The Life of Marie Curie – Geeks of History #1
by Andrea “The Geek” and Emkinator “The Pundit” of Geeky Gaming
I hope you enjoy our first ever video in the Geeks of History series! Thank you so much to Emkinator for taking part of this with me!
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Hey Geeks, it’s Andrea and today we are going to take a look inside the life of one radiant woman.
Geeks of History
With the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century, its lands were distributed among Russia, Austria and Prussia.The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist as an independent nation.
At the turn of the century, Napoleon gained power in France and turned his sights outward. This naturally made Europe nervous and helped France’s long standing rival, Great Britain, gather allies against France once more. This became the War of the Fourth Coalition. You would think fourth time’s the charm, right? Eh, not so much. Napoleon claimed victory once again in 1807, and in doing so gained nearly half of Prussian territories with the help of Poland. This included Warsaw, or Warszawa, which he made into an independent state, the Duchy of Warsaw. Lead by his ally, of course.
Even though Russia technically lost in the war too, they were late to the party and were left mostly unscathed. Because of this, they never joined Napoleon’s trade blockade towards Great Britain, so in an attempt to force them to join, Napoleon marched towards Russia again. Of course, the official reason given was much more noble than that. They were pegging it as an effort to protect Polish lands from Russian influence. So, this created some hope of a fully reunified Poland.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be the infamous land war against Russia that Napoleon lost. The Russian lands are vast and the campaign stretched into the winter. The French army had to play whack-a-mole as the Russians kept retreating further and further, bleeding the invading army slowly. Once Napoleon finally retreated, his army was in shambles. Russia pushed back and took the Duchy of Warsaw for itself.
Once again, Poland was under external rule. Russian was made the official state language to be taught in schools, pushing Polish into the background. After failed uprisings in 1831 and 1864, Russification intensified, going so far as to even ban the use of Polish in public places in 1864.
And in this tumultuous time, on November 7th, 1867 Maria Sklodowska was born, the fifth child in a family of Polish nationals, patriots of a nation that hadn’t existed for over 70 years. Her parents had lost a lot due to their families’ involvement in the failed uprisings, but that didn’t keep them from raising Maria with the same sense of patriotism.
Both of Maria’s parents were teachers, her father an instructor of mathematics and physics. This instilled a curiosity and the thirst for knowledge in her at an early age. After Russian authorities eliminated lab work from Polish schools, Maria’s father brought his lab equipment home and taught his children how to use it.
Once she was old enough, Miss Sklodowska had her eyes set on university with a dream of becoming a scientist. The only problem was, she was not allowed to attend the all-male University of Warsaw. Luckily for her, Warsaw had a secret “Flying University.” Sadly this doesn’t mean the university defies gravity, but it did something equally amazing. Polish professors secretly offered classes in their homes to Polish women, who otherwise were not allowed into college. These night classes changed locations to keep their chances of getting caught by the czar’s police as low as possible.
She learned everything she possibly could from the underground university, but Maria and her sister Bronya dreamed of more. Their dream was to travel abroad to earn their official degrees. This naturally carried a hefty cost, so they came to an agreement. Maria would first work to send money to Bronya while she achieved her degree and afterwards, Bronya would support Maria through hers.
Maria was hired by an owner of a beet-sugar factory as a governess to educate his children, but was able to do so much more than just educate his children. During some of her free time, he allowed her to teach the children of his workers how to read. Today this sounds like a very simple thing, but if the Russian authorities had found out that she was teaching poor Polish children how to read, she could have faced severe punishment. When she wasn’t educating the Polish youth and had some free time, she studied books on chemistry, math, and physics. Inspired by Maria’s efforts with the children, a chemist at the beet-sugar factory gave her lessons in secret. Russian authorities had forbidden Polish people to teach sciences, so he was taking a great personal risk.
After the first three years of Bronya’s education, Maria’s father became financially stable enough to send money to Bronya in Paris every month. This relieved a heavy burden from Maria’s shoulders and allowed her to spend more time studying. Although she still continued to work as a governess and tutor children, she also studied chemistry in secret at a Museum. This museum was a front to a lab used to educate and train Polish scientists.
After several years and hard work, her dreams finally came true in 1891, when she finally made it to Paris. As soon as she arrived, she dove right in and enrolled at the Sorbonne University. Marie devoted all of her free time to her studies. After paying for her tuition, she had just enough money to rent a small room in an attic that was freezing during winter and scorching during summer. During winters, she couldn’t afford to heat the room, so she wore all of her clothes to keep warm. Her diet consisted solely of buttered bread and tea. Being so engrossed in her studies, she often forgot to eat entirely. Despite all of this, she was ecstatic to be studying under some of the world’s greatest scientists of the time.
Coming from Poland, where she couldn’t get an official education, her classmates were better prepared initially. Not many people are as determined and driven as Miss Marie Sklodowska though. She completed two master’s degrees, one in math and one in physics, in just three years. Marie did such an amazing job in her studies that she even earned a scholarship for her doctorate.
After receiving her masters in 1894, she was commissioned to investigate the magnetic properties of different steels. So, naturally she had to find a lab to work in. Marie was introduced to French physicist Pierre Curie by a colleague because he just so happened to have a lab that she could use.
You would think that a man with the title Laboratory Chief at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry would have an amazing state of the art lab, but you would be wrong. His lab was less than modest, but it was a lab that she could work in.
It also had the added bonus of containing one Mister Curie. The relationship between these two great minds began to grow. On July 26, 1895, the couple married.
After giving birth to their first daughter in 1897, Marie set out to do something no woman had done before. She wanted to get a doctorate in science.
When trying to decide what to dedicate her research to, she landed on continuing work done by a German physicist a couple years prior. Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered rays that could travel through both solid wood and flesh.
A few months after he discovered this, a French physicist by the name of Henri Becquerel further added to his research. Discovering that minerals containing uranium also gave off these rays.
Scientists really took to the concept of Roentgen’s X-rays, but didn’t pay too much attention to Becquerel’s. Simply because they saw it as a weaker version of what Roentgen already discovered.
This didn’t hold Marie back, though. Marie became determined to study uranium rays further. Almost nothing was known on the subject, so she was paving new ground.
She began her work in a storage room at the school that Pierre was a professor at, the Paris Municipal School. It wasn’t quite the lab she needed, but she always made due with what she had. She made many discoveries quickly.
Science begins and ends with measurements, so first she had to find a way to measure these rays. Roentgen and Becquerel before her had used photosensitive plates to obtain images, but there was no good way to quantify the results for different samples since they were for all intents and purposes, pictures. Instead, Marie used a version of the electrometer developed by Pierre and his brother 15 years prior. She found that the air exposed to uranium rays became electrically charged, which the instrument could pick up and quantify.
She quickly confirmed Becquerel’s findings that the rays were constant no matter if the uranium was solid, pulverized, wet or dry, or exposed to light or heat. Like the French scientist before her, in compounds she saw that the more uranium there was in the compound, the stronger the rays became. The only factor was the amount of uranium present.
Her big breakthrough came when she hypothesized that the rays were a property of the uranium atom itself. This was a groundbreaking idea at the time. The word atom comes from Greece and it means undividable. At that time, scientists didn’t know about elementary particles. To them, atoms were the smallest units of matter. How could the atom itself emit anything if it was unable to divide?
Even Marie and Pierre were not fully convinced by their own hypothesis with alternative thoughts in mind. Like what if the Earth was bathed in cosmic rays that some atoms could absorb and then later emit as radiation?
Marie started testing the conductivity of air around all the known elements that she could get her hands on. Many chemists came to her aid, donating elements from their supplies. By April 1898 she had only found one other element with such a property – thorium.
She could only conclude that her hypothesis had been true, that the rays were a property of the uranium and thorium atoms. She dubbed this property radioactivity.
Soon after, she discovered that the mineral pitchblende, which contains a lot of uranium, was giving off more radioactivity than the uranium inside of it could be emitting and there was no thorium present to account for it either. So she logically came to the conclusion that pitchblende had to contain another element even more radioactive than either uranium or thorium. A completely unknown element.
Pierre was so excited that she was discovering a whole new element all together, so he dropped the study he was doing on crystals and began to work side by side with his wife. With the Curie couple working together, they could isolate this new element faster.
Pitchblende is now better known as uraninite. It is packed full of uranium goodness, but can also contain many other chemical elements, so it made discovering exactly which element was causing this radioactivity a difficult task.
Difficult, but not impossible. The Curies discovered that there were actually two previously unknown elements within the chunk of pitchblende. One that they named polonium after her homeland of Poland and another that they named radium, which is the Latin word for ray.
In order to prove their discovery to their peers, they needed to produce more polonium and radium. That just wasn’t going to happen working in a tiny storage room, so they began to work in an abandoned shed.
Once they were able to share their discoveries, scientists were fascinated by radium. The radium gave off heat and light and even damaged human flesh with a long exposure.
Even if all you knew about radiation before this point was from playing Fallout, you probably know radiation to be a dangerous thing. We know this today, but at the time Marie never believed that radiation was harmful. The signs were there in her own health, but she was too close to see it and perhaps maybe a bit unwilling to believe.
The Curies were given a better lab and they worked hard extracting the radioactive materials for potential medical uses, but there were other products as well. They had glow in the dark paint, watches, and more. While their hard work lined the pockets of those providing them a lab, they were not personally growing wealthy. They both had to take more teaching jobs to help pay their bills.
In 1903, after giving her doctoral thesis on radioactivity, Marie Curie became the first woman to receive a doctorate in France. Not only did she become the first woman to get a doctorate in France. In that same year she also became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for this work. Alongside her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel, of course. This landed them fame, their place in history, and the ability to pay their bills. Pierre was promoted at the Sorbonne and Marie was even hired at the school as laboratory chief.
On April 19th, 1906, tragedy fell on the Curie family. One morning when walking from the lab to the library, Pierre slipped on a wet street and fell in front of a horse-drawn wagon. The wheel crushed his head and he died instantly. Marie was crushed by her grief and was now left to raise her children alone. Through her pain, she knew she had to continue to do her research, so she went back to work the day after Pierre’s funeral.
Soon after, the Sorbonne gave her the opportunity to be its first female professor. This meant taking Pierre’s former position.
Over the next several years, she continued to work on radioactivity. She even opened a Radium Institute and headed a laboratory dedicated to radioactivity.
In 1911, one of Pierre’s top students, Paul Langevin, had fallen in love with Marie. Although he was unhappy in his marriage for reasons that didn’t involve her, the press accused her of being a homewrecker. Newspapers released offensive articles about her as a foreigner breaking up a marriage and she even once had a mob in front of her house when returning home with her two young daughters.
Through all of this, she continued to work hard and in the same year became the first person to win a second Nobel Prize. This time in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium. Although she was given this award alone, she also accepted it on behalf of her late-husband when giving her acceptance speech in Sweden.
After returning from Sweden, she began to have kidney problems and fell into a deep depression. She didn’t return to work again until late 1912. At this point she dedicated her life to the Radium Institute.
After the institute was completed in 1914, many things changed. In August, Germany invaded France. Naturally, almost all of her staff enlisted to help aid France in the war. Although this put a halt to the research, Marie found a way for her research to help soldiers. X-rays could easily be used to help save lives. If a field doctor had access to them, they could find bullets and other shrapnel or even just get an image of broken bones to see what they are working with. That lead to an issue though, how could they get the x-ray machines to the front lines where they needed to be?
Marie convinced wealthy people to donate cars so they could turn them into mobile x-ray stations. She was able to deploy 20 mobile x-ray machines that were referred to as “Little Curies,” as well as 200 stationary ones.
Marie and her teenage daughter Irene worked for over a year in x-ray stations. During this time, she developed another way for radioactivity to aid in healing. They prepared tiny glass tubes with radon, a radioactive gas, at the Radium Institute. Doctors would then insert these tubes into patients in locations with diseased tissue, so the tissue would then be destroyed.
For the rest of Marie’s life, she continued to do research on radioactivity, but most of her focus was dedicated to the Radium institute.
Marie Curie died on July 4th, 1934 of aplastic anemia. This is a blood disease caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. Marie was known to carry test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat and obviously worked with radioactive materials for many years. After her death, she was buried next to Pierre.
In 1995, decades after her death, Marie and Pierre Curie’s remains were interred into the Panthéon in Paris. The Panthéon is the final resting place of many of France’s greatest minds. Marie was the first woman to be laid to rest there. There are at least 86 people there today, although some only symbolically. As of today, there are only 4 woman entombed. Although she had passed away many years prior, Marie still became a trailblazer for women one last time.
Alright Geeks, that’s gonna do it for this video. Thank you so much for hanging out with me today. I hope you enjoy this new series, it’s something we are very excited about. I want to thank my pal Emkinator for taking part in this with me. If you have had an x-ray for a broken bone or anything else feel free to share in the comments! We would love to hear your story. Also let us know what other historical events or people you are interested in.If you like what you saw here, do me a favor and subscribe, like, and leave a comment below. Alright Geeks, I will see you next time.
List of Sources:
Radium-lit clock – Arma95 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0:
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