04/20 – Marie Curie’s Discovery

Curie at work in her lab around the turn of the century. Prolonged exposure to radioactive materials likely killed Curie, who died in 1934. (Biography.com)

On this day in 1902, Polish scientist Marie Curie succeeded in refining radium-chloride (RaCl2), a salt compound used in cancer treatments and various other technologies. Aided by her husband Pierre, Curie – a Warsaw-born woman working in Paris – had been inspired by French scientist Henri Becquerel‘s work in the field to research ways of using radioactive materials in medicine. The Curies had discovered radium and polonium in 1898, and in 1903 the two shared a Nobel Peace Prize for their work in developing the theory of radioactivity, which “…seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics“. In 1911, Curie won a second Nobel prize in chemistry, the first woman – and first person – to be awarded two of the prestigious awards.

A French field hospital operating one of Curie’s X-Ray machines during WWI. With Curie’s groundbreaking new technology, Allied surgeons were able to locate bullets and shell fragments within patients’ bodies. (Wikimedia Commons)

As a woman, Curie was unable to study with her male colleagues and was forced to earn her education at an underground Warsaw university. Consistently denied funding and recognition, Curie worked as a teacher while performing experiments in her free time. Curie married Pierre in 1895 and the two began working together, vastly expanding the field of research on radioactivity and contributing to the development of X-Ray technology for medical purposes during WWI while working from their tiny home lab. After the war, Curie and her husband continued working with radioactive materials, laying the groundwork for the creation of artificial radioactivity and the discovery of neutrons. Although she was perhaps one of history’s most humble scientists – Albert Einstein claimed she was the only person completely immune to the corrupting influence of fame – Curie’s contributions to the field of radioactive study were undeniably crucial to countless advancements in medicine and renewable energy.

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