Marie Curie and her husband Pierre worked on radioactivity in what was described as ‘a cross between a stable and a potato shed’. They had no idea that radiation could be harmful to health, and carried samples of glow-in-the-dark radioactive radium around with them to show to people. Their notebooks in the Bibliotheque Nationale are contaminated to this day (the half-life of radium is 1,620 years), and anyone who wants to examine them has to sign a disclaimer of liability.
They suffered from lesions, bone degeneration and general ill-health from the outset, but attributed this to overwork in the drafty shed. Pierre died in a traffic accident (killed by a runaway horse carriage in 1906). Marie Curie died in 1934 of anaemia, caused by years of handling the ‘magic’ substance she had discovered. During the First World War both she and her daughter Irene (who was herself the second woman to win a science Nobel) were exposed to massive doses of radiation because of the work they did on mobile field X-ray units; Irene died from leukaemia, in 1956.
Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and is the only person to have won the Prize in two different sciences.
Marie Curie invented the word ‘radioactive’ in 1898 but the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) had accidentally discovered the actual process two years earlier, while working with uranium. Following in his footsteps, Marie discovered something a million times more radioactive than uranium: a new chemical element she called ‘radium’.
Becquerel, Marie and her husband Pierre shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for their discovery and the ‘invigorating’ effects of radium salts were soon being hailed as a cure for ailments from blindness to depression and rheumatism. Radium was added to mineral water, toothpaste, face-creams and chocolate and there was a craze for ‘radium cocktails’. Adding radium to paint made it luminous, a novelty effect that was used to decorate clock and watch faces.
This is the origin of the radioactive ‘green glow’. It wasn’t the radium glowing, but its reaction with the copper and zinc in the paint, creating a phenomenon called ‘radioluminescence’. The phrase ‘radium glow’ stuck in the public mind. When the true consequences of exposure to radioactivity were revealed in the early 1930s, glowing and radioactivity had become inseparably linked.
When the First World War broke out, Marie and Pierre Curie cashed in their Nobel gold medals to help the war effort.
Marie Curie didn’t patent the process for isolating radium so as not to hinder research efforts.
One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.
Marie Curie's notebooks are still so radioactive that they must be stored in lead-lined boxes.