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Hundredth Anniversary of Marie Curie’s Chemistry Nobel Award

Marie CurieAt the end of summer 2011 when Marie Curie was participating the Solvay Conference in Brussels, she received a telegram from Nobel  Committee in Sweden.  She was awarded the second Nobel  Prize, this time in chemistry. She was recognized for producing a sufficient amount of two new elements, polonium and radium, for establishment their atomic weight and other unusual and radioactive properties.

Marie was not only the first Pole and the first woman to receive a Nobel award (the first one in 1903). She was also the first person who received two Nobel awards in two different areas of science.

In spite of the world recognition this was not an easy time for Marie from many reasons.  She became a widow in April 2006 after unfortunate accident of Pierre Curie, her husband.  Pierre, 49 years old, died under a horse drawn cart. The loss of Pierre was difficult for Marie and her two daughters, small Eve was just 2 years old. Marie eventually recovered from depression which haunted her on and off since the loss of her mother when she was just twelve. The laboratory became her safe heaven. Marie continued Pierre's lectures at Sorbonne's university and eventually became the first female, who served as a professor in Sorbonne.  Marie was greatly helped by Eugene, Pierre father, who took care of Irene and Eve.

With the help of Andre Debierne, later discoverer of actinium, she was able to extract weighable amounts of not only radium but polonium in order to be able to determine their properties. It was an arduous work to extract small but measurable mass of radioactive materials - seven tons of pitchblende from Moravia had to be treated.

The Curie's laboratory was considered superior for extraction and measurements of radioactive properties.  Thanks to Marie's persuasion, during the International Congress of Radiology and Electricity in Brussels in 1910 it was agreed to put forth a standard unit of measuring radioactivity based on the radioactivity obtained from 1 g of Radium and call it "Curie".  Still, Marie was treated with prejudice as a woman. When she announced her candidacy for a Chair of Physics in Academy of Sciences, the most powerful scientific body in France, she was rejected.  When in January 1911 the members of Academy of Science gathered to vote, Marie was not even allowed to enter and present her work since she was a woman. In spite of the support of many members she lost.

When Marie returned to France after Solvay Conference in 1911 and after the announcement about second Nobel award she was greeted with public condemnation. It was revealed by venomous press that she had a love affair with Paul Langevin. Langevin was a renowned physicist, the ex-student of Pierre Curie, who was unhappily married and had several extramarital affairs, Marie was neither first nor the last on his list. Langevin's wife revealed intimate letters of Marie to the press. The French press stood viciously against Marie - a woman and a foreigner. Marie was accused of being a home wrecker, a dissolute woman and a Polish temptress. Marie became so close to the public disgrace that a member of Nobel Committee wrote to her on behalf of the Committee suggesting her not to accept a Nobel award.

Marie was not a person who was easily detracted. She attended the Nobel ceremony accompanied by her sister Bronya and her older daughter Irene, fourteen years old. Marie's acceptance speech confirmed her own credentials in the discoveries of polonium and radium. She was congratulated by king Gustaf.

Less than a month after she returned to Paris she was rushed to the hospital. She was diagnosed with kidney disease, but she probably also suffered a total nervous breakdown. Her illnesses were probably a consequence of the hard work, radiation effects and the vicious condemnation campaign after the affair.  Although Marie did not believe that she would survive a kidney surgery and she instructed Debierne what to do with her precious radium after her death, she was soon back on her feet and ready for work as usual.

The history can be sometimes bizarre.  Later, Skłodowska-Curie's granddaughter, Hélène Joliot, married Langevin's grandson, Michel Langevin.

In spite of the previous mistreatment of Marie and Pierre Curie, who was never accepted as a member to French Academy during his lifetime, a special ceremony took place in April 1995.  Pierre and Marie were enshrined in the crypt of the Panthéon in Paris. President Lech Walesa of Poland and President Mitterrand of France were presented at the ceremony.

Read about Discovery of Polonium and Radium and about Marie and Pierre First Meeting, Love and Marriage.

 


 

Baba Jaga Corner, originally published in Polish-American Journal to commemorate Marie Curie 100th Anniversary of the Second Nobel Award.

References:

Barbara Goldsmith: Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Eve Curie: Madame Curie

 

 

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