Marie Curie: A Pioneer in Radioactivity

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Marie Curie is widely considered to be the "queen" of modern science. This biographical account exposes the childhood forces which shaped and influenced Curie as a scientist, her groundbreaking discoveries and her contribution to feminism in the face of nineteenth century male chauvinism.

Submitted: January 02, 2012

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Submitted: January 02, 2012



Marie Curie:

A Pioneer in Radioactivity


Biographical Account By Niamh Jiménez.




Marie Curie is looked upon as the female heroine of modern science. She contributed to history through her well-known scientific developments, her involvement in the treatment of World War I casualties, and her unconscious advancement of feminist ideals. She has been attributed a certan romanticism owing to the oppressive environment in which she grew up, the pre-dominance of male chauvanism and her own practice of self-sacrifice for the sake of academic achievement.

Born in 1867, she grew up in Warsaw, during an era where Poland was under Russian domination. Poland was divided into three distinct provinces, presided over by the countries Austria, Prussia and Russia. The occupying Russian forces imposed a harsh, oppressive regime, whereby all Poles were forbidden to communicate in their own language, and compelled to conform to Russian requirements. There was great fear amongst the natives as reprisals were carried out against those harbouring revolutionary ideas. The Poles had strove for independence in the past through the use of belligerence, but had been bitterly defeated by the Russian tsars.

Marie’s generation began to view the heroic march into battle, armed with mere patriotism and romantic rhetoric, as an approach which would never improve Poland’s lot. Instead, science was emerging as a new-fangled force, as the revolutionary dogmas of four men captured the nation’s attention: Marx, Freud, Einstein and Darwin. In particular, Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“the survival of the fittest”) was interpreted by the young bloods as scientific proof that the old policies of the Poles were futile. Instead, they must reconcile themselves to their poor, disempowered circumstances, then stabilize, and then improve their prospects. Hence, reason and logic should replace self-romanticism: the fittest would survive. In many ways, Marie herself proved to be of this “fit” category. These new intellectual concepts, known as “Positivist”, were a form of scientific discipline, by which better social conditions could be achieved.

Marie Curie was largely shaped by these Positivist philosophies, the concepts of a French thinker named August Comte. Positivism emphasized the importance of an empirical approach to problem solving, instead of the former theoretical method. This scientific, non-belligerent approach to social reform was adopted by young Polish Positivists as a foundation, but they also promoted equal rights for women and woman’s entitlement to an education. Education was perceived as a means to achieving lasting progress, despite the fact that women were denied this entitlement under the Russian tsar.

Tthe profound influence of Positivism on Marie Curie’s development and her scientific methods is visible through her insistence on measurable data and verifiable conclusions throughout her entire career. This was entirely characteristic of Positivism, which rejected metaphysics and religion, concluding that scientific observation and experimentation was the only path to positive discovery. I was intrigued by the fact that Marie Curie was largely a product of her political and social environment. This environment also influenced her mode of work as a scientist. In fact, she may not have unearthed such phenomenal discoveries had she not adhered stubbornly to the fundamental ideals of positivism.

Curie’s fortitude and resilience was impressive in light of the turbulence of her childhood and the trials of her career. This extraordinary strength surfaced in different forms: her physical resistance to harmful radiation, her ability to tolerate physical denial, and be intellectually productive in an under-resourced laboratory. As well as these trials, she was impervious to the criticisms and disdain of her fellow male colleagues, many of whom abided by the rule that all women were intellectually inferior and unequal to the privilege of an education.

One excellent example of Curie’s strength and self-motivation is the disciplined lifestyle she lived as a single student at the Sorbonne University, Paris. For the most part, her lifestyle as a poor undergraduate, lodged at the Quartier Latin, was incredibly primitive. The garret which she inhabited was reached by climbing up six flights of stairs, and was bitterly cold during winter. She had to carry fuel up the six flights when there were sufficient funds, but she was often left shivering once the ration had been exhausted. Her allowance from Poland was divided between tuition fees and the price of living. She was severely underfed, as she had to sacrifice proper nourishment for costly fuel. Her main stimulant was egg.

During this period of lack, Marie developed an indomitable resistance towards isolation and hunger. She had mastered the art of physical self-denial in order to focus on the intellectual challenge. Despite the obvious discrepancy between the advanced education of her French contemporaries and her limited self-education, Marie succeeded in gaining two distinctions in both mathematics and physics, as well as honorary degrees in both.

The act of self-denial for the sake of its simultaneous intellectual rewards was something which Marie practised throughout her scientific career, a habit revealing both immense strength and vulnerability. This “self-martyrdom” was also the foundation for the romanticized, heroic image of her life, which the public and the media had fostered. This recurrent idea of romantic deprivation and intellectual heroism appeared in the description of the under-resourced, dank shed in which Marie and Pierre laboriously performed the isolation of radium. 

Curie’s Scientific Discoveries


The most obvious contribution Marie Curie made to nineteenth century science was the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. Marie Curie first began the experimental work which would culminate in these significant discoveries in 1896, following the detection of X-rays by the eminent German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen. Several months after Roentgen’s disclosure of x-rays, Henri Becquerel reported that uranium salts could penetrate and fog a photographic plate, without the presence of a light source. This observation was largely overlooked by his colleagues and members of the Academie des Sciences, with the exception of Marie Curie, who chose the Becquerel rays as a subject for her doctoral thesis. Her experimental work with uranium rays marks one of the most intellectually fruitful, revolutionary eras in the history of modern physics.


At the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry, where her husband Pierre was Professor of Physics, Marie occupied a dank, under-resourced storeroom which she employed as a laboratory. Throughout her early experimental research, Marie availed of the electrometer, an instrument which Pierre and his brother Jacques had invented during their investigation of crystallography and piezoelectricity. The device measured faint electrical charges, and Marie Curie used it to calculate the conductivity of air exposed to the activity of the uranium rays. From this experiment, she validated Becquerel’s observation that the intensity of the radiation emitted was constant, irrespective of the state of the uranium, for example whether it was solid or pulverized. She also confirmed that the intensity of the radioactive emission increased in mineral ores with a higher proportion of uranium content. She contributed further to Becquerel’s findings by hypothesising that the emission of rays was an intrinsic property of the uranium element: a property which was built into its atomic structure. Her fundamental idea that radioactivity was the consequence of something happening within the atom was a fountainhead in the history of atomic physics.

This simple, clearly stated hypothesis subverted the very foundation upon which ancient physics was built: the indivisibility of the atom. This hypothesis was one of the most groundbreaking hypotheses in modern physics, as it led other scientists, such as Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy, to elucidate the internal structure of the atom, i.e. that it was composed of infinitesimal sub atomic particles.

Marie Curie’s discovery of “radioactivity” instigated a worldwide scientific craze, which led to the discovery of the related concepts of half life, decay constant, the transmutation of radioactive isotopes, and eventually the artificial alteration of nuclear and atomic structure (also known as artificial radioactivity).  Without the investigative work of Marie Curie, atom’s sub-atomic particles and the complex structure of the immense energy stored within the atom might never have been postulated. Therefore, Curie’s contribution to history, under the subheading of scientific developments, not only records her own discoveries, but also the discoveries of other scientists, whose revelations where entirely dependent upon her fundamental theory of radioactivity.

In April 1898, Marie’s research revealed that the element thorium emitted the same genus of rays as those released by uranium, hence demonstrating that this behaviour was not limited solely to uranium. Curie coined the word “radioactivity”, based on the Latin word for ray, to describe the behaviour of both uranium and thorium.


Later that year, Pierre decided to abandon his work on crystals and symmetry in order to collaborate with his wife in a series of complex chemical analyses and separations. Marie had discovered that the residue, left behind after the chemical extraction of uranium from the ores of both pitchblende and chalcolite, was more active than pure uranium. She surmised that both ores should contain minute fractions of unknown elements which were more radioactive than pure uranium. Their highly laborious methods of separation, involving crystallization, dissolving and precipitating materials, yielded up two highly radioactive fractions, known as bismuth and barium. In July 1898, the Curies published the conclusion that bismuth contained a new element, which Marie dubbed “polonium” after her native homeland. In December of the same year, the Curies publicly released their discovery of a second new element recovered from barium. Marie called the new element radium, derived from the Latin word for ray.

In order to prove the existence of both new elements, the Curies had to isolate pure samples of each metal. This industrial process was made possible by the help of commercial companies such as the Central Chemical Products Company, which supplied chemical products and staff wages. Similarly, the Austrian government donated large quantities of pitchblende, in the hopes that the Curies would discover a valuable use for what was then merely a waste by-product. The final, definitive result, the recovery of one tenth of a gram of pure radium metal (following three years of hard labour), initiated a huge commercial and industrial craze. The manufacture of radium became a highly lucrative commercial business, owing to the therapeutic effect it had on cancer patients and scar tissue. Hence, Marie Curie’s discovery of radium had a huge impact on the medical industry, which publicized and advocated radium as a likely cure for cancer. Due to international demand, the commercial and manufacturing industries became closely linked with science through the processing and marketing of its medical applications; radium was applied as an antidote to a range of aggressive ailments.

The War Effort


Marie Curie’s contributed largely to the war effort in 1914 through her radical use of x-rays and radiology as a means of medical diagnosis. Curie was involved in fund-raising and soliciting donations from French aristocrats in order to acquire x-ray and photographic equipment, as well as vehicles for their transportation. The radiological vehicles or “cars” typically contained x -ray machines, photographic equipment, dynamos, curtains, gloves and primitive screens for protection against exposure to radiation.  The cars were installed along the military front lines at posts such as the Creil military hospital, where Marie, her daughter Irene, and many other trained radiographers, were stationed. Marie Curie’s dynamic and largely administrative campaign involved recruiting x-ray operators, raising the funds for equipment and cars, and installing the radiological cars along the front lines of battle. The entire campaign sanctioned the use of x-ray equipment on a massive, international scale, instead of being confined to exclusive, scientific circles.

Within ten days of the outbreak of the Great War, the Minister of War had issued a formal request that Marie Curie recruit and equip x-ray operators. She gained the official title of Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service, which encouraged French patriotic baronesses and princesses to donate money and vehicles to the cause. Car manufacturers began to convert chassis into vans which could be employed as radiological cars. Radiologists from Paris hospitals were speedily recruited. The whole French army, which was initially equipped with merely one radiological car, soon boasted over 200 radiological cars, due to the phenomenal efforts of Marie Curie.

During the war, Marie kept records of the various casualties which passed through the military hospitals she had established. Her records revealed a characteristic clinical detachment. Marie Curie’s fortitude and physical resistance at this time was admirable and would have proved inspirational to emergent feminists. Despite the obstructionist attitudes of military health inspectors, as well as the resistance of conservative doctors to employ x-rays as a means of diagnosis, Marie and her largely female team persevered. In fact, Marie Curie and her daughter Irene were often compelled to teach their male colleagues rudimentary principles in geometry and x-ray techniques. For example, Irene taught a Belgian doctor the method for locating projectiles in the body through the use of radiographs.

By 1916, Marie Curie faced pressure as the shortage of trained radiographers and professionals became a huge obstacle. This was partially due to the fact that the suitable manpower required for such a large-scale operation was eliminated by the British and French governments’ policies of conscription, which demanded that male scientists enter the war as soldiers. To combat this deficiency, Curie founded a radiological school in the Radium Institute to teach simple x-ray techniques to young girls. Marie had to rely on a much broader social catchment, which included unlikely candidates such as young chambermaids, nurses and ladies of fashion. But the exigencies of war called for trained women to be fed to the front line operation speedily. During this period, Marie divided her time between organizing teaching courses and inspecting the various hospital bases she had established.

In 1915, in Grand Palais military hospital, radium was first employed as a remedial treatment for scar tissue, arthritis, neuritis and a range of other ailments. It was discovered that the gas radon could be sealed in thin glass tubes, put inside platinum needles and inserted into the body at points where the ionizing rays would prove most effective. Marie Curie played an instrumental role in this new operation through the provision of her 1 gram of radium sample. In her own Institute of Radium, she also established the first radium therapy service, providing tubes of radon to both civil and military hospitals. 

Moreover, Marie Curie’s role in the Great War was indispensible. Her actions during the war also marked a symbolic shift from the idea of the insular, disinterested scientist, who rejected responsibility for the industrial or commercial applications of their scientific research. The “pure” or disinterested scientist did not employ scientific discoveries, such as radium for instance, as a means of confronting societal problems or medical ailments; instead, the pure scientist concerns himself or herself solely with the observation and experimentation of natural phenomena for the discovery of unknown scientific laws. As a strong advocator of these ideals, Curie acts somewhat paradoxically by invoking radium and x-rays as a means of confronting society’s challenge at the time, which was the huge number of war casualties. Although she was a pure (disinterested) scientist fundamentally, she showed a potential for applied science through her war effort endeavours.  

This slackening in the ideal of disinterested or “pure” science increased during the post war years, when Marie Curie agreed to a public Radium Campaign, which won her international fame as the discoverer of the “cure for cancer.” The Radium Campaign is of major significance in the life of Marie Curie, as it established her as one of the first female household names in the history of science. The campaign was also aided by the advancement of modern communications and newspapers, as well as the sponsorship of a woman named Marie Mattingley Meloney.

The Radium Campaign


The 1921 Radium Campaign was highly successful due to the phenomenal efforts of an American editor named Marie Mattingley Meloney. While the campaign was organised primarily to relieve Marie Curie’s under-resourced Institute, which possessed 50 times less radium than many scientific research and therapy centres in America, the editor also believed that Marie Curie and her social case would be the generator to stimulate America’s conscience. The objective of the 1921 Radium Campaign was to satisfy Marie Curie’s wish for a gram of radium for her laboratory. At the forefront of the Marie Curie Radium Campaign, a committee of influential American women and scientists succeeded in soliciting generous contributions from the American public. Meloney also persuaded Marie to write an autobiographical work for an American publisher, as the name Marie Curie was a publishable commodity. An autobiography would produce royalties and, more importantly, enhance the romantic image of science fostered by the media. This image of the poor and frail Polish woman elicited many “pity” donations and excessive attention from the media.

The Campaign transformed the Radium Institute into an internationally recognised institution, and secured the financial resources Marie required to continue with her scientific research. The high point of Curie's 1921 tour of the United States was President Warren G. Harding’s ceremonial presentation of 1 gram of radium to the eminent physicist. Thanks to the Marie Curie Radium Campaign, she returned to Paris with ores, costly apparatus, and cash for her institute, in addition to the gram of radium. The Curie Foundation, founded by Marie and several colleagues, was instrumental in equipping both the scientific and medical divisions of the institute with adequate resources. The Foundation became a major international force in the interminable battle against cancer.

Curie made a second trip to the United States in 1929, under the sponsorship of Meloney. This time the aim was to equip the Warsaw Radium Institute, founded in 1925 with her sister Bronya as director, with 1 gram of Radium. The campaign proved highly successful, and President Hoover bestowed upon Marie the gift of a second gram of radium.

Marie Curie’s success in organising lucrative campaigns, such as the 1921 Radium Campaign, encouraged many scientists to form partnerships with liberal and socialist politicians and political parties that would increase government funding.  They believed that the quickest way to a more progressive scientific future was to foster research. Marie Curie’s Radium Institute and its successful research workers truly buttressed this idea. Through Marie Curie’s wilful fund-raising and careful directorship, the Radium Institute in Paris gained world recognition, and held a status equivalent to the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge or Vienna’s Radium Institute. Between 1919 and Curie's death in 1934, scientists at her Radium Institute published 483 works, including 31 papers and books by Curie herself. The Institute also relied greatly on private endowments from wealthy parties, for example, Rothschild grants helped Curie to support her scientific staff--including the man who would become Irène's husband and collaborator.

As Curie continued to research, isolate, concentrate and purify radium and actinium, her work developed symbiotically with the commercial production of radioactive substances and many applications in science, industry and medicine.  This marked a huge shift in Marie Curie’s “pure science” ideals, and the gradual transformation of a former generation of “pure scientists”, who were being quietly modernised. As well as the research on radioactivity undertaken at the Institute, the measurement of the radium content of various medical products was also provided as a service for doctors. Gradually the direction of the Radium Institute and its researchers became the central focus of her life. She organised and supervised teams of researchers, each working independently on a question concerning radioactivity. Each team not only attacked its own questions, but also served as a useful training ground for students.

Curie’s role as director of the Institute has great historical significance as it meant that her own scientific experience and knowledge was imparted to younger research workers, who subsequently made their own contributions to science.  One example is Salomon Rosenblum, who made a major discovery in 1929 when his work with actinium, prepared by Curie herself, helped verify quantum theory. But the international stars of the Institute were her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederick Joliot, who discovered artificial radioactivity and later won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in December 1935.

Curie also made a significant contribution to history in the last 12 years of her life, when she served on the commission on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. In this capacity, she worked towards formulating an international bibliography of scientific works, creating standards for international scientific scholarships, and protecting academics’ claim to intellectual rights for their discoveries.

In more recent times, Marie Curie’s scientific legacy was paid tribute through the unit of measurement used to describe the activity of 1 gram of radium-226: the curie, with symbol Ci.


Marie Curie paid an inadvertent contribution to the feminist movement, and advocation of women’s rights. Her early involvement with the Positivist movement in late nineteenth century Poland demonstrates that she believed in the equality of women and their entitlement to education. In Poland, positivism was interpreted as the application of science and logic to the struggle for improved social conditions, and education was viewed as the path to a progressive future. However, Marie later repudiated involvement in any political movements, including feminism, as she believed in the ideal of the “disinterested” scientist. But despite this apparent detachment from feminism, she insisted on being viewed as an equal to her male colleagues. She expected no concessions and none were granted. In many ways, she created the conditions for her own liberation. Through her scientific discoveries and numerous accolades, she was living proof that men were not of superior intellect to women, and anyone who thought so was upholding an atavistic fallacy.

Although on a conscious level she refused to become involved in feminism, her pioneering achievements transformed the way in which female scientists were viewed universally. These achievements include the attainment of many honorary science, medicine and law degrees, and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. She and her husband, Pierre, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for their study into the spontaneous radiation identified by Becquerel, who was allocated the other half of the Prize. In 1911 she received a second in Chemistry, in acknowledgement of her groundbreaking assertions regarding radioactivity. She also received, jointly with her husband, the Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1903. In 1921 President Harding of the United States, on behalf of the women of America, presented her with one gram of radium in recognition of her service to science. Following the tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, she replaced him as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had ever acquired this position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.
























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