Nov. 24, 2017, 12:27 p.m.View more articles
Born in Poland in November 1867, Marie Curie began her life with her Polish name, Maria Sklodowska. Although her family was poor, Maria was determined to go to university after she finished school. In those days, women weren’t allowed to go to university in Poland, so Maria moved to France to study physics and maths. She took on the French spelling of her name (Marie) to fit in better, and worked hard at her studies. She became the first woman to get a PhD (a very advanced qualification) in physics from the University of Paris, where she also met her husband, Pierre Curie.
Around that time, a scientist named Becquerel discovered that an element called uranium was producing what he called X-rays. He didn’t understand what X-rays actually were (the “X” stood for unknown), but he did know that they could be used to take pictures of people’s bones inside their bodies. Incredible, right?
Marie Curie was very interested in this, and decided to investigate uranium with her husband. Around 15 years earlier, Pierre had designed a measuring device called an electrometer. The Curies were able to use this device to measure the amount of rays that uranium gave off: in other words, how radioactive it was. We now know that radioactive elements produce a type of energy that we call X-rays. Unfortunately, at the time the Curies didn’t know that the radiation produced by the substances that they were studying was dangerous. During their work, they began to feel more and more exhausted and sick.
The work was difficult and time-consuming, but the results were hugely important: Marie and Pierre discovered two new highly radioactive elements that they named polonium and radium. Marie didn’t just work from her laboratory. During World War I, she fitted ambulances with portable X-ray instruments so that they could be used to take photographs of soldiers’ broken bones. She even drove the ambulances herself! She also helped to develop the use of X-rays for the treatment of certain cancers, which today is called radiotherapy.
Marie became a hugely important role model for women in science. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Nobel Prizes are some of the most important awards that anyone can receive, so you might be amazed to hear that Marie also received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911! This made her the first person in history to win the prize in two different fields. In 1906, she also took on her husband’s role as head of a university physics department in Paris after Pierre died in a road accident. This made her the first female professor at the university. Sadly, her years of work with radioactive elements caused her health to suffer, and she eventually died in 1934 from radiation poisoning at the age of 67.
Marie worked incredibly hard to help us understand the world better, and her discoveries still help to change lives today.
Watch Waves in Medicine to find out more about how X-rays can be used to help us.