Marie Curie Marie Curie: In the Service of Radiology


Marie Curie: Her Life and Service in the Field of Radiological Science Richard Swartz Indian River Community College June 11, 2007

Marie Curie Abstract This paper is a short biography on the life of Marie Curie. This paper covers Madame Curie’s life as a young girl in Poland, and then continues briefly to cover her university studies in Paris.


The remainder of the paper discusses her work involving the discovery of new elements and then further touches upon the extension of this budding field of Radiology as it relates to Medical Science and the ongoing war effort.

Marie Curie Marie Curie: Her Life and Service in the Field of Radiological Science On November 7, 1867, Wladislaw and Bronislawa Skłodowski gave birth to a little girl.


Marya Skłodowski, known to the world now as Marie Curie, was the last of five children born to a family of schoolteachers. Born in Warsaw, Manya’s family, language, and heritage were Polish. At that time, however, Poland had been carved into pieces by the occupying powers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Poland’s official non-existence and Russia’s dominance over Warsaw came to play a part in Marya’s development and education. (Dry, 2003) For example, one of the schools young Marya attended employed a dual schedule. The school, run by ardent patriot Madame Jadwiga Sikorska, listed Polish studies under more innocuous labels as Botany and German Studies. On the occasion of a visit by the Russian officials, the students quickly hid their books and Marya recited the required litanies from memory in her impeccable Russian. (Goldsmith, 2005) After the death of her mother and elder sister, Marya’s father enrolled her in the Russian Gymnasium Number Three. He saw it as the best means of providing Marya with a quality higher education, even if it was at the expense of their Polish heritage. Marya felt as if the teachers at the Russian school treated the Polish students as enemies. At first this angered Marya to the point of “scratching like a cat;” however, as time went on her rebellion became subtler. Goldsmith relates an instance when a teacher scolded Marya for her superior attitude saying, “‘I feel you look down on me,’ Marya who was taller than her teacher, answered, with anger disguised as humor, ‘The fact is that I can’t do anything else.’” (2005) After finishing school, Marya suffered greatly from depression. Her father convinced her to spend a year living with her cousins in the country. Spending time in that rural setting

Marie Curie benefited young Marya greatly. In fact, Quinn tells us of the “pleasures of that sixteenth summer” which “passed as quickly as a dream.” (1995)


At seventeen, Marya returned to city life and with her sister began studies at the “Floating University,” a loosely organized group of young Poles who sought to further their education away from the prying eyes of the Russians. Not long after this, Marya made a pact with her older sister Bronya. Bronya would go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne University, while Marya would work and send money to help with her schooling. Upon completion of her studies, Bronya would send for Marya and return the favor of assistance. During this time, Marya worked as a governess. Over time, she grew close to her employer’s eldest daughter, Bronka. At one point, they began to teach the poor, uneducated peasant children to read and write in Polish. The underground school was a risky venture, and if caught by the Russian authorities their actions could have landed them in a Siberian work camp. In addition to her close friendship with Bronka, Marya also became quite enamored with the eldest son, Casimir. They even made plans to marry, at which point Marya suddenly became beneath the family’s position. Casimir’s parents threatened to disinherit their son and insisted that he would not wed “a penniless governess who was obliged to work in other people’s houses.” Marya’s mood darkened with her humiliation, and her letters to her family and friends reflect this deepening despair. Nevertheless, she remained at her post until her contract ended because she knew of her commitment to her sister. (Goldsmith, 2005) In 1889, at the age of 22, Marya returned to her father’s house in Warsaw and took a position as a governess for the family of a local industrialist. Marya resumed her studies at the “Floating University.” Also during this time, Marya first encountered the modest laboratory run by her cousin, Josef Boguski. The experience, though limited, taught Marya “that the way of

Marie Curie progress is neither swift nor easy,” and gave her confirmation of a “taste for experimentation in the fields of physics and chemistry.” (Dry, 2003) In September of 1891, Marya finally arranged her plans with her sister. She made the move to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne University under the name Marie Skłodowska. She


found Paris to her liking and deemed it the most exciting city in the world. After years of serving in others households, Marie relished her independence and only stayed with her sister briefly before moving into her own flat in the Latin Quarter. At times, though, Marie’s absent-minded nature would get the best of her. One author says that she would become so wrapped up in her studies that she fainted from not eating. (Goldsmith, 2005) As Marie’s first round of studies drew to a close, Marie, one of only two women pursuing degrees in science, found herself unsure of her own readiness for the examination. When the results were announced in order of merit, Marie’s was first to be called. Her success inspired the women of Poland and a friend made arrangements for a scholarship allowing Marie to continue her studies for another fifteen months. In spring of 1894, Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie. In July, she took her examination in mathematics and scored second highest. Afterwards, Marie returned to Poland as planned. (Quinn, 1995) As time passed, Marie was torn between a love of her father and Poland, and a desire to pursue scientific inquiry and a life with Pierre Curie. Finally, Pierre’s persuasiveness and logic won out, and Marie returned to Paris. In July of 1895, Marie and Pierre married in a simple ceremony in a Paris suburb. By October, they had settled into a life together in a three-room Paris flat. (Dry, 2003) In Curie’s own words: It was at the close of the year 1897 that I began to study the compounds of uranium, the

Marie Curie properties of which had greatly attracted my interest. Here was a substance emitting spontaneously and continuously radiations similar to Roentgen rays, whereas ordinary Roentgen rays can be produced only in a vacuum-tube with the expenditure of energy. By what process can uranium furnish the same rays without expenditure of energy and


without undergoing apparent modification? Is uranium the only body whose compounds emit similar rays? Such were the question I was asking myself, and it was while seeking to answer them that I entered into the researches which have led to the discovery of radium. (1904) Through systematic testing in an all but abandoned field, Curie worked her way through most of the known elements searching for sources of Becquerel rays. Whereas Becquerel’s data was mostly qualitative, Curie attempted to make hers qualitative by using an electrometer developed by Pierre and his brother, Jacques. This electrometer measured the amount of current that resulted from a radioactive element’s ability to ionize the surrounding air. She found activity in thorium similar to that of uranium and became convinced that this yet to be named “radioactivity” was an atomic property. (Badash, 2003) The discovery of measurable activity in thorium prompted Curie to expand her testing to other compounds. One such compound was pitchblende, a heavy black ore from which uranium had already been extracted. The current produced by the uranium-depleted pitchblende measured four times higher than the uranium itself. The same phenomenon was recorded during tests of thorium-containing aeschynite, which measured stronger activity that of thorium alone. Slowly, Marie came to the conclusion that there must be another unknown element present. (Goldsmith, 2005) In a paper dated April 1898, Curie first used the term “radioactive” to describe the elemental property embodied by the Becquerel ray phenomenon. In the same paper, she also

Marie Curie


described how various portions of the compound displayed differing levels of radioactivity. The name “polonium” was given to the newly discovered element accompanying the bismuth. (Badash, 2003) In research that followed, pitchblende yielded not only the newly named polonium, but also radium, which accompanied the barium fraction, Actinium found in the rare earth metals of the ore, and the gaseous radon, as well as other radioelements. (Curie, 1904) Radium was a source of much satisfaction in the work of Curie. Thus, work started toward processing enough pitchblende ore to procure a workable amount of radium. It took processing an astounding 8 tons of ore to obtain just 1 gram of pure radium. Because of their labor-intensive efforts, Curie was able to announce the atomic weight of radium just four years after its discovery. During all of this time, the Curies and their team unknowingly exposed themselves to the hazards of radioactive contamination. In time, Marie not only recognized the dangers of radioactive materials in untrained hands, but also advocated training for those who worked with radioactive substances. (Coppes-Zantinga & Coppes, 1998) After 1902, Marie’s scientific work consisted primarily of refining established techniques and producing samples of radioactive materials for medical use. In 1903, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Then, in 1906, Pierre was killed suddenly, when struck by a horse-drawn wagon. In 1911, Marie was awarded another Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry. By the time World War One began, the military understood the value of x-rays for diagnosis and treatment of wounded soldiers. However, medical use of x-ray technology was “limited by the supply of instruments and trained personnel.” The specialized profession of the medical physicist took some time to evolve; however, it was a small step for Marie to acquire the needed expertise in diagnostic x-ray. Gathering the necessary supplies and funds, fighting the bureaucracy, and delivering the mobile x-ray equipment to the battlefield required a much large

Marie Curie step. Private Citizens donated automobiles; professors and engineers helped to install the x-ray equipment. The team accompanying each petit Curie consisted of a physician, a technologist, and a driver.


The French military trained several hundred technologists, but when that number became insufficient Marie and daughter Irene trained about 150 more. The training was provided in a six or eight week course given at the Curie’s Radium Institute in Paris. During the last two years of the war, it is estimated that almost one million soldiers were examined using x-rays. Diagnostic imaging, virtually non-existent before the war, had became commonplace. Indeed, by the end of the war, no surgeon would even think of attempting to remove an imbedded projectile without knowing its exact location. (Badash, 2003) Marie Curie died at dawn on July 4, 1934, her life given in service to science and humanity.

Marie Curie References Badash, L (2003). Marie Curie: In the Laboratory and on the Battlefield. Physics Today. pp. 37-43.


Coppes-Zantinga, A. R., & Coppes, M. J. (1998). The Early Years of Radiation Protection: A Tribute of Marie Curie. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 151(11), pp. 1389-91.

Curie, M. S. (1904). Radium and Radioactivity. Century Magazine. pp. 461-466.

Dry, S. (2003). Curie. Great Britain: Haus Publishing Limited.

Goldsmith, B. (2005). Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Machado, A. T., (2007). Battlefield Radiology: Imaging’s Essential Role in Warfare. RT Image. 20(11) pp. 1-3. Retreived May 15, 2007 from

Quinn, S. (1995). Marie Curie: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.