Famous Journals: Marie Curie

Famous Journals: Marie Curie

Marie Curie was known as the “Mother of Modern Physics.” She was a remarkable woman whose discoveries broke new ground in science; physics and chemistry, and also opened the door for advances in engineering, biology, and medicine. She broke new ground for women in science: she was the first woman to receive a doctor of science degree in France, the first woman to win Nobel Prize, the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and the first Nobel Laureate whose child also won a Nobel Prize.

She kept many different journals, in which she detailed the research she did on the theory of radioactivity. Her journals, along with several of her other personal items, are recognised as national treasures. The nature of her work caused her body and personal belongings to become radioactive. She was known to keep fragments of radioactive material in her pocket. Her research and activity around these elements caused Marie Curie to develop a type of anaemia, brought about by exposure to the radioactive elements, which eventually led to her death. To prevent contamination to anyone else, she was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Her journals, although available for perusal, can only be viewed by someone wearing protective gear who has signed a liability waiver. The journals can be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, kept in lead-lined boxes, this is because they are still emitting radiation, and will be for over  another 1,000 years to come.

In her journals, Marie had written entries that would admiringly describe the glowing properties of uranium, comparing them to ‘fairy lights’. She wrote about her research and observations about her results while working with this element. “The uranium shows no appreciable change of state, no visible chemical transformation, it remains, in appearance at least, the same as ever, the source of the energy it discharges remains undetectable,” she wrote in 1900. Marie Curie documented her findings, in which she coined the term "radioactivity." Curie made two revolutionary observations in this paper, Goldsmith notes. Curie stated that measuring radioactivity would allow for the discovery of new elements. And, that radioactivity was a property of the atom.

Marie Curie took over her husband's position, at the faculty of sciences at the Sorbonne, after he unexpectedly passed away in 1906. She wrote a diary addressed to him about continuing their research. “I am working in the laboratory all day long, it is all I can do: I am better off there than anywhere else,” she wrote. Her research into radioactivity intensified which resulted in her having to move and upgrade her lab to one built for her and her research into radioactivity.

Her scientists knew how to organise fleets of radiology cars to carry portable X-ray equipment to wounded soldiers on the front line during World War I. Today, thousands of scientists working in fields as diverse as cancer treatment, archaeology and astrophysics continue to build on her work on radiation. Both Marie Curie’s, and her husband’s, research was a stepping stone for many of the uses of radiation today. 

Polonium has been used as a heater in space probes and an initiator for nuclear weapons, but radium was the element that was more vastly used. It was swiftly put to use in an array of applications such as the illumination of clock faces. It was also seized on by doctors as a kind of multi-purpose therapeutic treatment against things such as: acne, varicose veins, epilepsy and so much more. While of course this was very misguided, doctors hit gold attacking cancer. Radiation could shrink tumours, while slivers of radium, applied directly in an approach known as brachytherapy, could do the same. These techniques, in refined form, are widespread and used today, along with nuclear medicine, which images tumours by dosing patients with substances labelled with radioisotopes.

‘All medicine that relies on radioactivity – on irradiating people – goes back to Marie Curie,’ as said Dr Spencer Weart, former director of the Centre for History of Physics in Maryland, US. ‘She made the discovery that millions of people have since used.’ But this is not the only reason why some medical institutions bear Skłodowska-Curie’s name. Some refer to her actions during World War I, which added a tinge of Florence Nightingale to her reputation. She really was quite a remarkable woman!

Back to blog