It’s the birthday of Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867). Curie discovered radium, without which we wouldn’t have X-rays or certain cancer therapies. Curie was born in Warsaw, which is now Poland, but used to be part of the Russian Empire. She went on to win two Nobel Prizes, but she always donated her prize money and remained humble about her achievements. She once summed up her potential biography as, “I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”
Curie came from a family of teachers who believed so strongly in education that her father brought home discarded test tubes from the laboratory at his school and encouraged Marie to perform experiments. Because she was a girl, she couldn’t go to University. So she began studying clandestinely at what was called a “Floating University,” a secret set of informal, underground classes held in Warsaw.
She met her husband, Pierre, after moving to France to further her studies. They set up a lab in a decrepit warehouse outside their atelier. The warehouse had an asphalt floor, a glass roof broken in several places, and was heated by a cast-iron stove in the winter. They worked on worn-out tables, often eating simple meals of bread washed down with water.
Curie often stirred the heavy and hot molten mass of radioactive products in a caldron herself, sometimes slipping samples in her pockets and forgetting about them. No one knew then about the harmful effects of radiation. When she died in 1934, it was attributed to four decades of exposure to radioactivity.
Curie and Pierre discovered radium and polonium in 1898. A watchcase containing a speck of the radium was exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The label read, “Radium, discovered by Mme. Curie.”
During World War I, Curie and her daughter suggested that the armies equip automobiles with radiographic apparatus to treat the wounded, inadvertently inventing the X-ray and the ambulance at the same time. The X-ray could locate bullets and fragments in wounded soldiers, which meant quick, life-saving removal.
All of Marie Curie’s research materials and notes are too dangerous to examine because of their high level of radioactivity. They are kept in lead-lined boxes.