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Marie Curie: a Martyr to Physics

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Marie Curie: A martyr to Physics

As a symbol of the human quest for knowledge and the ability to sacrifice oneself for a higher cause, Marie Curie helped shape the world as we know it with her discoveries and personal interest in the welfare of mankind. Born in 1867, of Polish parents, Marie garnered an early appreciation for education, with her father, a mathematics and physics professor, and mother, a pianist, stressing the importance of diligent study. At eleven, Marie was left with her father as her sole guardian after the tragic death of her mother to tuberculosis. As a result, Marie became increasingly interested in physics, graduating at the top of her high school class at a mere fifteen years of age. Post-graduation, Marie worked for eight years as a private tutor and governess to earn sufficient money to attend the Sorbonne University in Paris, having been denied admittance to the University of Warsaw on account of being a woman. In what little spare time she was left, Marie pursued a study of mathematics and physics, while attending what many dubbed “a poorly organized school” conducted by Polish professors in defiance of the Russian edict banning their organization, composed of “a group of men and women who tried to quench their thirst for knowledge in secret sessions” (Quinn 1). In1891, Marie finally realized the first of her goals, leaving for Paris to attend the Sorbonne. Despite poor living conditions, a distinct lack of food and sleep, which rendered her chronically-ill, Marie graduated first in her class in the spring of 1893. A year later, she received her master’s degree in mathematics, taking the first steps in practical experimentation which, years later, would be recalled as the initial chapter of what was to be her epic. Marie remained in Paris, in the employ of a French industrial organization, initially conducting experiments of a purely corporate nature. Finding the Sorbonne’s laboratories to be inadequate, however, Marie set out in search of new facilities with better equipment, meeting Pierre Curie in the process, a highly acclaimed professor at The School of Physics. Sharing many of the same academic interests Marie and Pierre’s mutual attraction culminated in their eventual marriage on the 26th of July, 1895. The years would see them draw even closer, for Marie found in Pierre more than a mere partner, but a collaborator, someone she could rely upon both physically and intellectually. Such was their report and abiding passion for academia that even the arrival of their beloved daughter in 1897, Irene, Scarcely affected their routine laboratory experiments. Marie later decided to pursue a doctorate in physics, focusing her thesis on the source of the rays emitted by uranium, whose theoretical existence had first been established by renowned scientist Antoine Henri Becquerel in 1896. Setting up her equipment in a small, glass-encased shed at The School of Physics, Marie performed tests on various minerals, namely pitchblende, which was discovered to contain high levels of radioactivity. Having begun work during the spring of 1898, by the summer Pierre had devoted his full time to aiding her continued studies which Marie had confined solely to pitchblende, given that it emitted the strongest rays. The curies developed a refining method that required them to process literal tons of minerals in order to obtain a minute sample of radioactive material:
We thus believe that the substance that we have extracted from pitchblende contains a metal never known before, akin to bismuth in its analytic properties. If the existence of this new metal in confirmed, we suggest that it should be called polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us. (Froman 1) They also uncovered a second radioactive element that was much stronger, dubbing it Radium. Recognizing that the continued scientific exploration of their chosen field by both their contemporaries and future generations might well be thwarted by the suppression of their methodology, the Curies refrained from patenting their process. Later attempts to further isolate their initially discovered elements were stymied when the Curies discovered that the Uranium ore, Pitchblende, cost more than they could afford, while radium had escalated in price to the point where it was more highly-valued than gold. Marie circumvented the issue by finding a mine in Bohemia, where uranium was extracted from pitchblende, on which she made a moderate offer for bulk ore, which was accepted. Unaware of the damaging effects of the ionic-radiation Marie and Pierre took no safety precautions, the overexposure of which resulted in the skin of her hands peeling off. Marie’s recklessness extended to transporting test tubes of radioactive isotopes form work stations and labs by hand, even storing them in her desk drawers. Having announced their discovery on the 26th of December in 1898, it was not until March of 1902 that they were able to isolate sufficient radium to confirm its’ existence. From several tons of the original material, Marie isolated one decigram of almost pure radium chloride and had determined radium’s atomic weight as 225 (Froman 1). This, in turn, earned Marie her doctorate, the first awarded to a woman in Europe. Marie and Pierre also shared the Noble Prize in 1903 for Physics, the prize being divided with Becquerel, who had discovered X-rays. The citation read “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel” (Froman 1). With the distinction of being the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize Marie attained international fame and resources sufficient to pay off some of her financial debts, accrued while researching Radium. The 25,000 francs she received were distributed between her family, friends, and invested into her work, with scarce a thought to her own personal comfort or luxuries. Following the birth of their second daughter, Eve Curie, In December of 1904, Marie returned to work in the laboratory with Pierre. Not long after Pierre passed way, having stepped into the path of a horse-drawn carriage on a Paris street. Pierre’s death left a vacancy in the physics department at the Sorbonne, one which Marie was uniquely situated and highly recommended to fill. Thus, in spite of her reluctance to occupy the position previously filled by her late-husband, Marie accepted, thus “the first time a woman had held this position” (The Nobel Foundation). When doubts arose concerning the credibility of her research and, more pointedly, the existence of Polonium and Radium, Marie strove tirelessly to isolate pure samples of each. “She alone was responsible for the large–scale chemical work required to separate Radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantity to purify it and obtain its atomic weight” (Ruthford 674). Her research, which was phenomenally successful, led to the awarding of a second Nobel Prize in 1911 in the field of Chemistry, Making her the first person in history, and only woman, to ever receive the Nobel twice. After the First World War broke out, Marie proposed the use of mobile radiography units, later to be known as Little Curies, for the treatment of those wounded in battle. Intended to help locate bullets and facilitate surgery, the units were powered by radium gas, a colorless, radioactive emanation of the pure ore. Marie herself provided the tubes of Radium gas, which were purified in her laboratory, in addition to training over one-hundred and fifty women to operate the machines. The war effort would also lead to Marie sacrifice her Nobel Prize medals, cannibalizing their gold for use in the machines. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted” (Quinn 1). Upon realizing that her status as a world-renowned celebrity lent her the ability to exert influence on those causes she deemed most worthy, Marie began speaking at meetings and conferences throughout the world, gradually becoming more comfortable in the spotlight. Recognizing common support for her work, Marie established a fundraiser for the Radium Institute, while lending her name to the cause for world peace by serving on the council of The League of Nations and its international committee on intellectual cooperation standards. As the 1920s drew to a close, Marie began to suffer almost constant fatigue, dizziness and a fleeting fever, in addition to a persistent humming in her ears and a gradual loss of eyesight that was only partially mitigated by a series of cataract operations. Though a number of her colleagues who had worked with Radium where displaying similar symptoms, and others had died at relatively young ages of cancer, Marie could not bring herself to admit that the element she and her husband had so laboriously dedicated themselves to the discovery of could possibly be at fault. As such, and in spite of the growing acknowledgement of Radium’s lethality, Marie continued to work with it, exercising her trademark lack of restraint. In the early 1930s, however, Marie’s health noticeably worsened, with doctors finally discovering the cause: pernicious anemia resulting from the cumulative effect of radiation exposure. The news was withheld from the public, as well as Marie herself, who on July 4th, 1934, perished amongst the mountains to which she had fled to recuperate. The modern day world, indebted to Marie Curie, was certainly changed as a result of her. To say the least, Marie’s scientific contributions played a monumental role in the development of modern science yet she is most notably known for her discoveries in regards to radiation. In as much as countless lives were spared as a result of her extensive research the repercussions thereof have been most beneficial in these latter days. Essentially, the use of modern medical technologies such as the X-Ray and cancer treatments have proven their usefulness. Furthermore, Marie provided the groundwork for many contemporary techniques to a degree that molecular biology, modern genetics, and the fount of nuclear energy leading to the atomic bomb came about. Marie was nothing less than a trail blazer for women into the world of science and education. As aforementioned she served as the first professor at one of the most prestigious Universities in Paris, the Sorbonne, and therefore can be viewed as an exemplar to the modern day woman. Thus it was not merely upon the scientific discipline that she left her mark, for she additionally unveiled woman’s place in the scientific community. It is not for breaking out of the traditional molds of her gender that she is remembered, but for her “contributions to knowledge, and, through her discoveries, to the welfare of mankind” (Ruthford 676). Her life yes, with all things, came to an end yet her legacy lives on.

Works Cited "Marie Curie - Biographical". The Nobel Foundation 2013. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Froman, Nanny. “Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Radium and Polonium.” 1 December 1996. 14 Nov. 2013 Quinn, Susan. “Marie Curie” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. 13 Nov 2013 Ruthford. “Marie Curie.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 13, no. 39 (1935): 673-676. Web 13 Nov. 2013

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