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Pierre and Marie Curie

On This Day: Marie and Pierre Curie Discover Radium

December 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie isolated a new element that came to be called “radium,” a landmark moment in chemistry and physics.

The Discovery of Radium

Husband-and-wife team Marie and Pierre Curie laid the cornerstone of the nuclear age with their research on radioactivity—a term that Marie coined to describe the rays emitted by uranium.

Marie Curie began studying uranium in late 1897, a year after Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted rays similar to X-rays. She theorized, according to a 1904 article she wrote for Century magazine, “that the emission of rays by the compounds of uranium is a property of the metal itself—that it is an atomic property of the element uranium independent of its chemical or physical state.”

Pierre joined her in searching for the elements that caused the radioactivity in uranium ores. They “worked to separate the substances in these ores and then used the electrometer to make radiation measurements to ‘trace’ the minute amount of unknown radioactive element among the fractions that resulted,” explains the American Physical Society.

They first discovered the radioactive isotope polonium, named for Marie’s birth country, Poland. On Dec. 21, 1898, they found the presence of a second new element while observing the emissions from barium. They presented this finding to the l’Academie des Sciences on Dec. 26, proposing that the new element be called radium.

The Curies then went to work isolating polonium and radium from naturally occurring compounds to prove that they were new elements. It took three years for them to isolate radium, but they were never able to isolate polonium.

The couple shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Becquerel for discoveries that “herald a new era in the history of the physical sciences,” declared Dr. H.R. Tornebladh, president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in the Nobel presentation speech.

Biographies: Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie Sklodowska Curie
Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867, moved to Paris in 1891 and studied at the Sorbonne, where she received her doctorate in physics and met her husband Pierre Curie. After radioactivity was discovered in 1896, the married couple embarked on research that resulted in the discovery of polonium and radium.

Curie’s endeavors broke new ground for the women's movement as well as science. She fought the sexual and nationalist prejudices of France’s Academy of Sciences, the discriminatory attitudes of which meant she lost a seat on its esteemed board in 1910 despite her exemplary career.

Right-wing newspapers claimed that the Polish-born scientist “was not really French and thus undeserving of a seat in the French Academy,” according to the American Institute of Physics.

She was vindicated in 1991 when she won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her work with radium and polonium.

She grew to become an outspoken advocate for women in the sciences. In a May 14, 1921, speech to students at Vassar College, which was then an all-female institution, she said, “It is my earnest desire that some of you should carry on this scientific work and keep for your ambition the determination to make a permanent contribution to science.”

Pierre Curie
Born in Paris on May 15, 1869, into a family of scientists, Pierre Curie would become a leader in the research of magnetism and radioactivity. A lack of funds prevented him from entering the Sorbonne upon reaching adulthood, so he first worked at the storied institution as a laboratory instructor. He met his future wife, Maria Sklowdowska, while employed at the university.

Among his many discoveries he learned that a given substance’s magnetism changes at a certain temperature, now known as the “Curie point.” In 1903, the year he won the Nobel with his wife, the Royal Academy of London gave him the prestigious Davy Prize, and he was elected to France’s Academy of Sciences in 1905. He was killed in a carriage accident in 1906.

The Curies’ Laboratory

The Web site of the Institut Curie in Paris has an overview of its cancer research programs and educational outreach initiatives. The museum is on the first floor of the laboratory where the husband-and-wife team conducted their groundbreaking experiments.

Related Topic: Radium Girls

In the late 1910s, 70-odd women were employed by New Jersey-based U.S. Radium to paint the then newly discovered radium onto the faces of clocks and watches. For fun, they would daub the glow-in-the-dark substance on their nails and teeth to surprise their boyfriends when the lights went out.

Grace Fryer, one of the employees at the factory, said, “I think I pointed my brushes with my lips about six times to every watch dial. I didn’t know it was harmful.” Many of the women suffered bone necrosis and blindness.

The company eventually settled a lawsuit with the five “Radium Girls” for $10,000, rather than the $250,000 originally requested. After hearing of the affair, Marie Curie said that she had never heard of such negligent treatment of workers handling radioactive substances, “Not even in wartime when countless factories were employed in work dealing with radium.”

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