Marie Curie (1866-1934)

Marie Curie (1866-1934)

The first lady of science

Does the name Marie Curie ring any bells? You might have heard people mentioning her name when they talk about the Marie Curie Cancer Care Trust.  But what did she do?

In her day she was one of the most famous scientists around. She is still probably one of the few science celebrities in history, and for very good reason.

Her big claim to fame was the discovery of two new elements:

  • Polonium
  • Radium

As there are only about a hundred natural elements in the universe, discovering two is quite a big thing! She called them polonium, after her home country of Poland, and radium because it was radioactive.

Radioactivity is a very good word and it was invented by Marie Curie.  Elements that were radioactive gave out strange, unknown rays that seemed to be very similar to the recently discovered X-rays. This is how she knew where to look for radium and polonium. The only element known to be radioactive at the time was uranium.

But how did she discover another radioactive element? Well, she had lumps of a fairly common mineral called pitchblend. It's called pitchblend because it is black. It is also radioactive. As no trace of uranium could be found in pitchblend, she knew it must contain something else that was radioactive and that is was probably a new element, or two!

To find the new elements she had to grind the pitchblend in a pestle and mortar. Little did she know at the time, but she would have to grind over a tonne of pitchblend to extract about 0.1 grams of radium.

Radium and polonium are extraordinarily radioactive. One gram of pure polonium is about 250,000 times more lethal than arsenic. It was only because she was dealing with such tiny amounts of the material that she lived as long as she did. But it did kill her in the end. She died of cancer at the age of 67. Not a bad age considering how much radioactivity she'd been exposed to.

At the time no one had any idea that radioactivity was dangerous. Many years chemists sold radioactive 'cures' for all kinds of ailments. There were even radioactive laxatives and treatments for baldness. Ironically, the thought certainly makes your hair stand on end!

Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes for her work. Only three other scientists have achieved this in the last 100 years. She was an incredibly hard worker and was the first female professor at Paris' prestigious university, the Sorbonne.  She also helped develop mobile x-ray machines using her own discovery, radium, as the source of the then mysterious rays.

It's no wonder she's called the First Lady of Science.