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Remarkable life of Marie Curie

12:00am | & News

As mentioned in yesterday's blog, Acorn Stairlifts is proud to work in partnership with leading UK-based charity Marie Curie, which provides care and support for people living with terminal illness, and their families. Today we will look at the remarkable woman who inspired the work of the charity and gives it its name.

Many people assume Curie was French, as that is where she lived and worked for most of her life, but in fact she was Polish, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867. In those days Poland was part of the Russian Empire, with education heavily regulated and censored and women discouraged from academic pursuits. Consequently Maria early studies were with Warsaw's clandestine "Flying University", an underground organisation set up to provide Polish youth with an education free from Russian government ideology.

Maria's father was also a teacher of mathematics and physics and helped inspire her love for these subjects. Her childhood was a troubled one, losing an older sister to typhus when she was about seven and her mother to tuberculosis when she was 10. Their deaths led to her abandoning her Catholic faith and becoming an agnostic.

Her older sister, Bronislawa, had gone to study in Paris, where she had married, and in 1891 Maria went to join them in the French capital. In the years preceding this she had worked and saved all she could to pay for a university education and carried on her own studies whenever possible.

In Paris Maria became known as Marie, enrolling at the city's university and living a very frugal existence, occasionally fainting from hunger. She studied during the day and tutored in the evenings to earn a little money for her rent and food. In 1893 she was awarded a degree in physics and began working an industrial laboratory while also continuing to study at the University of Paris, now with the aid of a fellowship.

She earned her second degree in 1894, the same year that she met her future husband Pierre Curie. He was a physics and chemistry instructor and their shared passion for science brought them closer together, eventually marrying in 1895. Marie had always hoped to continue her scientific work in her native Poland, but realised this would be impossible under the political regime there and instead resolved to live and work in Paris with her new husband.

Inspired by new discoveries and work on X-rays, Marie started to look into uranium rays as field of research for her doctorate. She developed innovative techniques to investigate radiation and its possible medical benefits, later joined in the work by her husband. Through their work they would eventually isolate and identify two new radioactive elements, polonium – named after Marie's native Poland – and radium.

In 1903 Marie was awarded her doctorate and the same year she and her husband were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, Marie becoming the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize. With their work now internationally recognised, Pierre was awarded a professorship at the University of Paris and for the first time the couple had access to proper laboratory facilities and assistants.

Sadly in 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, leaving Marie to raise their two daughters alone. She was devastated, but accepted and offer to take over her late husband's chair at the University of Paris, becoming the first female professor in its long and illustrious history. She did so in the hope of creating a world class laboratory as a tribute to Pierre, a goal she worked relentlessly to achieve.

In 1911 Marie became the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes when she was awarded the prize for chemistry for her work in identifying and isolating polonium and radium. Her fame brought efforts to persuade her to return to Poland and pursue her work there, but she chose to remain in Paris to supervise the development of a new Radium Institute being built on a street specially named Rue Pierre-Curie.

By now there had been significant advances in medical radiology, based on the Curies' pioneering work. During World War I Marie recognised a need for field radiological centres to assist battlefield surgeons, so she set about procuring X-ray equipment, vehicles and generators to set up mobile radiography units, which became known as "petite Curies".

She became director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and it is estimated that more than a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units, although she never received any formal recognition from the French government .

After the war Marie travelled widely on lecture tours, including several visits to the UK. Although she saw this as a distraction from her real work, she recognised its value in attracting funding and resources. Unfortunately throughout her work the adverse effects of exposure to radiation had been largely unknown and she would oftren carry samples of radioactive isotopes in her pockets or store them in her desk drawer.

Eventually these effects caught up with her and in 1934 she died, aged 66, from aplastic anaemia, contracted through her long-term exposure to radiation. The medical legacy of her work is impossible to quantify. Millions of patients, especially those with cancer, have been successfully treated using forms of radiation therapy, while X-rays are an everyday and invaluable diagnostic tool.

Although unintentionally, she has also become a feminist icon and an inspiration to millions of women facing discrimination because of their sex. In a 2009 poll by the New Scientist, Marie Curie was voted the "most inspirational woman in science", receiving more than a quarter of all the votes cast.

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