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Marie Curie Was a Trailblazer in Science and Radioactivity

Marie Curie, one of the world’s beloved scientists, was a pioneer in the study of radioactivity and her discoveries revolutionized cancer treatment. Through her discovery of radium, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields, and eight years later won a subsequent prize.

Marie was born Marya Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. She earned good grades and was even awarded a gold medal in her high school. Despite being a great student and her family valued education, she could not attend university because Russia had invaded Poland and women were not able to go to college after the invasion. Marya made money by giving private tutoring lessons and became involved with a group of young people who taught themselves their topics, called the “Floating University.” She became a governess to a wealthy family, but she craved knowledge and became more determined than ever to attend university.

In 1891, Marya went to live with her sister Bronya in France. She changed her name to a French variation of her name, “Marie,” and studied mathematics, chemistry, and physics at the Sorbonne, where she became the first woman to teach. In 1894, she needed a laboratory to work on her chosen study of measuring the magnetic properties of steel alloys. Her colleagues suggested she meet Pierre Curie at the Schools of Physics and Chemistry. Marie was astonished by Pierre from their very first meeting.

“He seemed very young to me although he was then aged 35. I was struck by the expression of his clear gaze and by a slight appearance of carelessness in his lofty stature. His rather slow, reflective words, his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and young, inspired confidence. A conversation between us became friendly; its object was some questions of science upon which I was happy to ask his opinion,” she said.

Marie and Pierre got married in the summer of 1895. Together, they worked for many years on research projects, eventually settling on their research on radioactivity. There was another French physicist, Antoine Henri Becquerel, who had recently discovered a natural radioactive element: uranium. Marie was fascinated and concluded that if radiation was a property of uranium, the radiation must exist in other elements as well.

She began a search for radioactivity in elements and found it in thorium. The Curies studied pitchblende, the natural mineral from which thorium and uranium were extracted. They discovered two more radioactive elements, radium and polonium. The new elements made headlines and their effects on cells made more news. The discovery made such an enormous impact on cancer treatment and developed Radiotherapy. Radiotherapy is one of many treatments to kill cancer cells and is still used in healthcare today.

In November 1903 the Curies were awarded the Davy Medal. The following month they won the Nobel Prize for physics, sharing their prize with Becquerel. Pierre became director of research and professor of physics at the University of Paris, both remained active in their scientific endeavors. Unfortunately, Pierre was killed in an accident involving a heavy horse-drawn wagon. Luckily, Marie was there to take his place and became the first woman to hold this position.

In 1908, Marie started her first and only course to teach radioactivity to the world. She also collected her research in the “Traité de Radioactivé” and published the collection in 1910. Marie continued her work and in 1911 she won her second Nobel Prize for chemistry. In 1914 she founded the Radium Institute and was its first director. Marie realized that X-rays helped locate foreign objects in the body and surgery. She sent X-ray vans to treat wounded soldiers fighting WWI. Though she won two Nobel Prizes, she decided to sell the Nobel medals for the war effort.

In 1921, she toured the U.S. and addressed many meetings. During her tour, President Warren Harding, on behalf of the women of America, presented her with one gram of radium, “more than a hundred thousand times dearer than gold,” for her institute. Although Marie had success, radium’s use was controversial. She defended the element’s use by saying, “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician, he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairytale.”

On July 4, 1934, at the age of 67, Marie died of leukemia. It's believed that her illness was likely caused by her exposure to a high amount of radiation in her research, however, other factors could have contributed to her illness. Marie Curie was a fascinating woman with many historical discoveries. Even today, her accomplishments are an inspiration to people who seek to discover new things. As she put it, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

[Source: Women who Changed History]

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