One cannot talk about women in science without discussing the merits and achievements of Rosalind Franklin and Madame Marie Curie. But it was Curie who changed the sphere of chemistry as we know it!

Born in Warsaw, Poland, as Maria Salomea Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, she is well-known for her work on radioactivity and the discovery of two radioactive elements.

Furthermore, she is the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice in two diverse fields and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize overall.

The importance of Marie Curie’s work is best described by the multiple awards conferred to her. She has received several honorary science, law, and medicine degrees and gained honorary memberships to many global scientific societies.

Marie met her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1894 in the School of Physics, and they got married the following year.

What she accomplished during her time working in Chemistry cannot be described in one article, but read on as we attempt to do so:

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Marie Curie’s Work And Discoveries

Marie and Pierre Curie became researchers at the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris, beginning their revolutionary work into the rays projected by uranium.

This was a relatively new phenomenon and had been recently revealed by Professor Henri Becquerel.

He explained that the rays emitted by uranium could pass through fog, solid matter, and photographic film. Furthermore, these rays can conduct electricity in the air.

Marie Curie observed that the mineral samples of pitchblende containing uranium ore had higher radioactivity than pure uranium.

This led her to believe that the extensive readings she was achieving were not caused by uranium alone, and there was something else present in the pitchblende.

It was only present in minute quantities and displayed very high radioactivity, which is why it wasn’t noticed by anyone else.

Marie Curie was sure that she had discovered a new element; however, numerous scientists cast doubts over her assumptions. Undeterred, Pierre and Marie Curie started working to locate this unknown element.

The pitchblende samples were crushed, dissolved in acid, and the multiple elements present were separated via the standard analytical chemistry practices of those times.

In time, they were able to extract a black powder that showed 330 times more radioactivity than uranium. They named it Polonium and derived that it had an atomic number of 84.

Upon further investigation, the Curies discovered that after polonium extraction, the liquid left behind was still highly radioactive.

Therefore, to their surprise, they found that the pitchblende excreted another new element with higher radioactivity than Polonium.

A chemist using micropipette having safety gloves on. Some liquid is being transferred into the centrifuge tubes via the micropipette. The work being done is in a contained glass environment, considering the safety implications in a chemistry lab
Marie Curie, over her lifetime, actively promoted radium use for alleviating suffering and during World War I. Assisted by her elder daughter Irène, she devoted herself personally to this remedial work.  (Source: Pixabay)

In 1898, the Curies published powerful evidence supporting the existence of this new element, calling it Radium.

However, the problem was that they had no sample of Radium. Pitchblende is quite expensive as it contains valuable Uranium and Marie Curie required a lot of it.

She contacted a factory in Austria that removed uranium from pitchblende for industrial purposes and acquired several tons of the valueless waste product.

The Curies then began to process the pitchblende in search of minute radium quantities. The whole process functioned on a grander scale than ever before.

The procedure was intensive and substantially demanding, involving health implications that they had not prepared for — they started to feel sick and physically exhausted. These were the effects of the radiation, as they began to show early symptoms of radiation sickness.

At that time, they persisted, ignoring the risks associated with raw materials and continuously handling highly radioactive samples.

Two men and a woman in a chemistry lab; there are multiple chemicals and equipment inside the lab. When around complex and fragile science equipment, it is better to wear protective gear and to tread with caution
Marie Curie, in 1915, used her knowledge in science to aid in the war effort in France. During the war, she converted multiple cars into mobile radiological units with portable X-ray machines.  (Source: Unsplash)

It took her three years to isolate a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride. However, she never succeeded in achieving the same with Polonium as it had a half-life of only 138 days.

The reasons for this failure were never fully understood until Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy presented their radioactive decay theory in 1903.

Meanwhile, Pierre Curie found Radium to spontaneously emit heat, deriving that it damages the living tissue. This discovery initiated the use of radioactive treatment to treat diseases, including cancer.

Eventually, Marie Curie was successful in isolating Radium as a salt, radium chloride in 1902, defining its atomic weight as 225.93.

Meanwhile, Pierre Curie accepted his appointment as Physics chair to the Sorbonne Program for medical students. However, the position came without laboratory facilities provision, compelling them to continue their work at the Municipal School, where Pierre was already teaching.

Marie Curie’s research was still unfunded; therefore, she took a paid position as the first female lecturer of France’s Elite Teacher-Training Institute for Women. She was also the first lecturer to include lab work in the institute’s physics curriculum.

First Nobel Prize

Marie Curie’s journey towards her first noble prize started when she went to Paris in 1891, where she closely followed the lectures of Gabriel Lippmann, Edmond Bouty, and Paul Appel at Sorbonne.

She also learned a lot from meeting some pretty well-known physicists, like Aimé Cotton, Jean Perrin, and Charles Maurain. During this time, she survived on butter, bread, and tea and worked all night in her student-quarters.

In 1893, she secured the first position to receive her license in physical sciences and began working from Gabriel Lippmann’s research laboratory.

In 1894, she came second in the license of mathematical sciences. It was in the same year that she met her future husband, Pierre Curie.

Four chemists in a chemistry lab. There is a container in one chemist’s hand while the female chemist holds on to wires; there is chemical equipment behind them and blue colored cabinets. All the equipment necessary for a science lab is fragile and must be handled with care
In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for isolating pure radium from pitchblende. This award made her the first and only woman in history to achieve two Nobel prizes.  (Source: Unsplash)

Their marriage on July 25, 1895, started a partnership that would soon dazzle the world of physics and Chemistry. In the summer of 1898, they discovered Polonium (named after Marie’s native land) followed shortly by radium.

Marie Curie searched for ways to extract pure radium in its metallic state and managed the feat with help from one of her husband’s pupils, André-Louis Debierne.

In June 1903, she received her doctorate of science due to this research, joining a list of scientists like Louis Pasteur, who were recognized for their academic nous.

Furthermore, she, along with her husband, was awarded the Royal Society’s Davy Medal. In the same year, both of them shared their first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics with Becquerel on the discovery of radioactivity.

Through this period, her commitment knew no bounds; despite the birth of her two daughters Irène and Ève, in 1897 and 1904, Marie did not request a break.

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Pierre Curie’s Death And Her Second Nobel Prize

A decisive turning point in Marie Curie’s career came upon the unforeseen passing away of Pierre Curie on April 19, 1906. She then devoted all her time and energy to complete the work they had started together.

In May of the same year, she received an appointment for the professorship position left vacant by her husband’s untimely death. This led her to become the first female professor to teach at Sorbonne.

She was then made an honorary professor in 1908 and published her foundational written piece on radioactivity two years later.

She was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for isolating pure Radium in 1911, creating the building of science laboratories at the Radium Institute in the University of Paris.

This was perhaps the most crucial Nobel-recognized discovery till 1945 when Alexander Fleming received the award for discovering penicillin.

Throughout World War I, Marie Curie and her daughter Irène dedicated themselves towards developing the use of X-Radiography.

Meanwhile, the Radium Institute become fully operational and turned into a universal center for nuclear Chemistry and physics in 1918.

At the height of her career, Marie Curie, a member of the Academy of Medicine, dedicated all her efforts to studying radioactive substances and how they can be utilized in medicine.

Death And Legacy

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away at Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France; she was 66 years old.

The cause of death was pernicious, aplastic anemia, which developed due to her years of radiation exposure.

As a fitting end to her work, her elder daughter Irène was also awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on the nucleus of an atom. However, she also died due to a radiation-related illness — leukemia.

Become A Renowned Chemist Like Marie Curie

Whenever the topic of famous chemists in history comes up, Marie Curie is always mentioned. She was one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century and the first woman to gain a Nobel Prize, and the first one to use the term “radioactivity.”

That is a lot of “firsts” for one individual! And if you want to embark on a career where you can contribute to science and become renowned for it, you should think about studying chemistry!

And are thinking of hiring a professional tutor to learn the subject and become as revered as Madame curie or Joseph Priestley, Superprof is the perfect place for you.

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