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120 years since first Nobel Prize for Maria Skłodowska-Curie

Maria Skłodowska-Curie. Photo PAP/CAF-ARCHIVE Maria Skłodowska-Curie. Photo PAP/CAF-ARCHIVE

One hundred and twenty years ago, Maria Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Piotr Curie received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the phenomenon of radioactivity and research on it. The other half of the prize went to Henri Becquerel, who was the first to observe the penetrating radiation of uranium ore. Skłodowska was the first woman to be honoured in this way.

The prize was granted on October 12, 1903, and the presentation ceremony took place on December 10.

It all started with Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of invisible electromagnetic radiation in 1895, which made it possible to x-ray objects that were opaque to visible light. The new phenomenon quickly found applications in medicine, and in 1901 Roentgen was the first to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Invisible radiation has become fashionable among researchers. In 1896, Henri Becqurel investigated the alleged connection of X-ray radiation with phosphorescence - the glow of substances after their prior exposure. To do this, he exposed a phosphorescent mineral, uranium ore, to sunlight. He then wrapped the exposed sample in photographic film and black, light-proof paper. After developing, the film turned out to be blackened, which the scientist interpreted as the result of the emission of invisible radiation due to previous exposure. He announced his results at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

While continuing his research, he had to interrupt it for a few days due to cloudy weather. It then turned out that even unexposed uranium-containing mineral blackened the film, so the invisible radiation had nothing to do with phosphorescence. Therefore, on March 2, the scientist had to announce a correction.

While investigating the properties of the uranium radiation he discovered, Becquerel showed that it blackened photographic film, ionised the air and penetrated opaque bodies. However, he came to many wrong conclusions. According to him, these rays could be reflected, refracted and polarized, just like light and other electromagnetic waves. Both Becquerel and other physicists abandoned further research on uranium radiation and focused on X-ray radiation they considered to be much more interesting. For almost two years, no one studied it - until in 1897, Maria Curie chose radioactivity (she was the person who proposed this name for the phenomenon) as the topic of her doctoral dissertation. The researcher was soon joined by her husband, Pierre Curie, and in 1899 by Henri Becquerel, who withdrew his earlier erroneous conclusions.

Instead of the photographic plate that Becquerel used, Maria used a sensitive electrometer (built by her husband and his brother, Jacques Curie). Thanks to the quantitative approach to research, it was possible to explain that the intensity of ionising radiation depended on the uranium content in the sample and was proportional to it. It turned out that another element - thorium - was also radioactive. The discovery that some uranium-containing minerals (for example, uraninite and chalcolite) radiated much more strongly than their uranium content would indicate, suggested that a small admixture of other, more radioactive elements was responsible for this. In 1898, after extremely tedious work, two new elements were isolated: polonium (Po), named after Poland, and radium (Ra). Already at that point, Pierre Curie noticed that under the influence of several hours of exposure to radium, a difficult to heal wound would form on the skin of the arm. Samples of radioactive elements emitted light and heat, changed molecular oxygen into ozone and caused a colour change in glass and porcelain. A new field of chemistry was created - radiochemistry.

The parents of the future Nobel Prize winner came from minor nobility and lived in Warsaw, in the then Kingdom of Poland under Russian rule. Władysław Skłodowski of the Dołęga coat of arms, the son of the respected Lublin teacher Józef Skłodowski, was a teacher of mathematics and physics, as well as the director of two Warsaw boys' junior high schools. Mother Bronisława Boguska, Topór coat of arms, was the superior of a Warsaw boarding school for girls from good homes. The Skłodowski family raised their children in the spirit of deep patriotism.

Born on November 7, 1867, Maria Salomea Skłodowska was the youngest of five children. The oldest, Zofia (1861-1876), died of typhus as a teenager, Józef (1863-1937) became a famous Warsaw doctor, Bronisława (1865-1939) - a doctor and social activist, and Helena (1866-1961) - a teacher. The 17th-century Łyszkiewicz's tenement house at 16 Freta Street in Warsaw, where they were born, has housed  the Nobel Prize winner's museum since 1967.

Zofia died when Maria was 9 years old, and two years later her mother died of tuberculosis (at the age of 42). Teenage Maria became depressed and lost faith in God - but not in science. She continued her education without any problems at the girls' boarding school previously run by her mother. She graduated from the 3rd Girls' Government Junior High School in 1883 with a gold medal. She gave private lessons in mathematics, physics and foreign languages (she spoke Polish, Russian, German, English and French). She met Bronisława Piasecka, a positivist and teacher, thanks to whom Maria, Bronisława and Helena Skłodowska entered the illegal Flying University, where eminent professors provided them with useful knowledge regarding, for example, chemical analysis.

However, further education was not formally possible in Polish lands - the partitioners did not permit women to study at universities. Bronisława and Maria had an agreement - first, Bronisława went to Paris, and Maria worked in the country to support her. After finishing her studies, Bronisława started earning money and in 1891 Maria Skłodowska went to Paris to study mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne, where world-famous scientists taught. In addition to studying, she performed in an amateur theatre, where she met the famous pianist and future prime minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski. On July 28, 1893, she received a bachelor's degree in physics with first place, and the next year she did a little worse: a bachelor's degree in mathematics with second place.

After graduation, she received a research scholarship for research on the magnetic properties of various types of steel. This was how she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who, together with his brother Jacques, was the discoverer of piezoelectricity and the author of 'Curie's law' and the principle of symmetry. On July 26, 1895, Maria Skłodowska and Pierre Curie entered into a civil marriage and went on their honeymoon... on bicycles.

On November 7, 1911, Maria Skłodowska-Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of polonium and radium, isolation of pure radium and research on the chemical properties of radioactive elements. It was the first time the Nobel Prize was awarded to the same person for a second time, and in a different field of knowledge. To this day, no other woman has achieved this. Only a handful of people have received the Nobel Prize more than once, only two of them in different disciplines - the other was Linus Pauling, in chemistry and a peace prize. John Bardeen had two Nobel Prizes in physics, Frederick Sanger and Karl Barry Sharpless - two each in chemistry.

The two-time Nobel Prize winner managed to convince the French government to allocate funds for the construction of the Radium Institute (now Institut Curie). It was established in 1914 to conduct basic research in chemistry, physics and medicine regarding radioactivity and radioisotopes, including cancer treatment. This work resulted in four further Nobel Prizes - including those for Maria Skłodowska-Curie's daughter, Irène, and son-in-law, Frederic Joliot-Curie.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Maria Skłodowska-Curie evacuated the Radium Institute's stockpiles of radium from Paris to Bordeaux and decided to contribute to the war effort by organizing special cars with diagnostic X-ray equipment, known as 'little Curies'. To be able to drive such cars, she was one of the first women to obtain a truck driving license in July 1916. In addition to military doctors, Irene's older daughter was also involved in the project and helped train radiology technicians. Correct diagnoses made possible thanks to X-rays saved the lives and health of many soldiers. In addition, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was a member of the Swiss General Committee for Aid to Victims of War in Poland (the president of this organization was Henryk Sienkiewicz, and the vice-president - Ignacy Paderewski).

Thanks to the American journalist Maria Meloney, in 1921 Maria and her daughters travelled to the USA. There, thanks to the collection of money from the Polish community and local millionaires, she was able to buy 1 gram of radium for the Radium Institute and equip the laboratory. She met with US President Warren Harding. The second US trip took place in 1929 - another gram of radium for the Radium Institute in Warsaw (now the Institute of Oncology) thanks to the collection. This time it was presented by President Herbert Hoover. The ceremonial opening of the Institute with the participation of the Nobel Prize winner and her sister Bronisława took place in May 1932.

Long-term work with radioactive materials took a toll on Maria's health. She was losing her sight and hearing. She died on July 4, 1934 in Passy, France at the age of 67 due to bone marrow aplasia. She was the first woman buried in the French Pantheon (the bodies of Maria and her husband Peter were moved there on April 20, 1995 from the cemetery in Sceaux). Her remains, sealed in a lead-protected coffin, are still radioactive, as are her research notes stored in lead containers in the National Library of Paris.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie's private life was also interesting. While still in Poland, when she worked as a governess for the Żorawski family (while also teaching rural children to read, write and arithmetic), she became engaged to Kazimierz Żorawski, a mathematics student. However, due to the parents' disagreement, the marriage did not take place. It was only in France that she met a suitable candidate for a husband - Pierre Curie.

She gave birth to her first daughter, Irene, on September 12, 1897 (Irene Curie was the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry). The second daughter, born in August 1903, died shortly after birth. On December 6, 1904, the third daughter, Eve, was born, a future pianist, peace activist, journalist and author of the biography Madame Curie (published in Poland as 'Maria Curie').

On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie, then 47, died after being hit by a horse-drawn cart. Although in mourning, Maria took over her husband's chair of physics in May 1906, becoming the first woman professor in the history of the Sorbonne in Paris.

She worked intensively. She obtained radium in the metallic state, improved methods for isolating new substances, and provided the definition of the international radium standard. She attended the famous Solvay Conference in Brussels in 1911, where she became friends with Albert Einstein. 'Considering that Einstein is still very young, it is reasonable to put great hopes in him and see him as one of the leading theoreticians of the future,’ Maria wrote, recommending him for the position of professor at the ETH Zurich.

She had very strong views on the education of children: 'It is barbaric to condemn these very young beings to spend many hours in poorly equipped classrooms'; 'it is a crime to deprive them of air and exercise right now, at the age when they need it most'; 'sometimes it seems to me that the work of children in today's schools is so excessive that it is better to drown the children than to teach in these schools.’ 

Therefore, together with her friends, she founded the 'Cooperative', where 10 children (including Irene) had daily home lessons with outstanding specialists. Students also often visited museums and theatres. After two years, however, the 'Cooperative' had to be dissolved - preparation for state exams required knowledge of textbooks. However, several of the class participants successfully pursued science, especially Irene.

Being a Nobel Prize winner, a three-time winner of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, having honorary doctorates from many universities - including Edinburgh, Geneva, Manchester, being a member of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Bologna, Prague and the Academy of Sciences in Kraków, in 1911 Maria Skłodowska Curie submitted her candidacy for the French Academy of Sciences. However, she was rejected - as a woman and a foreigner. It was only in 1962 that Marguerite Perey, Maria's doctoral student, was admitted to the Academy.

Shortly afterwards, the Nobel laureate's year-long affair with physicist Paul Langevin, who had left his wife and children for her, was revealed. Tabloids attacked her for immorality, impiety and considered her a Jew (her middle name Salomea was associated with Jewish origins in France). As she wrote: 'We expose ourselves to many disappointments if we make all our life interests dependent on turbulent feelings, such as love...'.

What could she say today? Probably the same as before. 'Science is at the base of all the progress that lightens the burden of life and lessens its suffering'. 'Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

'You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for his own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.’ (PAP)

Paweł Wernicki

pmw/ zan/ kap/

tr. RL

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