This Day in History – September 5th, 1910

Madame Curie

In 1910 Madame Curie succeeded in isolating radium, and on September 5th, 1910 she demonstrated to the French Academy of Sciences the transformation of radium ore to metal. With this she also defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named for her and husband Pierre: the curie. Despite her findings, in the following year the French Academy of Sciences did not elect her to be a member by one or two votes. The first woman elected to join the Academy did not occur until 1962 with Marguerite Perey, a doctoral student of Curie.

Regardless of Curie’s fame as a scientist working for France, the public’s attitude tended toward xenophobia which also fuelled false speculation that Curie was Jewish. During the French Academy of Sciences elections, she was vilified by the right wing press who criticised her for being a foreigner and an atheist. Her daughter later remarked on the public hypocrisy as the French press often portrayed Curie as an unworthy foreigner when she was nominated for a French honour, but would portray her as a French hero when she received a foreign one such as her Nobel Prizes.

Marie-CurieMarie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) was a Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

She was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska (pronounced [ˈmarja salɔˈmɛa skwɔˈdɔfska]) in Warsaw, in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire. She studied at Warsaw’s clandestine Floating University and began her practical scientific training in Warsaw. In 1891, aged 24, she followed her older sister Bronisława to study in Paris, where she earned her higher degrees and conducted her subsequent scientific work. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and with physicist Henri Becquerel. She won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

curie2Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I, she established the first military field radiological centres.

While a French citizen, Marie Skłodowska Curie (she used both surnames) never lost her sense of Polish identity. She taught her daughters the Polish language and took them on visits to Poland. She named the first chemical element that she discovered – polonium, which she first isolated in 1898 – after her native country.

Curie died in 1934 at the sanatorium of Sancellemoz (Haute-Savoie), France, due to aplastic anemiabrought on by exposure to radiation – mainly, it seems, during her World War I service in mobile X-rayunits created by her.

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