Happy Birthday, Marie Curie ! Combining a Love of Education and Science


Picture Credit: Slideshare Canada- Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie, November 7, 1867- July 4, 1934, Warsaw

Marie Curie discovered two new chemical elements – radium (Ra or ray) and polonium (PO for Poland). She carried out the first research into the treatment of tumors with radiation, and she was the founder of the Curie Institutes, which are important medical research centers.  She is the only person who has ever won two Nobel Prizes in both physics (with her husband, Pierre in 1903) and chemistry (1911).

Polonium was used a a trigger in early atomic bombs, as it has a short half life (as this University of Nottingham video explains). The existence of this element had been forecast by the Dmitri Mendeleev who could see from his periodic table that there might well be the element that followed bismuth and he predicted it would have an atomic weight of 212.  Mendeleev also investigated the composition of petroleum, and helped to found the first oil refinery in Russia. He recognized the importance of petroleum as a feedstock for petrochemicals. He is credited with a remark that burning petroleum as a fuel “would be akin to firing up a kitchen stove with bank notes.” In 1905, Mendeleev was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The following year the Nobel Committee for Chemistry recommended to the Swedish Academy to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 1906 to Mendeleev for his discovery of the periodic system.

The Curies had extracted the isotope polonium-209 and which has a half-life of 103 years. This Russian chemist and inventor formulated the Periodic Law, created a farsighted version of the periodic table of elements, and used it to correct the properties of some already discovered elements and also to predict the properties of eight elements yet to be discovered.


Picture Credit: EPA -Radium was used to make clock faces and hands glow in the dark in the 1900s.

Radium has an abundance of about 1 part per trillion in the Earth’s crust, according to Chemicool. “There was a time when energy drinks actually contained real energy. The active ingredient in these drinks was radium, a radioactive element that releases a packet of radiant energy with every atomic decay, according to LiveScience. RadiThor was a popular energy drink sold in the 1920s in one-ounce bottles costing about US$1 each ($15 in 2016 dollars). Its manufacturer claimed the drink not only provided energy but also cured a host of ailments, including impotence. Evidence for a sexual benefit to humans was lacking, but at least one scientific paper claimed that radium water could increase “the sexual passion of water newts.” RadiThor’s most famous customer was Eben Byers, a Pittsburgh industrialist and amateur golfer of some repute. Byers first became acquainted with RadiThor when he took it to help heal a broken arm. Although the product contained no narcotics at all, Byers became at least psychologically, if not physiologically, addicted to it.

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