Marie Curie is the first woman to have received the Nobel Prize for her work on radium, which will unfortunately cause her death.
The first woman to enter the Pantheon
Marie Curie (1867-1934) is the first woman to have received the Nobel Prize, and the only woman to have received two. Having become world famous for her work on radium – which would eventually cost her her life – she would also be the first woman to enter the Pantheon. His major discovery? Radioactivity. We owe Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie to have clarified the structure of the atom, for better or for worse: because their discovery allowed the development of the atomic bomb, but also of radiotherapy, the first treatment cancer.
The mysterious uranium rays
It all started in 1896 when Henry Becquerel discovered the mysterious uranium rays that Marie would call radioactivity. Two years later, the discovery of radium allowed Marie and Pierre Curie to share with Henri Becquerel, in 1903, the Nobel Prize in Physics. Radioactivity changes the world… Everything is radium: beauty creams, atomic sodas, mineral water and even baby clothes. It is supposed to cure arthritis, hypertension, sciatica or diabetes… Otto Walkhoff, a German dentist, tries dental X-rays with radium. The experiment fails. Pierre Curie tries it: he places a source of radium on his forearm and, like Walkhoff, burns himself. Röntgen is going to x-ray his wife’s hand ! The proof is made of the effect of this radiation, and Pierre convinces his friend Henri-Alexandre Danlos, dermatologist at Saint-Louis Hospital, to experiment with the technique. It is a success on malignant skin tumors. Brachytherapy was born.
The discoveries belong to the people
By placing a radioactive source in contact with the tumour, damage to the surrounding healthy tissue is avoided, whereas external radiotherapy must pass through them before reaching the tumour. In France, each year, approximately 5,000 cancer patients still benefit from this treatment, the methods of which have continued to diversify. She obtained the Nobel in physics at the age of 36, for her work on radioactivity, and achieved the feat of obtaining a 2nd Nobel in chemistry at the age of 44. But glory and laurels interest her less than the public utility of her discoveries. The scientist could have become very rich if she had patented some of her discoveries. However, she will consider all her life that “the discoveries belong to the people”. throughout her career, her work on radioactivity led to decisive medical progress, particularly in cancer research.
She contributed to the war effort
In 1914, the Radium Institute was also inaugurated to oversee all of its research. But when war broke out, she mobilized her network to contribute to the war effort. Thanks to her, 18 ambulances are created, with medical equipment to take x-rays. These 18 “little Curies” make it possible to take care of the wounded on the front. Thanks to X-rays, surgeons identify shrapnel in wounds. Tens of thousands of French soldiers are thus saved. Marie Curie drives one of these ambulances herself, accompanied by her daughter. Until her death, she directed the radium institute, working for cancer research. But his commitment to science has a price. At 66, leukemia prevails, caused by the radioactive materials she handled.