Marie Curie

The ashes of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre have now been laid to rest under the famous dome of the Panthéon. Through her discovery of radium, Marie Curie paved the way for nuclear physics and cancer therapy. Born of Polish parents, she was a woman of science and courage, compassionate yet stubbornly determined. Her research and work was to cost her, her life.
Marie Curie, or rather Marya Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. Born into a family of teachers and brought up in an environment marked by a sense of duty and a lack of money, she led the most Spartan of lives. From the premature death of one of her sisters, and later of her mother, she drew the skepticism that would later support her faith in science. As a brilliant and mature student with a rare gift of concentration, Marya harbored the dream of a scientific career, a concept inconceivable for a woman at that time. Ambitious and self-taught, she had but one obsession: to learn. She passed her physics degree with flying colors, and went on to sit a mathematics degree. It was then that a Polish friend introduced her to Pierre Curie. In 1895, this freethinker, acknowledged for his work on crystallography and magnetism, became her husband.
In her pioneering way, Marie Curie decided, in 1897, to take a physics doctorate. Henri Becquerel, who was studying X-rays, had recently observed that uranium salt left an impression on a photographic plate in spite of its protective envelope. What better subject could there have been for Marie than to try and understand the effect. Pierre consented. And so he and his frail wife set about her work, handling tons of minerals. One day Marie noted that another substance, thorium, was "radioactive", a term she herself had coined. Together, they demonstrated in a major discovery that radioactivity was not the result of a chemical reaction but a property of the element or, more specifically, of the atom. Marie then studied pitchblende; a uranic mineral in which she measured a much more intense activity than is present in uranium alone. She deduced that there were other substances besides uranium that were very radioactive, such as polonium and radium, which she discovered in 1898.
In their experiments, Pierre observed the properties of the radiation while Marie, for her part, purified the radioactive elements. Both shared the same, uncanny tenacity, which was all the more admirable given their deplorable living conditions. Their laboratory was nothing more than a miserable apartment, where in winter the temperature dropped to around six degrees. Pierre even tested the radium on his skin, leaving radium to treat malign tumors causing Curietherapy to be born. In 1903, Marie defended her thesis. Together with Becquerel, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of natural radioactivity. Their happiness was short lived, however. In 1906, Pierre, weakened by radiation and overworked, was run over by a car. Marie was forced to continue alone. The founding of the Radium Institute by the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute in 1914 would enable her to fulfil her wish.
Marie ran the research laboratory while Dr. Claudius Regaud headed the applied biology laboratory. Physicists and chemists provided the radium, and physicians treated cancer patients. Marie set about collecting funds and raw materials, the price of which had soared, going as far afield as the United States; but she found it hard to accept that dark economic interests should prevail.
Marie died of leukemia in July of 1934, exhausted and almost blinded, her fingers burnt and stigmatized by "her" dear radium. This sixty-seven-year-old woman, who, according to Dr. Claudius Regaud, "under a cold exterior and the utmost reserve concealed in reality an abundance of delicate and generous feelings", had been exposed to incredible levels of radiation. In January, together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, Irène, who had been working in the same laboratory and with the same relentless determination as her mother, discovered artificial radioactivity, for which she, too, was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Marie Curie greatly contributed to medical science. Together with her husband, she discovered two elements, Radium and Polonium, and studied the x-rays they emitted. She found that the harmful properties of x-rays