Madame Curie - the pioneer of radioactivity

9 September 2015

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

WW1 killed about 9 million military and 7 million civilians. Furthermore, over 22 million military were seriously injured or disabled.

This created a huge need for medical care - including "imaging". X-rays images can easily show bullets, shrapnel, broken bones or pneumonia. Within 18 months of the Great War starting, France had not only built up its X-ray tube industry - but was also supplying its allies. But the X-ray machines of the day were bulky and delicate. They were fine in hospitals - but the carnage on the battlefields demanded mobile X-ray facilities.

Enter Marie Curie, born in 1867 as Marie Sklodowska. Early on, she realized her skills lay in maths and physical sciences. In those unenlightened times, she took her education where she could - maths by mail with her father, chemistry from a chemist in a beet-sugar factory, etc. By 1891, aged 24, she had saved enough to study at University of Paris. She struggled against abject poverty and prior inadequate preparation to finish first in her Master's Degree Physics in 1893.

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays. Soon Henri Becquerel found that Uranium emitted "rays" that could fog photographic plates. In April 1898, Marie Curie (now married) discovered that Thorium also emitted these "rays" - and invented the word "radioactivity". By December, she and her husband, Pierre Curie, had discovered two more radioactive elements - Polonium and Radium. In December 1903, Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

In 1906, Pierre Curie was killed instantly in a traffic accident. She was invited to take up her husband's position, and became the first female professor at the University of Paris. In 1910, the "Curie" was defined as a unit of radioactivity.

During WWI, she established the first military radiology centres in the battlefield and set up mobile X-ray vans to go to the injured. The French soldiers called these mobile X-ray vans petites Curies (little Curies).

Marie Curie had a Nobel Prize for her work in X-rays, but no experience with medical uses. So she studied human anatomy, radiology, auto-mechanics and learnt to drive. With her 17-year-old daughter, Irene, they drove to work on the battlefields. Later, Irene and her husband won the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Marie Curie died in 1934 of Aplastic Pernicious Anemia, due to radiation exposure. Six decades later, the remains of Pierre and Marie Curie were re-interred in the Pantheon, France's national mausoleum.

© Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd 2015