Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie

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  • Madame Marie Sklodowska CurieAuthor(s): E. P. S.Source: The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1934), pp. 284-286Published by: American Association for the Advancement of ScienceStable URL: .Accessed: 02/05/2014 04:56

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    HIDDEN now by a row of beech trees Madame Marie Curie's grave lies in a little village cemetery at Sceaux, France. She died on July 4, 1934, after a brief ill- ness. Too busy to be famous, too much in love with her work to consider fame more than a by-product of labor and zeal, she believed with her husband "No matter what it does to one, even if it makes of one a body without a soul, one must go on with one's work." Yet she found time for her two daughters, Irene and Eve, and for her friends, just as in the early days of her marriage she had found time to do her own housework, teach classes and make her discoveries.

    Born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867, Marie Sklodowska received her first scientific training and part of her heritage of patience and curiosity from her father, who was a Polish educator. From Warsaw she went first to Cracow, then to Paris to study, taking a degree in science at the university there, and began the long series of experiments which continued for nearly forty years.

    When she was twenty-eight she mar- ried Pierre Curie, a physicist working on magnetism and crystallography. They had no money but they had pleas- ant whims, for Mme. Curie is said to have bought a tandem bicycle with her wedding money.

    Their common dower was that infi- nite capacity for taking pains which has been defined as genius. They had also an endowment of zeal or patience or curi- osity to forge ahead, even though the laboratory roof leaked rain or snow. They worked in an abandoned shed. "It was only a wooden shack," Mme. Curie said, "with a skylight roof which didn't always keep the rain out." They must have worked late and arduously, for both had much teaching to do in order to make a living. They worked in their overcoats in the winter, to make the money which might have gone for

    warmth to feed that other fire, "for we had to pay for our scientific research out of our own pockets"-thin pockets for the fabulous pickings they were to yield the world.

    The year after the young Curies joined forces, Henri Becquerel, a friend of both, discovered the radioactive prop- erties of uranium, an indirect conse- quence of the discovery of x-rays made a few months before by Rontgen. Thus the beginning of the study of radioac- tivity dates from 1896. Separation of the uranium left a residue three to five times as radioactive weight for weight as the uranium. She first separated from the residue a substance far more active than uranium which was named polonium in honor of Mme. Curie's na- tive land. Working together the Curies then separated a second radioactive sub- stance which they named radium. It is a fiercely active substance, for in the pure state radium bromide has an ac- tivity about two million times as great as an equal weight of uranium. Mme. Curie found the atomic weight of radium to be 226 and later prepared an international radium standard of about twenty-two milligrams of pure radium chloride preserved in the Bureau Inter- national des Poids et Mesures at Sevres, near Paris. Secondary standards, checked carefully with this primary one, are kept in other places, there being one at the U. S. Bureau of Standards, Wash- ington.

    Before Professor Pierre Curie's death in 1906 when he was run over and killed by a dray in Paris streets, the couple were inseparable in the laboratory and at home, and working together did much to elucidate the properties of radium and its transformation products. They were awarded the Davy medal of the Royal Society in 1903, and the Nobel prize for physics was divided the same year between them and Henri Bec-

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    querel. Professor Curie was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1905, just one year before his death.

    Mme. Curie succeeded him as profes- sor at the University of Paris, the only woman to hold the post of university professor in France. She was also the only person to receive a second Nobel prize (1911) for isolating radium as a pure metal and for determining its atomic weight.

    Theoretically, the importance to science of the discovery and isolation of radium is great because radium has played an extensive part in the growth of knowledge of the internal structure of atoms in general. The discovery of polonium and radium led to the modern analyses of radioactivity in terms of the spontaneous transformation of the radio- active bodies.

    The first gift of radium to Mme. Curie from the women of America was made in May, 1921, when she visited this country. The gift was prepared by the women of America when Mme. Curie said she would rather have one gram of radium for her own use than anything in the world. Madame accepted it with the shy graciousness which character- ized her dealings with fame, ending her little speech to the President after his presentation of the radium, "I thank your countrywomen in the name of hu- manity which we all wish so much to make happier," and then impulsively, "I love you all, my American friends, very much."

    She had papers drawn making the gram of radium the property of the Curie Institute at the University of Paris, and willed it to the University "'on the -condition that my daughter, Irene Curie (now Mme. Joliot Curie, the wife of M. Frederic Joliot, a dis- tinguished man of science, who subse- quent to his marriage consented to take

    the family name of his wife) shall have during her life entire liberty to use this gram of radium."

    On the occasion of her first visit to this country, Mime. Curie received hon- orary degrees from Yale University, Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania. When she returned in 1929, the honorary degree of Doctor of Science was conferred on her by St. Lawrence University. On this occasion Mme. Curie dedicated the Hepburn Hall of Chemistry at the university, before which a statue of her had been erected.

    After the gram of radium had been presented, a gift of a yearly income of $3500 was also given, since Mme. Curie had been forced all her life to live fru- gally. But she did not seem to know how to spend money on herself and she used the money to rent a gram of radium for the use of the Warsaw Hospital. On Oc- tober 30, 1929, she was presented with a second gram of radium in this country in order to release the income given earlier for her own use. President Hoover in making the presentation paid tribute to the fundamental importance of scientific research. Mme. Curie in accepting the gift said, "My work is very much my life, and I have been made happy by your generous support of it. . . . I feel deeply the importance of what has been said by the President of the United States about the value of pure science; this has been the creed of my life. Scientific research has its great beauty and its reward in itself; and so I have found happiness in my work."

    To some extent the life of Mme. Curie was shortened by the nature of her work. For years her hands had been very tender, and press reports stated that her death was due to a form of pernicious anemia caused or hastened by exposure to the radioactive substances with which she worked.

    E. P. S.

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    Article Contentsp. 284p. 285p. 286

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Scientific Monthly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1934), pp. i-viii+193-288+ix-xviFront Matter [pp. i-viii]The Realm of the Nebulae [pp. 193-202]Some Mortuary Customs of the Western Alaska Eskimos [pp. 203-220]The Exploration of the Free Atmosphere [pp. 221-234]The Costs of Medical Care [pp. 235-239]Ethics and Relativity [pp. 240-246]To the Future Biographers of John Quincy Adams [pp. 247-251]Parasites, Friends of Mankind [pp. 252-264]Science Service Radio TalksElectron Optics [pp. 265-268]The Living Cell [pp. 269-270]Psychology and Reemployment [pp. 271-273]

    Mirror Making by the Evaporation Process [pp. 274-276]The Progress of ScienceThe Berkeley Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [pp. 277-283]Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie [pp. 284-286]The Hopi Indian Stairway at Walpi [pp. 287]The Drought and its Effects on Agricultural Crops [pp. 288]

    Back Matter [pp. ix-xvi]


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