The history of men’s progress from the darkness of ignorance to the glorious light of knowledge and enlightenment is full of chapters that tell of extraordinary men and women. These men and women worked with great courage, commitment, dedication and singleness of purpose in their effort to attain what seemed to be unattainable. These men and women were driven in their effort to uncover the truth and mystery of the universe with an indomitable spirit which characterises the human spirit. And this is the spirit that drove Columbus and Vasco de Gama to sail to the unknown seas, Robert Peary to race to the Pole, Sir Ronald Ross to fight against malaria, Hillary and Tenzing to reach the top of Everest, and Armstrong and his team to go to the moon.
One great woman who dedicated her life to the cause of science and to the welfare of humanity is Madame Curie, the discoverer of radium. The mere statement that Madame Curie discovered the radium will never tell the true story of the extraordinary courage, determination and singleness of purpose that this noble woman showed in the face of extreme poverty, pain and suffering that comes along with such condition.
Born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland on November, 7 1867, Marie Curie’s childhood dream was to study science in Paris, but her father could not afford the expense for this. So Maria took a job as a governess and saved a little money. With that little money she finally went to Sorbonne, the University of Paris, to study science. Her father could send her only a small amount and her life in the university was a disheartening experience in poverty and hunger. She lived only on bread, butter and tea, and she often fainted for lack of food. In spite of all this she pursued her studies indomitably and shetopped her class with Honours in Physics and Mathematics.
It was at the university that she met a Frenchman, Pierre Curie, a brilliant but poor scientist. Then they together began to work in a shabby laboratory. Soon, their friendship turned into love and in less than a year, in July, 1895, they were married. The couple then took a flat in Paris with scarcely any furniture in it except their books, a lamp, a white wooden table and two chairs.
After the birth of a daughter, Irene, the next year, Marie and Pierre set up a laboratory in a wooden shed near their flat, It had a leaky skylight and an earthen floor. Here Marie, after her daily household work, settled down to study.
Marie was specially interested in a substance called uranium which was obtained from pitchblende, a black, very hard and very expensive substance. Uranium was known to give off very powerful rays by which men could see through many substances. Now Marie discovered that what was left after obtaining uranium was even more powerful. Later on, Pierre and Marie found that there was not one, but two new substances giving off these rays although they had not yet been able to obtain either of them. They called one of them Polonium, in honour of her country. Poland and the other was called Radium. Radium is the most powerful of the radio-active elements. And radio-active elements can give off rays which can penetrate substances that are opaque to light. There was another French scientist called Henri Becquerel, who in 1896 had discovered that uranium possessed this property. But Polonium and Radium possessed radio-active in much higher degree.
The Curies now began to work with greater enthusiasm, but they were poor and pitchblende itself was an extremely expensive substance, which they could not afford to buy in large quantity. They, however, sacrificed all the luxuries of life to save
money to buy whatever little amount of pitchblende they could. They lived in utter penury, not buying costly food and warm clothes for the extremely cold Parisian winter. Often they could not sleep during the cold nights due to lack of warmth. Overwork seriously affected Madame Curie’s health. Often she was forced to leave the laboratory to take a much needed rest. Her husband begged her to give up the struggle, but she resolutely refused. Marie was driven by a mad determination to discover the mystery of radium. With courage she faced all the miseries of a life of poverty and carried on with her research along with her husband who loved and supported her.
Luck, however, favoured the Curies and a windfall came to them. It was a gift of a ton of pitchblende from the emperor of Austria, who was an admirer of the Curies. It was the most precious gift the Curies had received and in their shabby laboratory they toiled along, boiled and burnt, overpowered by heat in summer and frozen with cold in winter.
The Curies continued their work for four more years. Wearing an acid stained, dust covered mask, Marie toiled along stirring large pots of pitchblende ensuring that the fires beneath were active throughout the day and the night. Then in 1902, success finally came. On a September night the Curies, after a day’s tiresome work, went home. Then just as they were about to go to bed they went to the laboratory to have another look at the hundreds of small bowls into which they had poured filtered pitchblende. In the dark laboratory as they moved cautiously forward there were all around them rays of soft, bluish purple light coming from the small, glass covered bowls. Radium had been discovered ! Marie said to her husband, ‘Do you remember the day when you told me that you wanted radium to have a beautiful colour? Look …. look!’’
Actually, what they had produced was just a tiny pinch of white powder that looked like salt. But
it was to become one of the wonders of the world. With its rays people would be able to see through the hardest of substances except lead.
The benefits of radium in the world of medicine are incalculable. It has been used with great effect in the treatment of cancer. The bacteria of such diseases as typhus, cholera and anthrax can also be killed by radium.
In 1903 the Curies along with Henry Becquesel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. They wished, they could have patented their discovery and become rich, but this noble woman refused to do so and gave it free to the world to be used properly.
In 1906, Pierre was knocked down and killed by a horse-drawn wagon. Marie clung to his lifeless body and remained disconsolate.
In 1911, Marie was awarded the Nobel prize for the second time and this was for Chemistry. Madame Curie remained comparatively poor and when asked why she did not make money by her discoveries, she replied, ‘‘I am working for science. Radium belongs to the people, not to me.’’ In 1934, the health of Marie Curie failed and in the July of that year this great scientist, who had given her life for the cause of science and humanity, died. In every great man and woman there is a compulsive desire to discover the truth. Madame Curie, who pursued her life’s goal with great courage, endurance, dedication and strength of character, is a living example of this statement.
There are also men and women who show extreme courage when they are face to face with great danger. But greater is the courage of men and women who display a strength of mind that is not defeated by extremely hostile and unfavourable conditions of life. Madame Curie certainly belongs to this latter group.