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
in 1903 and for
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)
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.
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