Marie Curie (Maria Sklodowska-Curie) was the first person in history to obtain two Nobel Prizes in different areas of science (physics and chemistry). Born in Warsaw, Poland, Marie Curie was the first woman appointed to teach at La Sorbonne (University of Paris) and the first woman in France to achieve her doctoral degree.
She succeeded in separating radium from barium only with tremendous difficulty. The shed in which this momentous discovery took place, formerly a medical school dissecting room, was poorly outfitted and ventilated. It took Marie over three years to isolate one tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride, for reasons that would not be fully understood until the concept of radioactive decay was developed.
Radium was considered a wonder drug when the Radium Chemical Company was founded in New York in 1913. Pharmacists sold it as an elixir for everything from arthritis and high blood pressure to depression and impotence. Radium’s most widespread use, however, for luminous paint. It was used on everything from watch dials and instrument panels to theater-seat numbers, eyes for dolls and even fishing lures.
It was not until the early 1920’s, after the first cancer deaths of watch-dial painters at the United States Radium Corporation in East Orange, N.J., that medical authorities began to realize that radium, in even the most minute amounts, was extremely dangerous and long-lasting. Workers had been instructed to twirl their paint brushes in their mouths to get a fine point. As a result, some victims ingested so much radium that their graves still cause Geiger-counter needles to jump. Marie Curie, herself, died from radiation poisoning.
Radium’s usefulness in cancer therapy was recognized early in the century. A technique was developed in which tiny ”needles” filled with radon – a radioactive gas given off by radium – were used to kill cancer cells. Radium Chemical and other companies leased the needles to hospitals and shipped them all over the country. The needles were also used in the oil industry to chart geological strata.
During World War I, Marie Curie pushed for the use of radiography field units for the treatment of wounded soldiers. The units included tubes of radon gas that Curie purified herself. Promptly after the war had started, Marie Curie donated she and her husband’s gold Nobel Prize medals to help with the war efforts.
Curie intentionally decided not to patent the process to extract and purify radium, leaving the door open to the scientific community to study the process unhindered. We give thanks to pioneers like Marie Curie who paved the way for more women in science.
New York Times [online], Radium: From wonder drug to hazard, October 4th 1987. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/04/nyregion/radium-from-wonder-drug-to-hazard.html
Kevin Lepton, Sciography – Biographies of famous scientists, Marie Curie [acessed 25th June 2015]. Available at: http://www.sciography.com/Marie-Curie.htm