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Marie and Pierre Curie

Physicists, discovered radium, and polonium

Many scientists have contributed much to this world, as have many great scientist couples; husbands and wives who have worked together to change the face of science.

Pierre and Marie Curie were French Polish scientists who did much research in the area of radiation, and discovered radioactivity, magnetism, and crystallography.

Pierre Curie was born on the 15th of May 1859 in Paris. He trained in physics and eventually went on to become a professor of physics.

Marya Sklodovska was born 8 years later in Poland on the 7th of November 1867. She was the youngest of five children and her childhood was tragic and tough.

She was an excellent student and since girls could not attend university during that time she started private tutoring to earn more money.

Her dream was to somehow be a university student and she was known to be a member of the “Floating University”. This group of young men and women met in secret to discuss and share knowledge.

At the age of 21 she went to Paris to be with her elder sister, and by 24 years she was studying physics at the Sorbonne, in Paris.

During this time, her interest was mainly on the magnetic properties of various types of steel alloys (alloys are the result of one or more metals and elements mixing).

Pierre Curie was occupied with his own research at this time, which was similar to Marie’s. His findings are today known as the Curie Law, the Curie Constant, and the Curie Dissymmetry Principle.

Because of the similarities of their work, Marie was encouraged to meet Pierre to discuss her research and improve it further.

It was at this time, that she first met Pierre Curie and even though she first refused to marry him, they finally married in 1895. He was 36 years, and she was 28 years old at that time.

At 30 years, Marie Curie already had two university degrees, a scholarship, and a published academic paper on her research on magnetism of steel alloys.

Around 1896 Henri Becquerel, another scientist discovered that the element uranium was releasing some strange ‘rays’ which he said were like X-rays.

The Curies based their research on Henri Becquerel’s and began studying uranium in 1897. They too wished to find out what element in uranium caused its radioactivity.

The following year they discovered another radioactive element in the mineral pitchblende and they named it “polonium” after Marie Curie’s birth land Poland.

Continuing further on in their research, they found a second element during one of their routine observations of the element barium.

This new element they discovered they named “radium” on the 26th of December 1898. Marie Curie invented the word “radioactivity” to describe the sudden release of radium.

They shared their knowledge with the world by publishing a total of thirty two scientific papers between 1898 and 1902.

During that time, another important discovery they made was that when they exposed cancer causing cells and healthy cells to radium, the cancer cells were destroyed faster.

This important discovery would later be the foundation for the main treatment for cancer – chemotherapy.

In 1903 this extraordinary couple won the Nobel Prize for Physics which they shared with Henri Becquerel.

Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry for her discovery of radium and Polonium.

She started the Radium Institute in Poland in 1932, which was later changed to the Maria Sklodwska-Curie Institute of Oncology. This facility is a specialized cancer research and treatment centre.

The couple had two daughters. Their elder daughter and her husband also worked and studied radioactivity and were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work. Their second daughter wrote a book of her mother, which has been translated into many languages.

The Curies’ granddaughter and grandson are also brilliant scientists.

Unfortunately, Pierre Curie met with a tragic horse cart accident on the 19th of April 1906 and died instantly. He was only 47 years old. His death left Marie heartbroken.

She was awarded his position as professor at the Sorbonne which she took in his honour. She was the first woman to hold that post.

She contributed much during World War I and the years after.

Marie Curie died on the 4th of July 1934, at 67 years in France from what is believed to be a blood complication from too much exposure to radiation.