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  • "Herstory" of Women in Science
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    Marie Curie (1867-1934)

    Women in Physics Herstory

    What Were Marie Curie's Achievements?

    Marie Sklodowska Curie was one of the first woman scientists to win worldwide fame, and indeed, one of the great scientists of this century. Winner of two Nobel Prizes (for Physics in 1903 and for Chemistry in 1911), she performed pioneering studies with radium and contributed profoundly to the understanding of radioactivity.

    Marie Curie died from exposure to the radium that made her famous. Einstein once said of her, "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted."

    Madame Curie by Irene Curie
    DaCapo Press 1937 ISBN 0306802813
    (Photograph property of the Radium Institute)

    Marie Curie's Primary Accomplishment

    During the first years after the discovery of radioactivity, a large number of chemists and physicists were busy studying the new phenomenon. Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie, Polish born, educated in chemistry, and the wife of the French physicist, Pierre Curie, carried out an extensive test of all chemical elements and their compounds for radioactivity, and found that thorium emits radiation similar to that of uranium. Comparing radioactivity of uranium ores with that of metallic uranium, she noticed that ores are about five times more radioactive than would be expected from their uranium content. This indicated that the ores must contain small amounts of some other radioactive substances much more active than uranium itself, but, to separate them, very large amounts of expensive uranium ores were needed.

    Madame Curie succeeded in obtaining from the Austrian government a ton of worthless residues (at that time) from the state uranium producing plant in Joachimschal (Bohemia) which, being deprived of uranium, still retained most of its radioactivity. Being led by Theseus' thread of penetrating radiation, Madame Curie managed to separate a substance having chemical properties similar to those of bismuth, which she called polonium in honor of her native country. Still more work, and another substance chemically similar to barium was separated and received the name of radium; it was two million times more radioactive than uranium.

    Madame Curies's death, at the age of 67, was due to leukemia, a disease which is now known to be caused by exposure to the penetrating radiation. When physicists learned better how to be careful with radiation, photographic films were placed between the sheets of Madame Curie's laboratory books. The developed films have shown numerous fingerprints caused by radioactive deposits on the sheets touched by Madame Curie's fingers.

    Biography of Physics, George Gamow. Harper & Row. ©1961.

    The photograph of Madame Curie is believed to be in the public domain. If you own copyright to this photograph please send an email to www@physics.purdue.edu and either the photograph will be removed or a copyright acknowledgement added.

    Other Marie Curie Resources

    Another Curie page...

    Science in Poland's Marie Curie Page

    Copyright 1999 WiP