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:
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
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
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
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.