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Manuel Varela: Marie Curie – The Most Famous Female Scientist or Inventor Ever?

Jul 13, 2017 by

An Interview with Manuel Varela: Marie Curie- The Most Famous Female Scientist or Inventor Ever?

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Varela, I suppose if we had 100 scientists in some lecture hall, and asked them to vote on the most famous scientists ever, we would get a vast array of different opinions. But, in terms of one of the most important, pervasively important scientists, whose work has been used literally by millions of physicians, I would have to vote for Marie Curie.  What do we know about where she was born and when?

I concur with your assessment of Dr. Marie Sklodowska Curie; not only was she one of the greatest scientists of all time, she is remarkable for her many firsts. She was the first female ever to have earned a doctorate in physics at the Paris-Sorbonne University or anywhere, first scientist to introduce the term radioactivity, first scientist to discover the elements radium and polonium, first female professor at the Sorbonne, first woman to have garnered a Nobel Prize, first person in history to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, each in different areas, one in physics and the other in chemistry, the first woman to become a member of the French Academy of Medicine, and the first (and only) woman thus far to be interred at the famous Pantheon in Paris.

Prof. Marie Curie was born as Marya (nicknamed Manya or Mania) Salomee Sklodowska on the 7th of November in the year 1867, in what is present day Warsaw, Poland, but what was then ruled by Russia.

2) Now her parents, as I understand were both skilled and accomplished in their own right. What kind of environment did she grow up in?

Curie’s parents, married in 1860, were teachers; her father, Wladyslaw (or Vladislav) Sklodowska, was educated in the areas of mathematics and physics and taught in a Russian gymnasium (secondary) school.  Later, after falling into disfavor with his school administrators and consequently receiving several demotions in rank, he started a private boarding school in the Sklodowska household.  Curie’s mother, Bronislava (or Bronislawa) Boguski (or Boguska), was the director of an esteemed school for girls called Freta Street School. Curie’s mother was known to be intelligent and musically inclined. Together, the Sklodowskas had five children, with Marie being the youngest. The Sklodowska household enjoyed intellectual and musical pursuits. The Sklodowska children were taught several languages, and classic books were read out-loud as a family. A particular favorite of Marie’s was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Even the children’s games were education-based. All children flourished in school, with Marie recognized early on as being brilliant.

Unfortunately, Marie’s eldest sister, Zofia (b. 1862) died in 1876 from the dread typhus, caused by a bacterium known as Rickettsia. Furthermore, in 1871 Marie’s mother contracted the Great Consumption (tuberculosis), caused by another bacterium known as Mycobacterium, and upon the advice of physicians, Bronislava left home for a rest cure, which meant being away from daughter Marie for extended periods of time.

In 1878 Marie’s mother died from the TB after suffering from the terribly consuming disease for over 6 years. Young Marie was only ten years old at the time. The child Marie, being close to her mother, had been devastated by her mother’s death and was sent to live with several of her uncles and became a governess while she was a teenager.

3) Her early educational years- what did she study and where?

The early education of Marie Curie is an epic story of overcoming adversity and in a most triumphant manner. Marie Sklodowska initially attended gymnasium at Freta Street School and then a school directed by Jadwiga Sikorska, who was Polish. In this climate the schoolchildren were taught a Polish education incognito and were taught what the ‘proper’ responses were to Russian inspectors. Marie was then enrolled in school at Russian Gymnasium No. 3. Apparently, the school was run oppressively in that Polish teachings were banned, and only Russian teachings were allowed. In 1883, at the age of 15, Marie graduated from the school with highest honors. Next, Marie entered a clandestine school, with thousands of students scattered throughout Poland, in which lectures and teachings were conducted in varying locations in an effort to avoid detection by Russian authorities and, thus, constituting a secret “floating” or “flying” school.  The school was referred to as the “Floating University.” Marie also worked as a governess during these years, earning money to pay for transport abroad to obtain a higher education, as females were not allowed to attend university in Poland at the time.

In 1891, Marie Sklodowska moved to Paris, France, to attend the Sorbonne University, where she lived frugally and endured severely cold living accommodations during the winters. It has been reported that she fainted once or twice from hunger. It is at the Sorbonne where she first changed her name from Manya to its equivalent Marie on her registration forms. She majored in Physics, and one of her professors was the eminent Henri Poincaré, famous for his work in probabilities, differential equations and topology.

At the Sorbonne, Marie was one of about only 20 females out of over 2000 students total in her college of science, and she was only one of two female students majoring in a scientific discipline. As a student, Marie was extremely hard-working and diligent, even though lectures and mid-term exams were on a volunteer basis, and attendance required a 2-hour daily commute by bus. At the time, final student rankings were made public, and Marie was at the very top of her class after her first year at the Sorbonne. In 1893, Marie took her degree in Physics—the first female to do so in the school’s history, ranking at the very top—first also in her graduating class. In 1894, Marie graduated with her degree in Mathematics near the top of the class, where she ranked 2nd, disappointed that she had not been ranked 1st. It has been reported that these degrees were the equivalent of master’s degrees in their fields.

Many years later, in early 1898 Marie Curie began her doctoral research at the University of Paris in the laboratory of Prof. Gabriel Lippmann. Curie studied the newly discovered “Becquerel or uranium” rays.  She first had to find adequate laboratory facilities, and then she had to make painstaking measurements of the low-level electric fields. It was arduous work. She concluded that the rays emitted from the uranium samples were originating from the uranium atoms. She repeated her studies on thorium-containing material.

It is here that she came up with the new term she called radioactivity, to denote the energy emitted from radioactive materials. In June of 1903, she received her doctorate in physics, with honors—the first female ever to receive a doctorate in the country of France. Two of the three professors on her graduate committee were themselves later to receive the Nobel, and one of these evaluators is recorded to have stated that Curie’s thesis project represented one of the greatest scientific contributions ever made.

4) It is almost as if her entire life led up to the discovery of X-rays, and the capacity to see inside the human body and skeleton.  How did it start and how did it come about?

The X-rays themselves had been discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1896, earning the Nobel Prize for the work in 1901.  This led to Dr. Curie’s interest in X-rays and made her consider working on them for her Ph.D. thesis project. However, she chose instead to study the Becquerel rays, which in turn led her to discover the radium, an extremely important finding in and of itself.

Another important connection between the X-rays and Curie involved her work during the Great War to develop mobile X-ray units for direct battlefield examinations of wounds for bullets and shrapnel. Curie herself designed and built the mobile units—she put together the various components, such as the actual vehicles, an electric generator, batteries, an X-ray tube, a collapsible gurney for patients, plates, a screen, light shielding curtains, and radium gas ampules.  These battlefield-ready mobile X-ray units, called “Les Petites Curie” were built, and Curie and her eldest daughter, Iréne, then a teenager, actually drove the units, deployed them, and used them extensively throughout the duration of the war. The Curie mother and daughter duo also trained others to perform the same activities with the X-ray mobile units. Overall, the invention was a significant advancement in military medicine and saved countless lives, and limbs from amputation, during World War I.

7) When exactly was her accomplishment announced and when did it start to revolutionize medicine?

There are two primary Nobel Prize-worthy accomplishments made by Dr. Marie Curie. The first was the discovery of the radiation phenomenon, earning, in 1903, the Nobel Prize in Physics, which Dr. Curie shared with her husband Prof. Pierre Curie (m. July 26, 1895) and with Dr. Antoni Henri Becquerel. The second involved her discoveries of the elements polonium and radium. For these latter efforts, Curie received her second Nobel Prize, this time in the area of Chemistry, in 1911. She was the sole recipient; her husband had died tragically in 1906 after he had been run over by a horse-drawn wagon.

In terms of advancements in medicine, radiation has been used in a variety of ways. The use of radium and other radioactive isotopes have been used as so-called last resort therapies to treat cancers.  Radiation has also been used to detect important biomolecules, tracing them through cells, tissues, or through the body, for instance. Certain molecules can be labeled with radioactive atoms in them and then used to learn new properties of important physiological processes, such as transport of neurotransmitters, sugars, and of other metabolites across the cellular membrane.

Many molecular biological and biotechnological techniques have been developed based on the use of radioactivity. For example, the so-called radioimmunoassay (RIA), has been used to measure antigens and antibody interactions. The Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Rosalyn Yalow in 1977 for her development of the RIA method in order to study hormone peptides. Incidentally, Dr. Yalow had been inspired to study atomic physics after reading Eve Curie’s biography of her mother Marie Curie.

6) How much recognition was she given during her lifetime?

Dr. Marie Curie did not receive much recognition during her formative years, even when she was rightly deserving of them through her own efforts. That changed overnight with the Nobel. Later in life, she received more recognition than she apparently cared for, especially after having earned great recognition with the first Nobel Prize. The Curies were both under the watchful eye of the public and admirers. They were constantly pressed for interviews or to make speeches, etc.

Often when Curie was travelling, it was for terribly important reasons, e.g., in one incident, she was transporting all of France’s supply of radium away from potential capture from the Germans during the Great War, and she remained incognito, even though she was already famous and readily recognized. If she were asked if she was the famous Madame Curie, she would frequently reply that she was not. There were tributes in her honor, fundraisers in her name, and admission to numerous scientific societies that had been primarily for men-only. Quite rightly, she was widely celebrated, with visits to the White House, establishment of Curie Institutes in Poland and in France.

7) What other discoveries was she credited for?

In addition to discovering the polonium and radium elements and theorizing on the concept of radioactive emissions, she was also key to the isolation of radium in a pure state. Regarding radiation, she showed that there was more to the atom than an unbreakable element—smaller particles could emanate from atoms. She also was first to hypothesize that radium could be effective in selectively killing tumorigenic tissue compared to their non-tumorigenic healthy counterparts. She also discovered that the gaseous form of radium, called radon at the time, could be used as an antiseptic to treat infected wounds.

8) Her accomplishments are all that more astounding- since she was a woman, and during that time period, technology to support her was more than minimal. Can you describe her lab conditions and general time frame?

In short, the conditions of her first laboratory were atrocious. Seeking facilities in which to conduct her radium isolation project in the late 1890s, she was provided with what can best be described as a shack. It was actually an old unheated non-air conditioned aviation hangar that had been used for human anatomy dissections but was abandoned because the roof leaked, and the cadavers kept getting contaminated with dust. The pitchblende material from which the radium would be isolated from was brought in by the tons, only to produce minute quantities of radium, many orders of magnitude smaller in quantity than what was initially brought in. The crude pitchblende material had to be heated, cooled, treated with noxious chemicals and re-heated in a seemingly endless process. The resulting purified radium was extremely radioactive, and, thus, it was unknowingly toxic—this was the very first time in history that individuals were working with radioactive materials, and its dangerous effects on humans were all but unknown. It has been widely held that both Pierre and Marie suffered from radiation poisoning.

9) In your mind, and opinion, were X-rays the forerunner of CAT scans and MRI’s and should Marie Curie be given at least SOME credit for laying the foundation for these things?

I think that Marie Curie certainly deserves credit to some extent for advancements in X-ray technologies, especially that of mobile X-ray units—the so-called Les Petites Curie units.  She also deserves a tremendous amount of credit for her work in advancing radiation therapies for cancer treatment. Radiation therapy for the treatment of cancers is a staple in certain serious cases and has been for many years.

10) Her later years – what were they like?

As a famous, but widowed single-parent female scientist in her later years and increasingly suffering the ill effects of radiation poisoning, she was nonetheless hardworking and kept a vigorous schedule. She was key in fundraising efforts aimed at furthering scientific research overall. She worked to establish the Curie Institute in Paris, France and the Radium Institute, in Warsaw, Poland, now called the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Institute for Oncology. She supervised doctoral students, many of whom went onto distinguished careers themselves.  She collaborated with her daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie (b. September 12, 1897), who would later receive the Nobel in Chemistry in 1935, along with son-in-law (Iréne’s husband Frédéric Joliot) for their work on the synthesis of artificial radioactive materials. On the 4th of July, in 1934, Marie Curie died, at the age of 66.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

Apparently, Marie Curie’s laboratory notes and other papers were later found to be highly radioactive! Despite later decontamination procedures, her notebook materials are still considered somewhat hazardous to handle. There have even been contentions that Curie’s home cookbooks are radioactive. Apparently, scholars wishing to study the documents must sign certain waivers in order to do so. Curie’s personal documents are stored under heavy shielding in order to provide protection from the radioactive papers.

As I mentioned briefly above, Marie Curie had another daughter, Eve Curie, born on the 6th of December in 1904. Although Eve did not become a scientist, was exceptional in her own right.  Eve Curie and her husband Henry Labouisse, Jr., received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 for their efforts pertaining to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). Eve Curie also published a widely popular and inspiring biography of her mother.

In 1943, a popular film was released by MGM Studios titled Madame Curie, staring Greer Garson as Marie and Walter Pidgeon, as Pierre. The film received numerous Academy Award nominations.

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