On chemistry and love in the city of lights

Sakura Brandi retells a fin de siecle love story that allowed one female scientist get two Nobels and prevented from getting the third.

NUSU
8th February 2016

Marie Curie was an extraordinary woman. She is most famous for her work on radioactivity and the two Noble Prizes she won for Physics and Chemistry. She is not only the first woman to win a Noble Prize, but also the first person to be awarded two.

However, she did not achieve all of this on her own. Her husband, Pierre Curie, was crucial in shaping her life. Together, they worked on uranium, a recently discovered radioactive element, and they purified radium and polonium from it.

In 1903 the couple and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Noble Prize for their work with radioactivity.

Her life would have been drastically different without him, as a woman in science from the 19th century, she could not have her own lab and be recognised for her research without her husband. Nonetheless, what tied them together was true love and respect.

Originally named Maria Sklodowska, Marie Curie was born in a poor family in Russian-occupied Poland. After losing her older sister and mother to disease, she worked as a governess to save money for her education and that of her older sister. She longed to be free of the limiting education system of the Russians, and since Warsaw University would not take in women, she set her heart on the Sorbonne.

Finally in 1891 she moved from Poland to Paris, leaving heartbreak and destitution behind to fully immerse herself in her studies. She was given a full scholarship, which she later paid back, so that someone else may benefit from it.

In 1894 she met Pierre Curie, the director of one of the laboratories she worked in. Pierre Curie was in his mid-thirties, and although he was much older than her, their similar interests and intellect brought them together. Both had sworn off love and relationships in favour of science but they could not resist each other and Maria Sklodowska finally accepted Pierre Curie’s marriage proposal a year later, in 1895.

Both had sworn off love and relationships in favour of science but they could not resist each other

They started their research in the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris, where they began their work on radioactivity. At this stage, the only radioactive element, discovered by Prof Henri Becquerel, was uranium. They also did research in a shed in their back garden. They bought tonnes of a mineral called pitchblende, which contained uranium ore, and set about purifying other elements that were many times more radioactive than uranium; radium and polonium. This discovery not only granted them a Nobel Prize, but was the starting point for the development of many crucial technologies such as new ways to treat cancer with radiation and later on, during the First World War, the creation of mobile x ray units that could be brought to the war front to scan soldiers in need.

Sadly, Pierre Curie passed away in a freak road accident in 1906, leaving Madame Curie with 2 daughters to feed and an uncertain future. Luckily she was allowed to take over her late husband’s job, as a Professor in the University and lecturing where he had left off. She swore to keep on researching the topics, this time for her husband’s sake as well.

Four years after her husband’s death, in 1910, Madame Curie was enveloped in a love scandal. Her affair with Paul Langevin, a French physicist, jeopardised her receiving another Nobel Prize. However as she has rightly stated: “The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept ... that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life”.

Her affair with Paul Langevin, a French physicist, jeopardised her receiving another Nobel Prize.

In a male dominated world, surrounded by criticism and prejudice, Marie Curie stood strong in her belief in the importance of her research and in 1911, was awarded her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for “her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”. She was then made the head of a laboratory specialised for the study of radioactivity.

Madame Curie died in Savoy, France in 1934 of leukemia. Even though journal entries show that the Curies realised the negative effects of working with radioactive material, they continued to sacrifice their bodies in exchange for knowledge.

 

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