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Marie Curie

Marie Curie

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Marie Curie was initially barred from going to university because __________.

Marie Curie

It’s 1995, and the remains of a famous scientist named Marie Curie are about to be moved to a more fitting resting place. At first, her coffin appears to be made of wood. But when workers open it, they find it is lined with lead. Perhaps it’s because this coffin contains something besides a body – something invisible, and potentially deadly. Back in 1867, in Warsaw, in Russian-occupied Poland, a girl named Maria Skłodowska is born.

As a child, Maria is a brilliant student but because she is a woman, she is barred from going to university. Instead, she enrols in a secret institution called the Floating University, where Polish youth, including women, can continue their studies. Maria also works as a governess and tutor. She saves up and eventually manages to travel to France to study at the highly renowned University of Paris, known as the Sorbonne. Here she earns degrees in both mathematics and physics.

During her studies, Maria shares a lab with a physicist named Pierre Curie. They fall in love. The next year, Maria, now called ‘Marie’, and Pierre marry, and Marie takes on the last name Curie. The pair become a formidable scientific team. Marie takes interest in the work of a scientist named Henri Becquerel.

He has discovered that uranium salts emit mysterious rays. Marie and Pierre begin to test a mineral rich in uranium, called pitchblende, to see if there are other elements in it that give off these rays. They succeed! They find two new elements. One they name ‘polonium’, after Marie’s native Poland, and the other ‘radium’, the Latin word for ‘ray’.

These new elements give off far more powerful rays than uranium. Marie coins a new term for this property: ‘radioactive’. What’s more, she finds that the rays the polonium and radium give off are actually particles from tiny atoms that are disintegrating inside the elements. This discovery is revolutionary: it challenges the long-held belief that atoms are solid and unchanging. Around this time, Pierre and Henri Becquerel are nominated for the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics.

Marie is overlooked. Pierre takes a stand, insisting Marie is added. In 1903, both of the Curies, along with Becquerel, win the prize. Marie is the first female Nobel Laureate. The Curies continue their important work but in 1906, Pierre is killed in an accident.

Marie, devastated, throws herself into her research. In 1911, she wins another Nobel Prize. This time it is in chemistry, partly for her earlier discovery of polonium and radium. She is the first person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Marie begins to experiment with ways to use radium in medicine.

She develops a new way to treat cancer by using radium in radiation therapy. Her work with radium also contributes to the use of X-rays in medicine. In World War I, she develops mobile X-ray units that can diagnose injuries on the battlefield. These great gains for humanity may have come at a high personal cost. In 1934, Marie dies of a bone marrow disease.

Many think it was caused by her exposure to radiation which her lead-lined coffin was likely designed to contain.

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