Madame Marie Curie was one of the most brilliant and hard-working people who ever lived. She won two Nobel Prizes and helped her husband and daughter each win one. When she died in 1934 at age 66, her death certificate read that she died of pernicious anemia caused by radiation from her many experiments with radium and polonium, the two elements that she discovered. However, 61 years after her death, her body was exhumed from her grave and tested, and it had no more radiation than would be released in most basements. Since radiation from radium and polonium has a half-life of more than 1600 years, she was not killed by radiation from her work on the elements she had discovered. During World War I, this magnificent woman helped to save thousands of French soldiers by going to the frontlines of the battlefields and using her own X-ray machines to find bullets, shrapnel and everything else in wounds that could be removed by surgeons. Her death certificate was incorrect. We now know that she died from excessive X-ray exposure while she was saving lives and developing new medical treatments for battlefield injuries.
Valedictorian Despite Extreme Poverty
She was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867, the fifth and youngest child of a mother who was a pianist and singer and a father who was a professor of mathematics and physics. Her father was a noted scientist who lost his savings through foolish investment schemes, so this brilliant woman with brilliant parents had to support herself by working as a governess. From her earnings, she helped her sister Bronia study medicine in Paris. Bronia later helped Marie pay for her schooling.
In 1891. at age 24, she went to Paris where she lived on bread, butter and tea, studied far into the night and finished first in her class. There she met and married her husband which started a partnership that discovered two new chemical elements: polonium (named in honor of her native country) in the summer of 1898, and radium a few months later. She isolated pure metallic radium and used this discovery to obtain her doctorate of science at age 36, in June 1903. She and her husband were rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radioactivity. Her brilliant research did not even slow down when she gave birth to two daughters, Irene and Eve, in 1897 and 1904.
The First Female Professor at the Sorbonne and Another Nobel Prize
In 1906, at age 39, her husband died and she replaced him, becoming the first woman to teach in the Sorbonne. In 1908 she became full professor. At age 44 (1911) she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the isolation of pure radium.
World War I
During World War I, she and her daughter Irene went to the front lines and used X-rays to locate bullets, shrapnel, and other foreign objects to save the lives of thousands of French soldiers. She developed mobile radiography units, directed the Red Cross Radiography Service, set up France's first military radiology center, directed 20 mobile x-ray vehicles and another 200 units in field hospitals. It has been estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her x-ray units. After the war, she and her daughter established the Radium Institute, a center for the study of nuclear physics and chemistry, which made many spectacular breakthroughs in the study of radioactivity and its use to save lives.
Like Mother, like Daughter
When she was 58 (1925), Marie hired a junior laboratory assistant named Frédéric Joliot who was graduated first in his engineering class at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. He was two and a half years younger than her daughter, Irene, a senior laboratory researcher who had just received her doctorate for discoveries on the alpha rays of polonium. A little over a year later, the couple married. In 1930 he received his doctorate for his studies on polonium. In 1934, at ages 37 and 39, the couple were the first to discover that by bombarding stable elements with nuclear projectiles, they created artificial radioactivity: converting a normal element to a radioactive one. Irene Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot’s discovery won them the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
The Beginning of the End
In 1932, Marie Curie developed horrible ulcers on her fingers. She became extremely tired and was too weak to work. Doctors found low levels of white and red blood cells. She developed constant headaches, chills and infections. She knew that she was dying, but was able to see Irene and her husband publish their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
In 1934, one of the most brilliant and productive women of all time died of aplastic anemia, caused by a shut-down of her bone marrow from leukemia, which was a result of her years of exposure to radioactivity. Her cancerous white blood cells invaded and destroyed her bone marrow. The loss of her own bone marrow prevented her from making new red blood cells. She became so anemic that her blood could no longer carry enough oxygen to supply her body, and she smothered to death.
The dangers of cumulative exposure to x-rays were not fully understood for many years after her death. Fluoroscope machines were still in common use in shoe stores as late as the 1970s, where customers could check the fit of multiple pairs of shoes and children could inspect the bones of their feet for amusement.
The Atom Bomb
In 1938 a group under the direction of Irene Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot performed research on uranium. German scientists used their research results to discover nuclear fission, the source of energy for the atomic bomb. When Germany invaded France in 1940, most members of the Joliot research team escaped to England to be part of the British Atomic Energy Program, and eventually America’s Manhattan Project.
Irene and Frédéric remained in occupied France. The Germans thought that he was working on abstract theoretical atomic physics, but he was actually risking his life by making explosives for the Resistance. After the war, Frédéric Joliot was named a commander of the Legion of Honor with a military title and awarded the Croix de Guerre and later became head of the French Atomic Energy Commission. Irene became a commissioner and also the director of the Radium Institute.
At the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, Frederic and Irene lost their positions because, during the Nazi occupation of France, Frederic had joined the communist party and was an anti-war activist. His firing was an insult to one of France’s real heroes of World War II, at a time when many Frenchmen betrayed their native country and were not punished.
Irene continued to do atomic research until a few months before her death. She died of leukemia, the same disease that killed her mother. It was caused by a lifetime of exposure to x-rays and other radioactive elements, including a 1946 lab accident in which a capsule of polonium exploded in her hands, causing burns over much of her body. Frederic survived his wife by only two years, and died from liver failure, also probably caused by exposure to radiation. Both were given state funerals.
A Family of Nobelists
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She and her immediate family received a staggering total of seven Nobel Prizes.
• Maria Sklodowska-Curie (1867-1934) and her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906) shared two Nobel Prizes.
• Irene Joliot-Curie, her daughter (1897-1956) shared a Nobel Prize with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900-1958).
• Eve Denise Joliot-Curie Labouisse, her daughter (1904-2007), married Henry Labouisse (1904-1987), the Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
Madame Marie Curie
November 7, 1867 – July 4, 1934