Marie Curie

Social Studies Research Project

November 5, 2001

Eliza Gabel 7

Room 5B


Marie Curie

Have you ever wondered about Marie Curie, who discovered Radium? You will learn more about her, and radiation's healing powers in this report.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in November 7 in the year 1867. Marya Sklodowska was her given name, but her nickname was Manya. Now we know her as Marie, the English translation of her Polish name. She was born into a family with many children. She had three sisters named Hela, Zosia, and Bronya. She also had one brother named Jozef.

Both of Marie's parents were teachers, so they encouraged her to learn. The Russian people in charge didn't want the Polish people, especially the girls, to learn too much. Marie did get a good education, so she was intelligent, though. (By the way, no bad qualities were reported.)

Bronya and Zosia began to grow ill. The doctor said that they had caught Typhoid fever and there was nothing to do but wait. Bronya began to get better and Zosia got worse. When Marie was eight, Zosia died from the fever.

From the time Marie was born, her mother was sick with tuberculosis, a lung disease. To make sure her children didn't get the disease, she never hugged or kissed them. She was too ill when Zosia died to attend the funeral. When Marie was ten her mother died, so she began to lose faith.

Marie's school changed significantly, since Polish teachers were replaced with Russians. No lessons were permitted to be taught in Polish. Her father had to stop working his job, and get a much lower paying job. A Russian teacher would give higher grades to a Russian student than a Polish one even if they had the same performance. When a Russian inspector came to the class to ask questions, a Polish student would be considered disloyal if they answered wrong.

At home, Marie's father taught his children Polish stories and history that were outlawed from school. He would translate stories to Polish as he read them to his children. He would also teach them about science and nature. Now Marie wanted to learn as much as she could.

Marie was about 15 when she graduated from school. She had won a gold medal for having the best test results in her class. Her brother Jozef went to college, but the family couldn't afford to send Marie and her sisters too. So for a year she stayed with relatives in the country. They played games and did no studying.

Marie and her sisters gave private lessons to Polish children, to earn money for their family. Marie was always on time to give her lessons, but many of her students were lazy. They often would not study or pay attention. They would not learn their lessons.

Marie didn't want to be a tutor forever. She started attending the "Floating University", which was an unofficial college for Polish girls and boys. It ran at night in people's cellars and attics. The students learned Polish history and other things that were forbidden to be taught in the regular schools. They knew that if they were caught they would be put in prison, but they were determined to learn about their ancestors.

One job Marie had was as a governess for two children. When their older brother, Casimir, came home for Christmas and met Marie, they fell in love. Casimir asked her to marry him, and she accepted the offer. However, when Casimir asked his parents, they told him that he should marry a rich girl and Marie wasn't good enough for him.

Marie and her sister Bronya decided to go to another country to learn more. They would go to a university in Paris, France. Their sister Hela did not go with them because she wanted to become a singer. They could only afford for one of them at a time to be in school, so the other could work for money to buy books and supplies. Bronya went to school first because she was older. Marie earned money as a governess. The parents of the children she was helping were unpleasant and mean, so Marie switched jobs. In her spare time, she started experimenting in a laboratory.

In the spring of 1890 Marie finally entered the university. It took her 3 days on the train to get there! She was very happy when she got to Paris because people spoke whatever language they wanted to, and they read books of their choice.

However, Marie was shocked when she got to her first lecture. They taught the lessons in French, and she could not understand a word that was said there! Marie was persistent, so she paid attention and tried to translate. Fortunately, as the time went on, she began to understand the language better.

Marie had been living with Bronya since she came into town. There were too many distractions there. Now Marie moved closer to the school, for she found the trip every morning too long and unreasonable from Bronya's house. Marie was not very rich, so she often needed to choose between heating or food at her little house. She would read and study in the library because it was warm there. Although her house was not the best place, it provided her a roof over her head, and a place to sleep and study. Marie thought that this was all she needed, and she was happy there.

At the university Marie studied physics. In 1893 she earned her Master's degree. She had the highest scores in her class. The next year she got another degree, in mathematics.

In 1894 Marie met Pierre Curie. Marie was asked to do the first scientific job she was paid for. She would research magnetism in steel. A friend suggested that Marie could do her research in Pierre's laboratory. They had met before at her friend's house. When she asked, Pierre agreed to give her space to do her research. They fell in love and were married in July of 1895. Marya Sklodowska then became Marie Curie. For their honeymoon they bicycled across the countryside of France.

Now Marie learned to cook. On her way to the laboratory she would sometimes get groceries. They even worked on their science at dinner, while they were eating. In 1896 Marie took another exam so she could teach. Marie had one of the highest test scores. In 1897 Marie became pregnant. It made life harder, but she kept working. On September 12, Irene, their first child, was born. Marie had a very busy life. She was being a mother, a teacher, a wife, and a scientist all at the same time!

Marie started studying different kinds of rocks to look for radioactivity. She separated different elements from rocks. Most of the samples were inactive. The few that showed radiation were almost pure uranium or thorium. Marie measured how much radiation was in different samples. The bigger that samples got, the more radiation was in them. Now Marie found out, after many different tests, that most radiation came from uranium. She found out that pitchblende had four times the radiation of uranium, even though pitchblende had a mixture of elements. She figured that pitchblende must contain another radioactive element. Since she had tested many elements, she deduced that this was a new element.

Marie was very excited, and she wondered if she really had found a new element. However, this was still only an idea. She needed some way to prove it. Pitchblende only has a little bit of radioactive material. To get just a little bit of this radioactive material, she would need tons of pitchblende. How would she pay? And where would she put all the pitchblende once she bought it? If she put it in her laboratory, where would she do her research?

One of Pierre's friends knew that dyes were made from pitchblende. Uranium was separated from pitchblende during the process, and the rest was thrown away. Eventually they gave Marie some of the leftover pitchblende. There was a large shed in the back of the school. The good thing about the shed was that no one else wanted to use it. It was very damaged but the Curies didn't mind. Now they had a place to work.

When the pitchblende arrived, Marie quickly grabbed a handful of the radioactive ore and tested it. Marie separated different elements from each other. They ground the pitchblende into a huge pot. Then they used acid to dissolve the powder. They added certain chemicals that made the elements separate, and Marie lit a fire under the cauldron. Then they stirred the mixture with a long rod. After stirring for two months, the mixture finally separated. Marie took out the powder and it was 150 times more radioactive than uranium. They knew that the powder had bismuth mixed in. Pierre put the powder into a test tube and heated the tube over a flame. It began to bubble. The black powder left from the bubble stuck to the glass tube. Pierre heated the tube until it cracked. The black powder they scraped off the glass was 330 times more radioactive than uranium. Soon they had a sample 400 times more radioactive than uranium. Marie was getting homesick so she named this new element "polonium", after her homeland.

After removing the polonium, pitchblende was still radioactive. Marie called the second radioactive element "radium", which is Latin for "ray". Radium was even more radioactive than polonium. Marie and Pierre treated 8 tons of pitchblende over time, and in March of 1902 Marie had a sample of pure radium. It was 900 times more radioactive than uranium. That's a lot of radioactivity! When they went to the shed at night, they could see the radium glowing.

The Curies were having many problems in their lives, but they were determined and hard working, so they did not give up. They had very little money. Pierre and Marie were having health problems. Pierre's father had died. Now one of Bronya's children had died. Now, things seemed to be looking up and getting much more exiting after all these things, though.

Radium gave doctors a new way to treat some kinds of cancer. Pierre tested about what radium does to living tissues. He put some on his skin. His skin turned red and after a few days, an open sore appeared. It took the sore months to heal. The Curies found out that radium kills sick cells that cannot fight it off. If they had only found this out sooner, they might have saved Pierre's mother, who died of cancer.

The news of radium and its life-saving qualities spread quickly. Many people wrote letters to the Curies saying how amazing their discovery was, and that they wanted samples of radium. Radium is highly dangerous (The lab notebook the Curies recorded their experiments in was still radioactive a few years later). Also, there is only one ounce of radium in a ton of pitchblende! Radium was worth more than gold because it was so hard to get.

Then something happened that would change the Curies' lives forever. They won half of a Nobel Prize in Physics! More publicity than ever came to Marie and Pierre. People came to see them, their little shed and their little house. Scads of people wanted to see Irene and even their family cat! Although you may think this is great, Marie and Pierre didn't like all the distracting people coming in.

Now life seemed to be taking a better turn. In June of 1903, Marie got her doctoral degree in physics. In December of 1904 her second daughter, Eve, was born. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize a second time, this time in chemistry. She was the first person ever to get the Nobel Prize twice. Later on, her daughter Irene would also win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. After she searched intently for the very expensive Radium, the President of the United States of America awarded her with one gram of it.

Some bad things were happening at the same time. Pierre had died in an accident while attempting to cross a very busy street. World War I had started and everyone wanted to do war work so there was no one left to study science. Marie helped make the x-ray machine portable so they could bring it to where wounded soldiers were and use it to find broken bones and bullets. Before Irene got the Nobel Prize, Marie had been getting ill. Later on people would find out that she was suffering from radiation sickness. She died from it before Irene got her Nobel Prize.

I learned about Marie Curie and how she helped the world. I had not known how she discovered Polonium and Radium before. Really, I never knew that she was a scientist before. I can truly say that I learned a lot from doing this report.



Pioneers of Science series: Marie Curie
Andrew Dunn The Bookwright Press, 1991
Great Minds of Science series: Marie Curie, Discoverer of Radium
Margaret Poynter Enslow Publishers, Inc. 1994
The Mysterious Rays: Marie Curie's World
Nancy Veglahn Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. 1977
People Who Have Helped the World series: Marie Curie
Beverley Birch Gareth Stevens Publishing 1998
Microsoft Encarta Encycopedia
Microsoft Microsoft 1999

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