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Marie Curie: Discovery of Radium, 1909

Triumph and Tragedy

In 1903 the third Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, and Marie Curie for their work on the radiation of uranium. Illness prevented them from accepting the prize until 1905.

This date marked the beginning of the life of the Curies as celebrities; their preferred privacy was over. Then, a year later, on April 19, 1906, tragedy struck. Pierre Curie was run over by a horse-drawn cart while crossing the street and killed, leaving Marie with two daughters, Irene and the two-year-old Eve.

With typical strength and commitment, Marie gathered herself together to succeed Pierre as head of the laboratory, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Building on her own experience, Marie developed a unique educational situation for Irene. The children of the Sorbonne faculty were taught by their parents in a variety of subjects in completely non-traditional fashion. An emphasis on science and mathematics was included.

A full professorship, again the first to a woman, was awarded to Marie Curie in 1908. She went on to be the sole recipient of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium and subsequent research on their properties.

During the next two years, Marie's life became chaotic involving scandal, media persecution, and collapse from ill health. The scandal involved a relationship with a married student, Paul Longevin, which led to highly critical scrutiny from the French press. Following this stressful time, Marie spent 1912 being treated for physical ailments and depression, then recuperating in England and France.

Reviving in 1913 to return to the Radium Institute, Marie's work was next interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Newly energized, she worked with her daughter, Irene, to ease the pain of wounded soldiers by creating and organizing mobile X-ray stations and implementing medical applications of radium in destroying infection.

When peace returned, Marie Curie devoted her efforts to extending the work of the Radium Institute by seeking funding sources in Europe and, more successfully, in the United States. Even though her health was failing, she traveled extensively and was welcomed everywhere as a celebrity advancing the knowledge and popularity of science.

The Radium Institute, now renamed the Curie Institute, was operated by Irene Curie and her husband, Frederic Joliet. They in turn received the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for advances in nuclear research.

Marie Curie died at the age of 67 on July 4, 1934 of leukemia, which may have been caused by her lifetime exposure to radioactive radiation.