Madame Marie Cruie (1867-1934)
Maria Skłodowska was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. Her father belonged to a farmer family, but studied at the Warsaw High School and took up teaching mathematics and physics there. Her mother was a good pianist. When Marie was 10 years old, she lost her mother due to tuberculosis. At that time, the Russian Czar ruled Poland. Marie’s father was forced to leave school for his revolutionary speeches and took up the cause for freedom struggle. He started a boarding house for students, but it did not do well. He could hardly manage a square meal for his family. Marie’s elder siblings Bronia and Joseph won gold medals at high school. Joseph was admitted at university to study medicine. Poland did not have any provision for higher education for girls, so her father asked Bronia to take tuitions in Warsaw, save some money and then go to Paris for further medical education.
Since childhood, Marie had a very good memory and at 17, won the gold medal on completion of her education from the school at the Russian lycee. As her father, a teacher of mathematics and physics, lost his savings through bad investment, she had to take work as teacher and at the same time, took part clandestinely in the nationalist ‘free university’ reading in Polish to women workers. To improve her failing health, her father sent her to spend some time in the rural area. On her return after a year, her father found her a healthy and beautiful girl. Seeing the family’s weak financial condition, both sisters decided to help their father. One would work and the other would continue study. Bronia left for Paris to study medicine and Marie started earning. After struggling to get some decent work, she was engaged as a governess. Gradually, she became part of that family. When the eldest son of the family studying at Warsaw University returned, he immediately took a liking for Marie. Both were attracted towards each other. But his mother did not approve of this relationship between her son and a maid. Heartbroken, Marie left the job. She even thought of committing suicide, but nature had something else in store for her. She soon got another job. Meanwhile, Bronia completed her studies and married a classmate. Sometime later, her sister asked Marie to join them in Paris.
Keeping her father’s word Marie had excelled at studies and returned home. An aging father and poor family conditions made her realize that she had to cut short her studies in Paris and stay at home. But destiny willed otherwise. In Warsaw, she met a rich lady from an aristocratic family. After hearing Marie’s story, she arranged for her scholarship. Encouraged by future prospects, Marie immersed herself in further study. With her father’s blessings she set off to Paris. Improvement in her family’s financial situation, coupled with her good results, spurred her to concentrate on her studies. Once, a Polish scientist Prof Kowalski came on a discussion. Here, she met another talented young man – his wish to see her again. After courting for a year, they got married. Marie Sklodowska became Madame Marie Curie. Pierre was a scholar and a wonderful human being. He had graduated with physics at the age of 16 and acquired a post degree at 18. Besides, he had also researched on piezo electric effect. His father was a well-Known doctor. After marriage, Marie and Pierre Curie started working together.
In 1897, Marie gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She was named Irene. Some time later, Pierre’s mother passed away. His doctor father moved in to live with the Curie family. Marie had left her daughter, Irene, under the care of a maidservant. Having a father-in-law around with a baby girl, under the care of the maidservant, they could work hard in the laboratory. Later Irene followed the footsteps of her illustrious parents and earned fame. Along with her scientist husband Juliot, she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.
The Curie couple was sure that in pitchblende besides uranium, there was some strong radioactive element present. To separate this element from uranium was a challenge. Pitchblende was a very expensive ore and was not easily available. They came to know that Austria possessed pitchblende in abundance. They requested the Austrian government to release some pitchblende after separating uranium from it, for their research. The government agreed to provide the ore free, but the transportation was to be borne by the Curies. Finally, tons of pitchblende arrived in ships and were unloaded in a wooden shed in the Curies’ laboratory. They placed the pitchblende in a huge iron pan and allowed it boil. Thus, an unused shed became their laboratory. Two years of perseverance resulted in the separation of a small quantity of a compound of bismuth which was 300 times more powerful in radioactivity than uranium. In July 1898, they announced the discovery of a new element, which was named polonium after Poland, Marie’s motherland. All this time, they were aware that their search for the most powerful radioactive elements and at the end of crystallization process they noticed some crystals of the new element radium.
In July, 1914, Madame Curie fulfilled the dream of her late husband to establish a huge laboratory in Paris in his fond memory. Meanwhile, World War I had begun, so it could not become operational. Moreover, her colleagues were engaged in war duty. Soon after the war ended, the laboratory started functioning. On July 4, 1934, this spirited lady and first woman scientist to receive the Nobel Prize breathed her last near Sallanches, France.