Marie Curie- scientist, teacher, key player in a war, wife, mother..is there anything she didn't do?
I love watching history programs on the t.v., anything really- WWI & II, European History, famous crimes, it does not matter to me. So, about a week ago, the house was quiet and I was recovering from a small medical procedure and stumbled across a movie on the life of Marie Curie. What the heck have I been doing with my life?!? I think I remember her name from science class, but as I am in the habit of studying the history of people, I don't remember paying much attention to the elements that she helped to discover. Do you ever get tired of hearing facts and not getting the story behind them? And let me tell you- there is always a story! This one is full of racism, sexism, scandal's, affairs, WWI mishaps, and ultimately a woman who wouldn't take 'No' for an answer. Pour a cup of coffee, grab a tissue, and get comfy because I have a story for you today!
So, in the late 1800's to early 1900's the scientific community was exploding in their discoveries of the basic forms of life and matter. Science was never my strong suit so I am going to have to explain some very complex theories in simple terms so that we can understand why Marie Curie's experiments literally became life or death for so many.
First concept- Heat is energy. Second concept- Radio waves are able to send signals across large distances. All strange concepts to me that I take for granted. But in the early 1900's- things get spooky. In 1895, Wilhelm Rontgen, a German Engineer, was doing an experiment with cathode rays (think Care Bears stomach power- they are rays of electrons). His equipment was blacked out, but a piece of cardboard that was painted with Barium Platinocyanide fluoresced (say that fast three times- I dare you) glowed when placed near a cathode ray tube. It was glowing in the dark! Sppooookkkyyyyyy. The machine wasn't on, the room was completely dark, no source of energy, and yet the cardboard still glowed. Rontgen called these rays of glowing green light X-rays after the letter that mathematicians use to symbolize unknown variable. When Rontgen tested this theory using lead- he saw his own skeleton! Now, Rontgen did what any other man would do- he called his wife over to do experiments on her using his new found discovery and published a paper called “On a New Kinds of Rays”. This earned an honorary medical doctorate and the first Nobel Prize in Physics and a place in Hall of Fame of radiology.
In comes Marie Sklodowska Curie. Marie was raised in Warsaw which then a part of the Russian Empire. At the time, Russia had established laws that prohibited the speaking of Polish, education of Polish History, outlawed lab sciences in schools, and the University of Warsaw didn't allow females to cross their thresholds. But, the greater minds of Poland weren’t going to allow this to stop the education process so in 1882 the Flying University was started. Secret classes were held in private households led by Polish philosophers, professors, and historians. Since these classes were illegal under the government’s statue, the locations had to change frequently- hence the name Uniwersytet Latający, the Flying (or Floating) University. By the 1890's, the Flying University has a clandestine library, paid staff, established curriculum that covered science, history, math, philosophy and more, had a reputation for providing a higher standard of education, and had almost a thousand students both male and female. Marie attended meetings at the secret university while working as a governess and tutor for a wealthy family.She also was given permission to teach local poor children how to read and write, an activity that was deemed illegal by the government and could have gotten her severely punished.
In 1891, Marie travels to Paris to enroll in Sorbonne and earns her Master’s in Physics (1893) and Master’s in Mathematics (1894) surviving off of little more than tea, bread, and butter. She had to work her way through college by tutoring and working in the University library, and with all these hardships I would be remised if I didn’t also mention that Marie did not completely understand French and had to work harder to translate all her lessons. Anybody else in awe and feeling a little self-conscious of their lack of complete commitment to their education?
Stage left- French Physicist Pierre Curie! Marie was studying for her second degree and got a job studying the magnetism of various types of steel for a local French company. She was in desperate need of a lab and was introduced to Pierre. Pierre was a celebrated scientist of his own accord and a head of the lab at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry where he also taught. Pierre was noted for dismissing women as they caused distractions, but when Marie walked in- it was love. I heard once that couples who science together stay together, maybe they were talking about Pierre and Marie. Marie did attempt to return to her native home land to teach, but was not able to secure a teaching position in the University because- you guessed it- she was a girl. Pierre wasn’t willing to let Marie off that easy and wrote her continually love letters of science experiments and discoveries. Who can say no to an autographed copy of Pierre’s physics paper?
Marie returned to France and the couple was married in 1895 and they worked together on a new topic for her PhD. She had heard about a physicist named Henri Becquerel and his discovery of the mysterious and spooky uranium rays in 1896. This got Marie thinking, is there anything else that produces these spooky rays? This work led to the discovery of two new elements- polonium (which she named after Poland) and radium (because of its radioactive properties). It is the research on the element Radium that helped to unlock the mysteries of the atom. In 1903, eight years after their marriage, they were both awarded along with Henri Becquerel, the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie was the first female awardee.
Let’s stop here, in 8 years they had two children (Irene born in 1897 and Eve born in 1904), discovered two new elements, and won the Nobel Prize. I am lucky if the division of chores and the rotation of shower time is established within 5 years. I could go into a long drawn out discussion of all of the Curie’s achievements, but truth be told, I can’t understand half the words and google translator told me to stop cheating and go back to school. So, lets talk about the person instead of the science.
In 1906, Pierre was crushed by a horse-drawn cart as he was crossing an intersection in Paris. Marie was devastated and focused all her energy into her research and took over Pierre’s teaching position at the Sorbonne becoming the first female professor.
Marie won another Nobel for Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium making her the first and two date only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. The story gets a little saucy here, because it came to light that Marie was having an affair with her colleague Paul Langevin, and his wife was none too happy about this news. It quickly spread across the town, and words like ‘dirty Jew’ and ‘damn Pole’ was being thrown around and mobs were gathered at her home for many nights. The stress, obviously, was enough to make Marie ill- or it could be the fact that she had been working with pure radium for the last couple of years and was starting to feel the effects of radium poisoning. She took a small mental health break with one of her friends in the country, but soon return to her work in Paris.
This was not enough for Marie. During World War I she opened mobile radiology units that has been noted with saving the lives of millions of people. These mobile units, that she helped to train by creating a course on the use of radiography units, helped to locate bullets and shrapnel in wounded service members. She also investigated radiations effects on tumors. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that people started to really study what the effects of working with radioactive material would be on a person, this all came at a very costly price. Marie died in 1934 of a bone marrow disease called aplastic anemia which is a lack of red blood cells which has been linked to her radiation exposure over the years.
This is by far my longest blog post yet. And my dear friends, if you have made it this far- you might want to go refresh your coffee. There is so much information that I have left out as I have been told blogs should be no more than 5 minutes long and I have bypassed that mark 10 minutes ago. It is not just that Marie is a woman of many firsts, she just truly was a decent woman who followed her head in science, her heart for love, and her need for motherhood. She was able to mix the three and succeed. It is powerful, it is breathtaking and heartbreaking, it is truly a story for humanity. Please, if you have time and have a dictionary close by, research her and her work. I think that what I have taken from Marie personally is that it is okay to want everything and work for it all. I don’t think I will be diving into any spooky green rays to achieve my goals, but I have painted a wall in my study with glow in the dark paint in her honor.
Check out my link under education in the heading for a listing of all the books that I think you might enjoy. I don’t personally sell any of them, but I give you a break down of what the book is about, what category of my blogs it falls under, and a convenient hyperlink to Amazon to purchase them. All I ask friends is that you don’t ever leave my blogs as the means to the end in discovering our past. It takes me a full week to research enough to put into a quick overview, and I leave out so many more interesting side stories and people. Until next week, or until the next meme causes me to stop- make good choices and don’t play with the spooky rays.