December 2, 2011
Marie Curie for a Cure
An anniversary came up this year that we haven't celebrated yet. It's the Nobel prize that Marie Curie was awarded 100 years ago this year for her discovery of the chemical element Radium. That's the element behind radiation therapy that has helped many in their battles against cancer. Since we're still in November, National Chemistry Month, I thought we'd better honor Marie for her great accomplishments.
Marie was born Marie Skladowska in 1867 into a very poor Polish family. But her parents valued education, both being school teachers. They made sure she learned as much as she could in school. But being poor, there was no way that the family could send Marie or her siblings on to college. Marie's older sister Bronya made a deal with her: if Marie would help Bronya get through college, Bronya would help Marie. So Marie took a job as a governess and sent her wages to Bronya, who enrolled in the Sorbonne, the prestigious French college. By the time Bronya finished her medical degree, Marie was 24 years old. Bronya now supported Marie in her studies at the Sorbonne.
Marie rented a small attic apartment to attend school in Paris. In her tiny apartment, it was so cold at night that she piled all of her clothing on top of her bed to stay warm enough to fall asleep. She spent weekends living at Bronya's home, as Bronya had married a physician. Marie was from Poland and was now attending a school where French was the language spoken. Suffering from the cold and having to master a new language didn't dampen her enthusiasm for learning, though. She wrote, "It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty." She was learning from the world's best scientists and that was enough to make her happy!
After finishing her degree in Physics in two years, she turned to Math, obtaining that degree in one year. She was planning on taking her teachers certification and return to Poland to teach. But she met a wonderful man named Pierre Curie, a laboratory manager at the nearby School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. They found that they had a lot in common. They married in 1895 and used wedding gifts of money to buy two bicycles so they could take long bike rides together. He was several years older than she, and had been working on the properties of crystals. That same year, Pierre submitted his Doctoral thesis which linked magnetism and temperature, which today is known as 'Curie's law.'
Marie started to look for a subject for her Doctoral studies. She was fascinated by a new discovery of rays that seemed to come from Uranium. Antoinne Henri Becquerel had discovered these rays in 1896 and was moving on to other projects. Marie wanted to find the source of the rays in the ore where the Uranium had been found. The ore, called 'pitchblende' was expensive, but she obtained enough to get started. Pierre soon joined her in her research. Using an 'electrometer' that Pierre and his brother built to measure electrical currents, they began to look for the source of the rays. They soon found that as they removed Bismuth from the pitchblende, the rays increased in intensity. That meant that there was something else in the ore besides Uranium. In 1898 they found an element she named 'Polonium' after her homeland of Poland. A few months later, they found 'Radium,' an element with 300 times stronger rays than Polonium. She coined the term 'radioactivity' to describe the rays coming off of the elements.
In order to confirm these new elements, they had to isolate them and get their atomic weights. They found free slag heaps of ore near a mine in Bohemia, and the mine officials were happy to give heaps of it away. And they got permission to use an old abandoned shed in the back of the university where Pierre was teaching. Here they spent days doing hard physical work to remove everything from the ore except Radium. The shed had only a partial roof and was cold in winter and hot in summer. It was hard backbreaking work for little Marie. She'd gather 20 kilos (44 pounds) of ore and put it into a big pot on the ground, add lots of water and bring it to a boil. She'd stand over it for hours as it boiled, stirring it with a long iron rod as long as she was tall. (My chemist husband Scott thinks they might have been crystallizing it but wasn't sure.) Pierre analyzed the compounds they isolated. At night, when she'd collapse with fatigue, the contents of the shed glowed. Not only were they working in the shed/lab, but they both were teaching to pay the bills, so they had to divide their time carefully. And they had a young daughter Irene to care for.
This crude 'laboratory' was terrible, but apparently it was good enough. A notable German chemist traveled from Berlin to Paris to see the lab where these amazing discoveries were made. He wrote, "At my earnest request, I was shown the laboratory where radium had been discovered shortly before.... It was a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."
Marie isolated a decigram of pure Radium Chloride, which she analyzed carefully for her Doctoral Thesis in 1903. She determined that the atomic weight was 225. The board of reviewers, some of whom would go on to win Nobel prizes themselves, said that what she presented was 'the greatest scientific contributions ever made in a doctoral thesis.' In 1903, she and her husband Pierre were honored to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing it with Antoine Henri Becquerel for the discovery and research of radiation.
They continued to research in their little shed, in spite of the prize money they received. She was able to quit her teaching job, though. A few years later in 1906, Pierre died in a tragic accident. Marie took over Pierre's job teaching at the Sorbonne, now the first female teacher ever to teach there. She continued to research with radiation, noting its use in seeing the interior of the body. In 1914, when World War 1 broke out, she created radiation-mobiles that could reach wounded soldiers and detect metal shrapnel in their bodies so it could be surgically removed.
In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discoveries of Radium and Polonium. Some chemists believe that her discoveries led to a new epoch in chemistry. And this was the first time anyone had received Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines, and now only two have that distinction—she and Linus Paulding, the man who discovered the double helix of DNA.
Marie Curie's research led directly to the radiation treatments for cancer. Although she was born poor, she and her sister came up with a plan to combat poverty to get an education. Although she was born in a country with few opportunities, she moved to one with opportunities and took advantage of them. And although her lab and equipment were inferior, she discovered two atomic elements now gracing the Periodic Table of Elements. She did a lot with very little. And the results of her work has cured millions of people of cancer.I hope we can all take courage from this amazing woman. We can do hard things.