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The Tragic Death of Madame Curie

Julius Mendes Price [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons
Julius Mendes Price [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons
If you studied science and in particular, radiology, then you know the story of Marie Curie (1867–1934) and her husband, Pierre (1859–1906). Madame Curie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win two Nobel prizes in separate categories: physics (1903) and chemistry (1911). At this moment, she is the only woman buried in the Pantheon based on her own merits (several other women have recently been voted in but their remains have not been transferred).

Family Affair

The Curie family was quite well known for their work in radiology and radium. Their daughter, Irene (1897–1956), would go on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The other children were esteemed scientists in their own ways.

Pierre was an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry and would go on to hold the physics chair at the University of Paris created specifically for him. Despite this position, the Curies had to use a make shift laboratory located in a converted shed.

Jointly, the Curies are responsible for discovering two elements: polonium (named for her homeland of Poland) and radium. In time, they would create the word radioactivity. One of their 32 scientific papers dealt with radium and how when exposed to it, diseased and tumor-forming cells would die off quicker than healthy cells.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre was crossing the Rue Dauphine (at the intersection of Quai des Grands Augustins and the Pont Neuf) after lunch on a rainy afternoon when he was hit by a horse and slipped under the carriage. His skull was fractured and he died immediately.

Madame Curie was offered her husband’s position with the Sorbonne and became the first woman professor in the history of the University of Paris. She then went on to even greater achievements that resulted in many awards and recognitions. The Curies never acknowledged (or knew) the health dangers associated with prolonged exposure to radium. For years, she would carry around test tubes containing radioactive isotopes. Madame Curie would ultimately die of radiation exposure.

Radioactive…not just a song.

Today, all of the Curie’s papers, are considered too dangerous to touch. Everything, including her personal cookbook, are locked up in lead-lined boxes. Anyone wanting to review the papers must put on radioactive protective clothing.

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Copyright © 2014 Stew Ross




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