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Marie Curie: the inspiring legacy of a great woman of science and our RARE inspiration

Marie Curie, a celebrated physicist and chemist, is remembered for the discovery of radium and polonium, and her huge contribution to the fight against cancer. Her legacy continues to inspire medical research in this fight. Here we pay tribute to her innovation, ground-breaking research and scientific discoveries that have changed the field of cancer

By Catherine de Vaal

Marie Curie – her life and background

Marie was born Maria Sklodowska on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, the youngest of five children for her parents Wladyslaw and Bronislawa, who were schoolteachers. She was educated in local schools and taught science by her father. Marie graduated from high school at 15, winning the gold medal for being the top student. From an early age, and despite her humble beginnings, she was passionate about science and wanted to continue her studies.

Marie faced two major issues in continuing her education: the first being she was unable to enrol at the men only University of Warsaw. The second was that her father could not afford the financial burden of educating both his daughters—her sister Bronya also dreamed of a university education.

It is said that Bronya and Marie struck a deal. Marie would support her elder sister’s education and Bronya would then return the favour. So Marie took on tutoring and worked as a governess to earn extra money to support her sister, who continued studying at an underground university in Warsaw.

In 1891 Marie seized the opportunity to join her sister in Paris, where she continued her studies. (It was after she moved to Paris that she adopted the French spelling of her name.) There she faced great hardship and at times her health suffered because of her poverty.

In Paris she studied at Sorbonne University, where she first read physics and mathematics, and then chemistry. In 1894 Marie met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who was the professor at the school of physics. The following year they were married, and they later had two daughters, the first Irene (born in 1897) and the second Eve (born in 1904).

Their marriage was cut short when Pierre Curie died tragically in 1906 after fracturing his skull in a street accident when he slipped under a horse-drawn cart. Despite being widowed and with two young children, Marie continued their scientific work— and later worked with her daughter Irene.

Marie died on 4 July 1934, with the cause of death being given as aplastic anaemia, believed to have been caused by her years of exposure to radiation in the course of her work. Despite her untimely death aged just 67, the legacy of Marie’s scientific work can be felt daily across the globe and none more so than in the field of cancer. It is this legacy that makes Marie Curie our obvious choice for RARE Inspiration.

Marie’s early career, scientific research and achievements

Marie started her career by researching the different types of steel and their magnetic properties. Pierre Curie assisted her in finding a larger laboratory to work in and they began their research work together. In 1896, Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity, when he found uranium salts were emitting rays, inspired Marie’s interest in this area.

Marie and Pierre began their pioneering work into these invisible rays, and while working on the mineral pitchblende they extracted a black powder 330 times more radioactive than uranium. They had discovered a new element, which they called polonium (named after the country of Marie’s birth). They went on to discover a second new element, radium, and Marie would develop techniques for its extraction. She coined the term “radioactivity” to describe the emissions.

The work they were doing was extremely dangerous as they regularly handled highly radioactive material. During their research, they began to feel ill and physically exhausted; it’s now widely accepted that this was radiation sickness, yet they continued their work unaware of—or perhaps regardless—of the risks.

It was this work that led to Marie Curie’s first Nobel prize in Physics in 1903. The honour was awarded to Marie, husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, in recognition of their extraordinary services to science rendered by their joint but separate research on radiation.

Marie was the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize.

Her second Nobel prize—this time in Chemistry—came less than a decade later in 1911, recognising her continued work and research into the properties of polonium and radium.

In 1910 she produced radium as a pure metal, proving its existence beyond doubt. Marie’s documenting of the properties of the radioactive elements and their compounds was of great importance scientifically and medically, with radiation subsequently being used to treat tumours.

After receiving the first Nobel Prize, the Curies, who had struggled financially, began to receive more funding. They were able to afford a laboratory assistant, and the University of Paris and Institute Pasteur funded the building of the Institute of Radium where Marie Curie continued her work.

“I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.” – Marie Curie

World War I

During WWI, Marie Curie used her radiography expertise to develop small mobile X-ray units and permanent stations to help doctors diagnose and treat battlefield injuries. She fundraised for supplies and vehicles to be converted into mobile X-ray units, and worked at casualty clearing stations close to the frontline with her eldest daughter, Irene, who was then 17. Here they would X-ray injured soldiers to locate fractures, bullets and shrapnel. The mobile units became known as ‘Petits Curies’. After the war she continued to advance her research and raise funds to buy radium, visiting America on more than one occasion to fundraise. Throughout the rest of her life. Marie continued to receive a number of awards, prizes and honorary degrees, and several establishments were named after her.

Marie was one of a small number of elite scientists invited to the Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons. She was in good company: Albert Einstein and many other brilliant scientists were there.

1st row: Langmuir, Planck, Madame Curie, Lorentz, Einstein, Langevin, Guye, Wilson, Richardson. 2nd row : Debye, Knudsen, W. L. Bragg, Kramers, Dirac, Compton, de Broglie, Born, Bohr. 3rd row : Piccard, Henriot, Ehrenfest, Herzen, de Donder, Schrodinger, Verschaffelt, Pauli, Heisenberg, Fowler, Brillouin

One of the numerous establishments to be named after Marie Curie was the Marie Curie Hospital in north London, which opened in 1930. The facility, staffed entirely by women, treated female cancer patients using radiology and was established as an important research facility.

Throughout her career Marie Curie’s work was published in numerous papers and scientific journals, and she was the author of Recherches sur les Substances Radioactives (1904), L’isotopie et les Éléments Isotopes (1925) and the classic Traité de Radioactivité (1910), which is still considered to be an important body of work today.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie

Marie Curie’s homeland and heartland

Marie Curie had tried over the years to return to Poland to continue her studies and research, but just as she had been denied a place at the University of Warsaw because of her gender, she found she was unable to return for this reason.

However, in 1932 she founded the Maria Sklodowska Curie Memorial Cancer Centre and Institute of Oncology (MCMCC); today it is the leading Polish comprehensive cancer centre as well as the primary government research institution devoted solely to oncology.

Marie Curie made many breakthroughs in science in her lifetime, but she represents so much more than this. Her thirst for knowledge and her determination to continue her education despite adversity make her a role model, not just for women but for all humankind.

As a family, the Curies’ contribution to modern civilisation is immeasurable. With such prominent parents, it is no surprise that the Curie children also went on to great things. Both daughters pursued successful careers, one in science and the other as a writer. Following in her parents’ footsteps, Irene Joliot-Curie, her eldest daughter, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, and her younger daughter, Eve Curie, wrote her biography titled Madam Curie in 1937.

Marie Curie was, and remains, a leading figure in science who was ahead of her time and whose work has shaped modern medicine—her legacy should be celebrated not only in her heartland of Poland, but the world over.

This article was first published in Issue 012, Summer 2019 RARE Cancer.

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