It’s often stated that Marie Curie was curious, from a young age – she seemingly always enjoyed science and research. Years down the road, this would lead to her discovering radium and polonium. It would, unfortunately, also likely contribute to her death.
Marie Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland to parents who were both educators. Her mother was a headmistress for a school, while her father taught Math and Physics. Marie would go on, in 1903, to be a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie, and her husband Pierre Curie, were awarded the honor for their study on spontaneous radiation.
Pierre would die in 1906, in a freak accident, when he stepped off a curb and into the path of an oncoming horse carriage. Marie’s work did not end there, and neither did her awards. She would go on to win a second Nobel Prize in 1911 – this time in Chemistry – for her work in isolating and utilizing radium and polonium, which the couple had discovered in their previous work. The isolation of these elements led to great transformations and strides in radiation treatment for cancer.
Marie’s first Nobel Prize was a significant part of woman’s history, as she was the first ever female recipient. When she won a second time, she was the first person to win twice. She is still the only woman to win two awards, after Linus Pauling was awarded his second for Peace in 1963.
Their two daughters were young when Pierre met his demise, and they were integrated into and likely influenced by both of their parents work. With the help of one of her daughters, Irene (who would, herself go on to win a Nobel Prize), Madame Curie transformed healthcare to soldiers during the first World War. Their younger daughter, Eve, would be most well known for writing the biography on Madame Curie.
When Marie, having immigrated to France, heard of the war heading to Paris her first instinct was to lock away and hide her life’s work – after which she decided to head to war herself. Instead of working on creating weapons, she focused on how she could save and improve the quality of lives. While x-rays had been discovered, by one of her fellow Nobel Prize winning peers, they were all stationed at large hospitals, which didn’t help soldiers on the battlefield or the surgeons trying to treat these patients.
Curie was determined to figure out how to bring the x-rays to the battlefield, and unknowingly became a war hero. She invented a plan to outfit vehicles with mobile x-ray units. When the next issue was how to power these radiography units, she solved that problem by installing an electric generator into the design, which allowed the petroleum-powered car engine to provide the needed electricity. When she became frustrated waiting for funding from the French Army, she turned to the philanthropic group the Union of Women of France, who gave her the funds to create the first of what would be called “little Curies”. After the prototype played a key role in treating those wounded during the Battle of Marne, Madame Curie realized they needed more. She used her scientific fame to ask the wealthy upper crust women of Paris to donate. Soon she had 20 vehicles, and only needed people to operate them. Twenty women volunteered for the first instruction course on how to operate the vehicles and the machinery inside of them. Irene and Marie trained them and they left for war.
A total of 150 women would be trained on x-rays, the physics of electricity, anatomy, and photographic processing. When their training was complete, Marie herself took a vehicle and headed to the frontlines. This required her to learn how to drive, care for the vehicles, change tires, and other basic mechanics like how to clean carburetors.
It’s estimated that, between these mobile units, and the 200 radiological rooms she helped set up at various fixed field hospitals behind battle lines, over one million wounded soldiers received x-rays that Madame Curie made a possibility.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Marie’s love of her (adopted) country and humanity did not end with her mobile x-ray vehicles, or even her two Noble Prize accomplishments. Marie spent her winnings from her second Noble Prize to buy war bonds and even reportedly tried to melt down her Nobel medals to get cash to buy more.
The Curies were both aware the effects of too much radiation could be unhealthy. Pierre is said to have been plagued by a cough and sickness. Marie suffered radiation burns, as did many of the woman who helped bring her “little Curies” to battle. While many speculated Madame Curie’s death was caused by her work with radium, she was certain it was the lack of time to make x-rays safe before their utilization for the war. Based on her time spent with the mobile units at war, Marie would go on to write a book about x-ray safety after her concern for herself and the women she trained plagued her.
Possibly proving her theory correct, Curie’s remains were tested in 1995 and showed no signs of radium, although they are still said to be radioactive. Madame’s Curie research and laboratory notebooks and remains are still carefully cared for, and it is estimated they will remain radioactive for another 15,000 years.
Marie would die in 1934 from aplastic anemia, which can be caused by high radiation exposure, but her contributions to science remain today.