jewish home wrecker. Throughout her career she encountered a huge amount of xenophobia, as well as blatant press hypocrisy. When she was nominated for awards within France, she was always portrayed as an unworthy foreigner. However, when nominated for international awards such as the Nobel prize, she became a French hero. We are fickle, fickle beings. Speaking of Nobel prizes, she went on to win the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1911, becoming the first person to win two Nobel prizes. To this day, she is one of only two people to have been awarded Nobel prizes in two different fields. Shortly after winning the prize however, she was hospitalised with depression and serious kidney issues.

As with pretty much everything else, World War One put a bit of a stop on her scientific activity, but certainly not her activity in general. In many ways, this was her finest time. She was director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and set up France’s first military radiology centre in the process. She also directed the installation of around twenty mobile radiological vehicles in the first year of the war alone, and trained other women as aides. Over one million soldiers were treated with her x-ray units during the war years. She even attempted to donate her Nobel prize medals to the war effort, but the French National Bank refused them. Her war time experiences are compiled in a book entitled ‘Radiology in War’, published in 1919. Despite her immense efforts, she never received a single bit of formal recognition from the French government for her contribution, mostly because of the hypocritical xenophobia that still plagued her.

After the war, her work spread internationally, and she went on to lecture all over the globe. She made more and more public appearances, something that she despised but saw as a necessary evil for the improved resources it allowed her. She penned a biography of Pierre in 1923, imaginatively titled ‘Pierre Curie’. In 1934, she would visit her native Poland for the very last time. Within a few months, Marie Curie was dead. The official cause of death was given as aplastic anaemia. As expected, this was brought on by her long term exposure to radiation without the proper safety precautions. The damaging effects of radiation were not really known at this time, and she wasn’t helped by the fact she was working in a glorified shed. She was also constantly exposed to x-rays during her war time work. She died aged 66. Initially interred at the cemetery in Sceaux alongside Pierre, they were both moved to the famous Pantheon in 1995.

The accolades have flooded in since her death, with statues, museums and even postage stamps coming out in her honour. And rightly so, as Marie Curie was a trailblazer in every possible sense in the word, and in every possible field of work that she existed in. She pushed the boundaries in Physics, Chemistry, and also Gender. Maria Sklodowska was, without doubt, one of the great Slavs of history.

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