The VV remembers, a long long time ago, seeing a very old black and white film entitled Madame Curie. It starred Greer Garson as an impoverished and lonely Polish student who, in 1891, began studying at the Paris Sorbonne where she met the physicist Pierre Curie. That Hollywood film (see the trailer here) told the wonderful story of their scientific and personal devotion and went on to be nominated for several Oscars. But, in reality, the Curies won far more significant plaudits of their own.
When her intial studies were done, after Krakow University in Warsaw refused to let Marie return to work there, simply because she was a woman, the talented young scientist returned to Paris, there to work in the labs of Pierre Curie. In between falling in love and marrying in 1895, the couple made great advances on the work of other scientists such as Roentgen and Becquerel. They discovered the element Polonium (named after Marie's homeland) and then that of Radium, named because of its intense properties of radiation. Pure Radium was extracted from pitchblend but only after great perseverance, with one ton of pitchblend rendering up only one tenth of a gram of radium chloride from which salt the element could be crystallised.
In recognition of their endeavour in 1903 the Curies, along with Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize for physics after which, much like Roentger before, they refused to patent their discovery, hoping that further research might go on to advantage the whole of mankind - and even the money awarded with the prize was handed out to students and friends in financial need.
Marie and Pierre with their daughter, Irene
In 1906, when Pierre's life was cut short in a tragic road accident, Marie took up his post at the Sorbonne (the first woman to hold a teaching role there) and resumed their scientific experiments for which, in 1911, she went on to win a second Nobel Prize, this time presented for Chemistry. Despite this, many male scientists continued to oppose her role, but the French government provided the funding for her own private Radium Institute where she worked with her daughter and son in law (Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot-Curie) who also went on to win a joint Nobel Prize.
The Curies' work was dangerous, though it was not realised at the time. Personally, Marie liked to carry glass test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pockets, gazing at the glowing green light they gave off when held up in darkness. But, such exposure took its toll and in 1934 Marie died from aplastic anemia - a radiation induced leukemia. Even now her scientific papers dating back to the 1890’s are so radioactive they cannot be safely handled and are kept in lead-lined boxes.
Marie in one of her mobile x-ray units
During World War 1, Marie Curie worked tirelessly with the Red Cross, helping those soldiers who might have been wounded by driving her mobile radiography units which were known as ‘Petites (Little) Curies’. And under Marie's direction the earliest surgical radiotherapy treatments were used in attacking cancerous cells which over the years since Marie’s death must surely have gone on to save millions of lives, more than justifying the fact that in 2009 Marie Curie was named by New Scientist Magazine as ‘Most inspirational woman in science'.