Monday, March 31, 2008

Women's Her Story Month - Marie Curie

March is women's history month and I thought I might dabble in a biography. I will start with one of the influential women in the sciences that inspired me. She also appears in my new book. However, as I researched I found more information than would fit into a one paragraph biography aimed at the 4-8 year crowd (or at least aimed at their parents to be able to answer some question). To show how differently this information can be exhibited, I will show three versions of the same story:

Marie Curie (1867-1934):

Children's version (excerpt from My Name is Not Isabella by Jennifer Fosberry, pictures by Mike Litwin):

Marie Curie was a scientist who first learned how radiation works. She was born in Warsaw, Poland. Her parents were teachers and wanted her to go to school. The Russians were in charge and did not allow the Polish people to learn science. Marie wanted to go to school in France but her family did not have much money. Marie worked as a nanny and used her money to let her older sister go to school. When her sister finished her schooling, it was Marie’s turn. She moved to Paris and went to the Sorbonne. She studied math and physics. She met her husband at school and they worked together doing research. Their work led to the discovery of two new elements. The elements were named radium and polonium. Also from their work, people began to understand radioactivity. Marie said that the radiation energy came from inside the atoms. Marie was the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize and the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne.

Tabloid Version: I am not sure how good my headline writing skills are, but every good headline deserves an exclamation point!

Young girl looses mother to tuberculosis!
Studies Science even though against the law!
Impoverished sisters promise to work to put each other through school!
Young nanny falls in love with employer's son! Love Prohibited!
Girl moves to France to follow love of learning!
No money for coal, no time for food, girl is often sickly!
Girl gets degrees, etc.
Girl marries man 10 years older!
Pair work on breakthrough science experiments in run-down shack!
Pair discover unknown glowing material!
Scientist almost not considered for Nobel prize because she is a woman! Husband intervenes!
Chemical exposure leads to frequent pain and sickness, unknown by scientist pair!
Man killed in freak street accident! Run over by horse and cart!
Leading lady scientist carries on! Offered husband's teaching position. First woman teacher at Sorbonne!
Possible torrid affair with fellow scientist. France outraged - man is married Frenchman!
Paparazzi surround home of famous scientist!
Marie wins second Nobel for discovery of elements.
Leading scientist vanishes from public eye!
Leading scientist suffering from depression, other illnesses!
Leading scientist returns to work.
During war, leading lady scientist and young daughter live in the field to help injured soldiers with new X-Ray technology!
Leading scientist offers Nobel medals to help war cause, France refuses!
Lady scientist builds laboratory in honor of dead husband!
Lady scientist visits White House, hit with Harding!
Leading lady scientist dies of untreatable blood order caused by radiation posioning!
France honors deceased lady scientist and husband by reburying bodies!

History Lesson Version: This is more factual, perhaps a little dry, meant to be informative. Of course it is not the whole story, but some highlights.

Marie Curie was a scientist who pioneered the field of radioactivity. She was born in Warsaw, Poland while it was under the control of Russia. Her birth name was Manya Sklodowski and she was the youngest of five children. Marie's parents were both teachers and stressed the importance of education. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was young. During the five year struggle, she was not physically affectionate with Marie, for fear of spreading the disease. Her death had a great impact on Marie, she turned away from the Roman Catholic faith due to these events. Her father was left as the primary influence on Marie. He had money troubles, due to a bad investment and foreigners taking the higher jobs which displaced the Poles. Still, he focused on education for his children.

The Russians did not allow scientific education of the Polish people, particularly the women. They also did not allow students to speak Polish. Overall it was a restrictive learning environment. Education in another country was the best option, but her family did not have much money.

Marie and her older sister Bronya made a pact to assist each other through university. Marie worked as a nanny to put her sister through school. She worked for a family that owned a beet-sugar factory and was afforded some additional privileges. The father allowed her to teach the peasant children. He even encouraged his eldest daughter to assist, even though this were traitorous activities under the Czar. However, she fell in love with the eldest son when he was home on a break from college. Their wish to marry was discouraged by the family. Even after this rejection, Marie stayed in the job for several years to permit her sister to finish her education. To fill her time, she studied. She even took make-shift chemistry lessons from a chemist at the beet-sugar factory.

Once her sister had completed her education, it was Marie’s turn. She moved to France and studied math and physics at the Sorbonne in Paris. She lived in the Latin Quarter, a poor section near the university populated with artists and students. There are stories of her wearing all her clothes to keep warm and forgetting to eat because she was so engrossed in her lessons.

After receiving her masters (physics and then mathematics), she began looking for lab space to do research toward a doctoral thesis. A mutual friend introduced her to her future husband, Pierre Curie. He was ten years her senior and soon their mutual respect for science led to mutual respect for each other and then to love. Theirs was a practical entanglement, Marie wore a blue suit for the marriage ceremony, which was used in the lab for several years more. Their wedding gift to each other were bicycles, used on their honeymoon and around town. While this sounds somewhat clinical, they were true life companions and passionate about each other and their works. In other words, later when Marie's first daughter Irene was born, Pierre assisted in finding a workable solution so that Marie would not have to give up her research. The solution turned out to be his father, the physician that had delivered Irene, moved in with the family and became the primary babysitter.

Pierre's contribution to physics include: discovery of the piezoelectric effect (pressure applied to certain crystals will generate electrical voltage and that these same crystals will compress when placed in an electric field), studies of the effect of temperature on magnetic properties of materials, and the Curie scale, a highly sensitive balance. When he met Marie, she urged him to write up his research and apply for a thesis. He was awarded his doctorate before their marriage.

Marie and Pierre worked side by side in a little laboratory, a damp storeroom at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. She focused on the newly discovered Uranium rays that were largely being ignored by the scientific community due to the exciting discovery of X-rays a few years earlier. Marie worked (using a device invented by Pierre) to measure the current in the air after a Uranium ray passed by. This investigation led her to the hypothesis that the radiation energy came from inside of the elemental atoms. Prior to this, the atom was considered the smallest and indivisible component of matter. This was simple and revolutionary.

From here, Marie measured the rays emitted from various materials. She determined that Thorium also emitted rays. She named this property radioactivity, a word she created. By now, Marie's work was so exciting, that Pierre joined forces with her. She determined that two ores of uranium (pitchblende and chalcolite) were much more radioactive than pure uranium. She thought this might be because a yet undiscovered element was more radioactive. Much work was needed to separate out these new elements and the lab was insufficient. They moved to an abandoned shed, previously used for medical dissections in the school. It was not weather tight or properly ventilated, but they persisted. While these conditions were not ideal, there was also a melodramatic side to Marie. The image of a struggling scientist making an insignificant mark on the world is coupled with industrial donations of materials and factory processing on some occasions. Still, this was a great propaganda tool. The work of the Pierres led to the discovery of two new elements, named radium and polonium, and a better understanding of radioactivity.

Pierre learned that he was to be considered for a Nobel prize in 1903 for the work he and Marie had accomplished. He thought this unfair and wrote that they need consider Marie as well. The Curies won this honor, however the required speech was presented by Pierre. After this honor, the Curies were hounded by the newspapers for some time. As the interest waned, a terrible tragedy occurred. In the spring of 1906, Pierre was struck by a horse and cart while crossing the road and died instantly. Marie was offered his teaching position at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to teach at France's prestigious institution.

While Marie continued her scientific research, a scandal broke. Letters between her and a close scientific colleague were discovered. These letters mostly spoke of his unhappiness with his wife and family situation and her advice to him regarding these matters. However, this was enough to implicate Marie in an affair. France was not pleased with a foreigner trying to break up a happy French family and mobs surrounded her home. She fled with her children to stay with friends, and during this time was awarded a second Nobel prize (this time in Chemistry) for the discovery of the elements Polonium and Radium. After receiving this honor, Marie's was not well. She underwent some surgery for kidney issues and spent some time recovering from this and the recent stress. It was over one year before she returned to her scientific research.

Around this time, World War I broke out in Europe. To assist her adopted country, Marie created a battalion of mobile X-ray units from donated vehicles and equipment. She learned to drive, learned anatomy and how to operate the stations so that she could run the equipment. Along with her daughter, Irene, they trained over 100 women to run similar machines, supervised over 1 million x-rays and lived out in the field in similar conditions to the soldiers.

After the war, Marie returned to her long time goal, to create a radium institute and laboratory in France in the name of Pierre. At this point, she had progressed to a fully built institute, now she was working on obtaining more materials. Even though she had been demonized in the press for the potential affair with Lavengin, she agreed to an interview with Mrs. William Brown Meloney, editor of an American women's magazine. She stated her desire to obtain more materials, and Meloney began a campaign. On an eventual press trip to the United States, Marie was rewarded with numerous honorary titles and degrees, a White House visit, contributions and a gram of radium.

For the later part of her life, Marie oversaw research at the Radium institute. Many important discoveries came from this laboratory, including work by her own daughter Irene (along with Irene's husband, Frederic Joliet) which led to another Nobel prize in the family.

Marie began to have medical problems in the 1920's due to the high levels of radiation she had been exposed to during her work. As Marie's health declined, she was eventually diagnosed with an untreatable blood disorder, most likely leukemia. She died in July of 1934.

More than 60 years after her death, France moved the remains of the Curies to the Pantheon, in honor of their contribution to science and to France.

Summary of achievements:
She was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in France. She was the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize, and the first person ever to win two of them. She was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne, and the first woman buried under the Pantheon (France’s monument to its heroes) on her own merit.

That is my take on three versions of the same story. If you are still reading this far down, let me know which one you liked best. For more information in reference to Marie's life, look here and here.


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