Marie Curie, a life dedicated to the study of radioactivity

Maria Salomea Sklodowska, better known as Marie Curie, was born in the Polish city of Warsaw on November 7, 1867.

At the age of 10 she started attending the school for girls and graduated on June 12, 1883 with a gold medal. At the age of 15, unable to enter the University of Warsaw because it did not admit women, she went, together with her sister Bronya, to the "Flying University", a clandestine institution, open to women, which offered young Poles a quality education in their own language.

At the Sorbonne

Marie and her sister undertook to pay for each other's studies, so that her sister had been able to study medicine in Paris thanks to the money that Marie had earned as a governess in Warsaw, and in 1981, it was Marie who accepted her sister's offer and left for Paris, where she changed her name to Marie, and enrolled at the Sorbonne University to study physics and chemistry and mathematics. In 1893 she graduated in physics, number one in her class, and in 1894, with the help of a scholarship, she graduated in mathematics.

Marie began her scientific career in 1894 with an investigation, commissioned by the Society for the Promotion of National Industry, on the magnetic properties of various steels. That same year she met Pierre Curie, a French physicist and pioneer in the study of radioactivity, whom she married on July 26, 1985, and had two daughters: Irene and Éve.

In 1896, encouraged by Pierre Curie, Marie began her doctoral thesis on "Investigations on radioactive substances", which she defended on June 25, 1903, at the Faculty of Sciences of the Sorbonne University, and for which she obtained an outstanding cum laude and her doctorate in physical sciences.

In 1987, the couple began studying uranium radiation and, using piezoelectric techniques invented by Pierre, measured the radiation in pitchblende, a uranium-containing mineral. When she saw that the radiations from the mineral were more intense than those from uranium itself, she realized that there had to be unknown elements, even more radioactive than uranium. Marie Curie was the first to use the term 'radioactive' to describe elements that emit radiation when their nuclei decay.

In 1898 the couple announced the discovery of two new elements: polonium, in honor of Marie's country of birth, and radium, derived from the Latin word rayo.

Most of their research was carried out in very precarious conditions in a poorly ventilated shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry of the faculty. They were not aware of the harmful effects to which they were going to be exposed and, in the autumn of 1898, they began to suffer the first health problems that would accompany them for the rest of their lives.

In 1903 the couple was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of radioactive elements, which they shared with Becquerel. Marie became the first woman to receive this award, but the Curies did not collect the prize in person, claiming that they were too busy with their research.

In 1904 Pierre Curie was appointed professor of physics at the University of Paris, and in 1905 a member of the French Academy. These positions were not held by women and Marie did not have the same recognition. Pierre died while crossing the street run over by a horse-drawn carriage on April 19, 1906. From this moment on, Marie took up her classes and continued her own research.

On May 13, 1906, the Physics Department of the University of Paris offered her her husband's position. Marie accepted in the hope of creating a world-class laboratory as a tribute to her husband. Marie was the first woman to hold a faculty position at that university and the first director of a laboratory at that institution.

In 1910, Marie demonstrated that a gram of pure radium could be obtained and in 1911, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her research on radium and its compounds. With a disinterested attitude, she did not patent the process of isolating radium, leaving it open to research by the entire scientific community.

In 1914, she was appointed director of the Radium Institute in Paris and founded the Curie Institute. Since then, four members of the Radium Institute have received the Nobel Prize, among them Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband, Frédéric, who in 1935 received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for obtaining new radioactive elements.

During World War I, field hospitals lacked experienced personnel and proper X-ray machines, so Marie Curie proposed the use of mobile radiography near the front lines to assist battlefield surgeons. She asserted that the wounded would be better cared for if surgeons had X-ray films in time.

She purchased X-ray equipment, vehicles and auxiliary generators and designed mobile X-ray units, which she called "radiological ambulances", but which came to be known later as "little Curies". Assisted from the beginning by her 18-year-old daughter Irene and a military doctor, she directed the installation of twenty mobile X-ray units and two hundred other radiological units in temporary hospitals during the first year of the war. It is estimated that more than one million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units.

She became the director of the Radiology Service of the French Red Cross and created the first military radiology center in France, operational at the end of 1914.

In 1915, he produced cannulas containing "radium emanations", a colorless, radioactive gas emitted by that element, later identified as radon, which were used for sterilization of infected tissues.

Later, she began to train other women as assistants. In July 1916, she was one of the first women to obtain a driver's license, as she applied to personally drive the mobile X-ray units.

In May 1921, through the mediation of the American journalist Mary Meloney, she and her daughters went to the United States, where, thanks to funds raised among the Polish community and some American millionaire, they were able to buy a gram of radium for the Radium Institute. In addition, she raised extra money for laboratory equipment.

Because of radioactive contamination, its documents from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle and are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those wishing to consult them must wear special clothing.

Marie Curie suffered from pernicious anemia caused by long exposures to radiation. After going blind, she died on July 4, 1934 in a clinic near Passy, Haute Savoie, France. Her body was placed in a coffin lined with about one inch of lead. 

She was buried next to her husband in the cemetery of Sceaux, south of Paris. Sixty years later, in 1995, the mortal remains of the couple were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, being the first woman to rest in this place.

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