26 August 2017
Marie Curie changed science forever. Her research was instrumental in the development of X-rays, and her legacy reverberates throughout modern science. Along with her husband, Pierre, Marie Curie laid the foundations for the use radiation in diverse fields, including as a medical response to cancer and as a tool for research.
Christened Marie Salomea Skłodowska, Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Prior to her illustrious career in the sciences, Marie was a promising student who excelled in secondary school. However she could not attend the University of Warsaw as it was for men only. This did not deter her passion to learn, and she continued to study in Warsaw’s “Floating University”: an underground academic institution held in private homes for women who wanted to learn.
At age 24, Curie travelled to Paris to continue her studies. It was here that she began experimenting on uranium rays, theorising that the rays came from the uranium’s unique atomic structure. This theory created the foundations of what Curie termed ‘radioactivity’.
Marie Curie’s husband dropped his own work to help Marie with her research on radioactivity. In 1898, the pair worked with a mineral called pitchblende, also known as uraninite, and discovered a new radioactive element. They named it polonium, after the country Poland, where Marie was from. They also discovered another element within the mineral, which they named radium.
Her work earned Curie the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, which she share with her husband Pierre Curie and physicist Henri Becquerel. Curie went on to also win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the first person in history to ever receive two Nobel Prizes.
Curie endeavoured to translate her research into lifesaving applications. During WWI, she convinced the French government to set up their first military radiography units, which allowed hospitals on the battlefront to provide soldiers with vital X-ray screening services. Curie’s work on radium has also directly informed the development of innovations such as radiotherapy, which is used as a treatment for cancers.
However, despite the acclaim, Curie’s work with radioactive materials had a damaging impact on her health. At the time of Curie’s research, the effects of ionising radiation on the human body were not known. She would carry test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket. She was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist during World War I. Tragically, Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anaemia at the age of 66.
Curie is remembered as a hard-working, passionate and intelligent scientist. In the face of enormous gender discrimination, Curie successfully overcame many of the barriers facing women in science at the time. Her legacy is a proud one: she laid the foundations for modern science, and saved countless lives in the process.