Charles Clanton Rogers

Reflections based on poetry, music, visual art, book reviews, history of science, first-person history, philosophical essays and International Blogging

Marie Curie died six weeks after I was born in 1934. She was a discoverer of Radium. I used Radium to treat cancer patients.  Marie Curie died from excessive exposure to radiations which caused aplastic anemia. Many millions of  people around the World have benefited from her trailblazing science.


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Marie Sklodowska Curie 1867 -1934,

This post is the fourth of a series building to my first-person history of medicine and surgery in The Twentieth Century. These early, historical, posts are necessary to set the stage for comparison to the dramatic revolution occurring in the last three percent of recorded history. [1]

This post relies heavily  on quotations in “Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science” published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 3, 2010, Authorship  is not identified [2]

“PARIS, July 4 [1934] –Mme. Marie Curie, whose work alone and with her husband on radium and radiology has been one of the greatest glories of modern science, died at 6 o”clock this morning in a sanitarium near Sallanhes in Upper Savoy. . Her death, which was caused by a form of pernicious anemia, was hastened by what her physicians termed “a long accumulation of radiations” which affected the bones and prevented her from reacting normally to the disease.”

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“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the World knew as Mme. Curie. Her epoch-making discoveries of polonium and radium, the subsequent honors that were bestowed upon her–she was the only person to receive two Nobel prizes–and the fortunes that could have been hers had she wanted them did not change her mode of life. She remained a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun. The road which she and her husband had chosen she followed throughout her life, disdaining all pomp. And thus she not only conquered great secrets of science but the hearts of the people the world over.”


“Mme. Curie was one of many illustrious persons who came from Poland to settle elsewhere, such as Frederic Chopin, the Potockis and Joseph Conrad. Her father was a distinguished scientist and from him she received her early training in Warsaw. She became involved in the students’ revolutionary organization, however, and found it advisable to leave the country. Years later she returned to open the radioactivity laboratory in Warsaw; she had always had the longing of the nostalgic for her native land, and she gave the $50,000 which she had received from American admirers in 1929 for research work in the city of her birth.”


“Earnestness of purpose and total disregard of personal gain were two of her main characteristics. She summed up her biography in twenty-one words when interviewed some years ago.”

“I was born in Poland,” she said. “I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”

“The tragic death of her husband–he was run over and killed by a heavy dray in Paris on April 19, 1906–served to make her even more of a recluse from the world. …curie 5

[The Curie “lab” was in]  abandoned warehouse opposite their atelier. In this place, with its asphalt floor, its broken and patched glass roof, hot in Summer, heated by a cast-iron stove in Winter, they performed their wonderful work.”


“The equipment consisted of some old and worn deal tables, upon which Mme. Curie prepared the material for the production of radium. She was laboratory chief assistant and handy boy at the same time. In addition to her intellectual labor it was frequently necessary for her to perform severe manual toil. On many an afternoon she stirred in a great caldron with a heavy iron rod the molten mass of the radioactive products, reaching home at evening exhausted by fatigue but delighted to see that her labors had led to a luminous product of concentration.”


“After the discovery of the radioactive properties of uranium by Henri Becquerel in 1896 M. and Mme. Curie began their researches into radioactivity, and in 1898 obtained polonium and radium from pitchblende, which they had subjected to a very laborious process of fractionation.

The announcement came from that little ill-equipped laboratory on Dec. 26, 1898. The Curies informed the Academy of Sciences that they had discovered a new and remarkable substance to which they propsed to give the name radium.”  curie 1


“Five years after their discovery of radium the Curies received the Nobel Prize for physics, dividing it with Becquerel. In 1911 Mme. received the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Honors were heaped upon her, but she was indifferent to most. The money she received from her prizes was immediately used for purposes of scientific research. In 1919 one gram of radium, valued at $100,000, was presented to Mme. Curie as the gift of the people of the United States. In 1929 she received the money with which to purchase another gram of the precious substance, the presentation being made by President Hoover.”


“Marie Sklodowska was born on Nov. 7, 1867. As a child she played with test tubes and crucibles and she was later a brilliant student. When she became involved in political differences she went first to Cracow, then under Austrian rule, and later to Paris, where she obtained a science degree at the university.

At the Sorbonne she met Pierre Curie, a young physics instructor. They worked together, having common interests, and in 1895 they were married. Mme. Curie became a teacher of physics at a girls’ school at Sevres. The research work was pursued at night.”


“The discovery of X-rays by Dr. Roentgen in 1895 started many physicists and chemists on investigations to see whether phosphorescent bodies in general would not emit rays of a similar character. In 1896 Becquerel found that the salts of uranium emitted radiations affecting photographic plates and, like the X-ray, passing through many substances impervious to ordinary light.”

“Later Mme. Curie discovered that the salts of thorium emitted similar rays. Searching for other radio-active material, M. and Mme. Curie, after long and tedious, but to them fascinating, trials, discovered that pitchblende was much more active than uranium. Mme. Curie made up her mind to go still further. She would not stop short of finding out what it was in pitchblende that produced the radio-active force that would pass through any substance except lead and steel. curie 2

But at that time pitchblende was to be had only from a small deposit in Bohemia. Mme. Curie reduced tons of it and then, first by chemical separation and then by eliminations, she finally isolated two fiercely energetic substances. One she called polonium after her native country, the other radium.”

The old laboratory on Rue Lhomond was described by Henry Labouchere, editor of The London Truth, as “a scientific Bethlehem.”

“Mme. Curie,” he said on that occasion, “proved in 1898 that of many of the chemical substances, those which contained uranium or thorium alone were capable of emitting in notable quantities Becquerel rays. *Mme. Curie studied the minerals which had in them uranium or thorium, and found these minerals were radio-active. In her experiments she found that some of them were more active than they would have been if they had contained only uranium or thorium. Mme. Curie then made the hypothesis that these substances contained radio-active chemicals as yet unknown. Mme. Curie executed these experimental works and reached her momentous conclusion alone.”


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“Several years passed, however, before the general public knew of radium. A watch-case containing a speck of the rare element was exhibited a the Paris Exposition in 1900. It was labeled, “Radium, discovered by Mme. Curie.” In 1901 the French Academy of Sciences awarded the La Caze Prize of 10,000 francs to the Curies.

Soon afterward Mme. Curie put chemistry in possession of a relatively large quantity of radium, as she had by a crystallization process obtained a decigram of the pure chlorid, which allowed her to obtain the atomic weight.”


“In 1903 M. and Mme. Curie received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society. That year Mme. Curie submitted the results of her researches in her doctorate thesis presented to the University of Paris.  She then became chef de travaux in the laboratory at the department of the Sorbonne created for her husband. M. Curie was elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1905. His widow succeeded him as professor at the University of Paris”.


“When the World War broke out Mme. Curie offered her services to the Government of France. She closed the Institut Curie and with her elder daughter, Irene, and a few students, she went to a hospital behind the front, employing her knowledge of radiography in aiding the wounded. At her suggestion, automobiles equipted with radiographic apparatus were utilized along the front, and by this means bullets and shell splinters were located in the heads of dangerously wounded soldiers.”

“[Mme. Curie]   received honorary university degrees from Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Woman’s Medical College, University of Pittsburgh, Yale, Wellesley, Northwestern and Smith.

President Nicholas Murray Butler, in presenting the Columbia award, said it honored the woman “to whose skill, scientific might and trained powers of imagination it has been given to enrich mankind by the priceless gift of radium, winning thereby a place on the immortal list of scientific discoverers.”

“Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale said: There is one thing rarer than genius. That is radium. Mme. Curie illustrates the combination of both.”

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Charles Clanton Rogers, MD, FACR, emeritus professor, GWU February, 2016


[1] The first three posts of this History of Medicine were:

American Medical Care 1881 ~Death of the President

Jayne Seymour, Queen, Dies of Puerperal Fever

First Woman President, Edith Wilson 1919

[2] New York Times,  November 3, 2010, Authorship is not identified

One thought on “Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science

  1. “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”
    Wonderful & thorough post on the great Madame Curie.

    That quote rings more true now than ever. People seem more interested in the fabulous life of stars than ideas of importance to humanity itself.

    Liked by 2 people

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