Happy International Year of Chemistry! And this is also the 100th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Marie Curie. To commemorate the occasion, the magazine, Chemical and Engineering News asked several chemists to contribute essays about the achievements of chemistry. Well worth reading is Naomi Pasachoff’s essay on Curie. Truly, has there ever been a scientist as courageous as Madam Curie?
When Marie’s research revealed that pitchblende and chalcolite, two uranium ores, were much more radioactive than pure uranium, Pierre joined her in the search for more undiscovered radioactive elements. Their hunt turned up polonium and radium in 1898.
It would take more than three years for her to isolate a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride.
Marie Curie was not afraid to take risks and her forceful character led her to a level of independence unusual for her time. In France during this period, gifted women were scorned and looked down upon. While studying in Paris, Curie lived alone for three years. It was a life, she wrote later, that gave her a sense of liberty and independence. This period gave her the strength of character she needed to undergo the immense labor necessary to concentrate uranium in order to study radium.
Curie was nearly fearless in her drive to discover. She discovered two of the most dangerous elements in the world: radium and polonium. Polonium is extremely toxic — by mass, 250,000 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. She worked in primitive X-ray rooms to help save wounded WWI soldiers. For her trouble, she was poisoned by radiation and Curie’s death was almost certainly related to radiation exposure.
(I looked all over the Web to find a pic of Mme Curie with a smile. Apparently, she doesn’t photograph well. That’s her on the right.)