The Amazing Life and Inventions of Marie Curie

Marie Curie was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes and she changed nuclear medicine forever.

The Amazing Life and Inventions of Marie Curie
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Maria Sklodowska was born in November of 1867 in Poland. She was the youngest child of five born to poor school teachers. 

Maria would become Marie Curie later in life, but not before she became a governess to make ends meet. She developed an intense passion for knowledge and learning. 

She wanted to become a teacher but lacked the money necessary to gain a formal education. In 1891 she was afforded the opportunity by her sister to move to Paris and go to University... an opportunity she jumped at.

After moving, Marie started studying Physics and Mathematics at Sorbonne University and continued to try and quench her desire to learn more and more.

In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie, a scientist who was working in the main city. After a year of dating, they wed, and the rest is history. 

Marie and her husband went on to pioneer many fields in medicine and physics, becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two. To understand just what Marie accomplished in her life and the impact she had on the scientific world, let's take a look back at Marie's accomplishments. 

Radium and polonium

With both Marie and Pierre having a strong interest in physics and chemistry, they often worked together doing research. Specifically they were working on a project together observing invisible rays that were given off by uranium. This was a fairly new discovery at the time and no one was quite sure yet what they were.

These rays, initially discovered by Henri Becquerel, were known to pass through solid matter uninterrupted and they were known to conduct electricity in air.

While working on this research together, Marie took special note of samples in the lab of a material called pitchblende. This was a mineral that contained uranium ore and one that let off a lot more radiation than pure uranium. 

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This was perplexing because it didn't make any sense, uranium shouldn't have been causing the mineral to be letting off as much radiation as it was.

The Amazing Life and Inventions of Marie Curie
Source: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia

Based on the evidence of the high amounts of radiation in pitchblende, Marie became convinced that there was a new element that must be at play in the mineral in order for its radiation level to be higher. 

The scientific community as a whole was skeptical but Marie and Pierre persisted on their hypothesis. The duo ground up samples of the mineral and started to try and separate the different elements present inside. They utilized analytical chemistry techniques to extract a black powder that ended up being 330 times more radioactive than pure Uranium. This element they named Polonium, a new element. 

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Marie and Pierre didn't stop there though, they found that the polonium that the liquid left over after the polonium was extracted was still incredibly radioactive. That meant that the pitchblende must've had another element even more radioactive than polonium.

By 1898, the Curies had put together enough evidence to support the existence of another new element, called radium. However, they had failed to obtain a sample of it. 

Pitchblende was and still is a very valuable mineral because it contains a high amount of uranium – and the Curies couldn't afford any larger samples.

After talking to a factory in Austria that removed uranium from pitchblende, they realized that the factory was treating the leftover materials as waste. This waste was even more radioactive than the pitchblende the Curies originally worked with and it was far cheaper.  

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Marie got a hold of a large amount of waste and started to extract tiny amounts of the element radium. Marie would work with 20 kilograms of the mineral waste at a time. Grinding, precipitating, dissolving, crystallizing and processing out as much radium as she could.

The Amazing Life and Inventions of Marie Curie
Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia

This work was far more dangerous than Marie understood and the couple started to feel sick all the time. In the modern era with more research, we can understand their failing health as radiation sickness. Ignorant of the risk, the duo persisted in their research.

By 1902, Marie was able to isolate radium and determine it had an atomic weight of 225.93. It was an arduous journey, but they had finally confirmed the existence of this element.

Curie Institute

After years of work with radium and polonium, she slowly realized that the rays coming from radioactive elements could be used to treat tumors. Notably, the power couple decided that they would not patent the medical usage of the elements they discovered so that it could help as many people as possible.

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As Marie grew older, she wanted to explore the usage of radioactivity in medicine further, so she established the radium Institute.

Radium at the time was valued at $120,000 per gram, which is roughly 2 million USD today. Marie could only afford one gram of the element for use in her cancer research, but she made the best of it.

During interviews with the press, Marie made clear that her institute needed more radium to better carry out proper research and an American Journalist named Marie "Missy" Mattingly started what is essentially the 1920s version of a GoFundMe. 

She raised about $100,000 in small donations from across the country to purchase more radium and convinced a chemical company to supply a gram at this reduced price.

Ever since getting the radium for the Institute it's been making pioneering scientific discoveries. Over its history, 3 members have won Nobel Prizes, including Marie and Pierre's daughter Irene. 

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Now called the Curie Institute, it continues to make pioneering discoveries in radioactive science today.

The death of Marie Curie

In 1920, Marie's health started to fail, but it would be another 14 years until she passed from aplastic anemia. At the time it was presumed that she died of radium contamination, but after exhuming her body in the 1990s, scientists couldn't find dangerous levels of radium in her remains. Experts now believe that it was Marie's use of radiography in the First World War that caused her failing health.

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