Marie Curie pt.2
Continued from the February issue.
ONCE the actual existence of Radium was proved a series of astounding developments followed. Taken up rapidly by the research workers of the world, its endless applications were, at first, bur dimly appreciated.
Medical men tried it in the treatment of cancer, and scored successes. Pierre exposed his arm to it and received it painful burn. In 1903, Rutherford and Soddy, working on Marie’s hypothesis, published their ‘Theory of Radioactive Transformation’, the theory that elements thought unchangeable are in spontaneous evolution. Radium gave out heat, affected other substances, pierced solid objects, and was luminous. Radium became ‘big business’. A factory was started in France. Enquiries came from all over the world. At last the inevitable one arrived from America by a concern in Buffalo, requesting information on the production of Radium, and suggesting contracts for payment of license fees. For this it would have been necessary for the Curies to stake their claim: to patent their ‘invention’ and maintain secrecy in its processes. In reply to her husband’s request as to whether they should declare themselves the ‘proprietors’ of Radium Marie replied (as Faraday and Pasteur had done before her): .
“It is impossible. It would be contrary to the scientific spirit.”
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November, 1903, marked the first real turning point in the Curie’s fortune. The Swedish Academy of Science decided to award them half the Nobel Prize in Physics. This amounted to about 70,000 francs, “for us, a huge sum.”
After this, the University of Paris had to create a chair in physics for Pierre Curie.
More than this, he was officially allowed three paid assistants, and the chief of lab. nominated Madame Curie. The first woman to be thus accorded official recognition—the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Institution in London—and the first woman scientist of world rank, winner of the Nobel Prize. Pierre and Marie applied themselves to the new life. Both continued teaching as before.
Life was a little easier now. But, as is so often the case, Fate waited in the background to drown content in the cup of sorrow.
On April 19th, 1906, Pierre Curie was leaving his publishers on the way to the Institute of Science, when be was run down by a heavy dray, the rear wheel passed over his head; one of the greatest brains in the world ceased to think. The 20 foot wagon was loaded with military uniforms.
The Government proposed to award Madame Curie and her children a State pension, which she indignantly refused.
The University naturally desired to retain Marie in its faculty. But how! It was finally decided that there was only one physicist capable of replacing Pierre Curie—Marie—his widow. This was the first time that a post in higher education was given to a woman.
When the time came for her to start her course the hushed and tense audience heard her opening sentence with amazement. She started at the exact point where her late husband had concluded a year before. Finally, an agreement was made between Dr. Row, of the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris for the foundation of the institute of Radium, under the direction of Marie Curie.
By this time, the honours, medals and prizes, showered upon her by the world’s scientific bodies ran into hundreds; filling several printed pages. She was the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice. And so she went steadily on, instructing her pupils, continuing to direct research until the first world war, when she organised an X-ray Unit, which utilised the electrical knowledge she had discovered.
Finally, she died in 1934, but not until she had made several triumphal tours to the United States, her native Warsaw, and the Far East.
Eleanor Doorly in her Puffin Books little sketch ‘The Radium Woman’ tells the story of the attempts by Mrs Melmay to persuade the wealthy American women to give ten thousand dollars each to buy the discoverer of radium one gramme of it to permit her to continue her researches. Only three could be found. A subscription fund among the women of America raised the amount in less than a year. This gramme of radium was presented to her at the White House by the President of the United States.
What is it that makes these two—Marie, and her husband Pierre, such lovable and attractive characters. Not their scientific prowess, not their almost superhuman concentration on the job to be done. No! Above all their self-effacing modesty, and refusal to assume superiority, Pierre’s firm refusal to accept decorations, their avoidance of publicity, and renunciation of personal wealth. Not once, but several times, they turned down fortunes. They just wanted to work at the job they had chosen.
As Marie wrote later:-
“Pierre Curie was little inclined to take an active part in politics.
“By education and feeling he was attached to democratic and socialist ideas, but he was dominated by no party doctrine.”
Pierre himself wrote at the beginning of their acquaintance
“It would be a fine thing to pass our lives near to each other, hypnotised by our dreams, your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.
Of all those dreams the last is, I believe, the only legitimate one.
I mean by that, that we are powerless to change the social order, and, even if we were not, we should not know what to do in taking action, no matter in what direction, we should never be sure of not doing more harm than good by retarding some inevitable evolutions. From the scientific point of view, on the contrary, we may hope to do something, the ground is solider here and any discovery we may make, however small, will remain acquired knowledge.”
When the newspaper correspondents of two continents were rapping on their front door, they would slide off through the back on their bicycles. To-day it is fashionable to blame scientists for the existence of the Hydrogen bomb, and if we are consistent, nobody should be blamed more than Marie Curie, whose discovery of natural radium made the manufacture of artificial isotopes (radio-active substances) possible.
Nothing could be more absurd. Pierre abhorred violence in every form. Both worked for humanity, If she is to be blamed for Atomic bombs, let her be praised for nuclear reactors. Film companies and magazine owners have made fortunes from their story. An aura of ‘romantic’ legend has been fabricated around it.
Marie herself debunked it in the clearest terms.
“It is true that the discovery of radium was made in precarious conditions; the shed which sheltered it seems clouded in the charms of legend. But this romantic element was not an advantage; it wore out our strength and delayed our accomplishment. With better means, the first five years of our work might have been reduced to two, and their tension lessened.”
They paid the price for their discovery in ruined health.
Until radium became a saleable commodity nobody wanted to know, they could kill themselves, just two more screwy cranks. When there was money in it, how the letters poured in! Kings and Presidents rushed to shake their hands, award them medals, and toast their honour.
And yet when Marie was invited back to Warsaw 24 years later at the opening of the Warsaw Institute of Radium, she spotted at a banquet in her honour a tiny white-haired old lady, Mde. Sikorska, her teacher at the boarding school she attended when a tot. Straightway the sincere unaffected Marie made her way down the tables to take her first teacher by the hands, and kiss her cheeks.
The atomic weight of Radium was announced in 1904. This year saw the birth of the Socialist Party in Great Britain. It was in that year, after nearly three years of exhausting drudgery, that Marie asked Pierre, after the children were put to bed, to go with her down to the damp and dingy old shed which housed their works.
Opening the door and peering through the darkness they saw the queer phosphorescent gleam of a grain of pure radium, the supposedly indestructible molecules of matter were actually seething systems of whirling electrons in exploding atoms.
Until the birth of the Socialist idea, and its realisation into a Party, the Capitalist system seemed indestructible too.
Socialism, in the realm of ideas, like radium in the physical world, gleamed with an inextinguishable glow, and affected those it contacted with a political “radioactivity.”
To Socialists the work of Marie Curie will always epitomise the struggle of the people for knowledge and freedom.
Like those other martyrs of the battle, the heroic Communards of her beloved Paris, she will be forever “enshrined in the great heart of the working class.”
In actual numbers, or sheer physical size, the early S.P.G.B. roughly corresponded with the proportion of radium in pitch-blende, one to the million.
Books “Madame Curie” by Eve Curie, Heinemann, “The Radium Woman,” by Eleanor Doorly, Puffin Books