Laboratory of Doctor Faust


In 1895, a surprising discovery in Germany set in motion a chain of events which would lead to discovering knowledge of the invisible structure of material world. Wilhelm Roentgen, Professor of Physics in Würzburg in Bavaria, was exploring the path of electrical rays passing from an induction coil through a partially evacuated glass tube. Although the tube was covered in black paper and the room was completely dark, he noticed that a screen covered in fluorescent material was illuminated by the rays. He continued his experiments using photographic plate to capture the image of various objects of random thickness placed in the path of the rays. He realised that objects could be penetrated by these rays. Roentgen decided to call them X-rays, since they weren't yet fully understood. The discovery was an immediate sensation among the scientific word. A number of scientists began researching the X-rays. On January 20, 1896, few weeks after Roentgen made his discovery, French mathematician and physicist, Henri Poincaré, reported to the French Academy of Sciences that the new rays caused phosphorescence, both on the glass wall of the vacuum tube and on the screen outside the tube which was coated with phosphorescent substance. Phosphorescence is the glow which light excites in certain substances, a glow which continues for a time even after the light source has been removed. In France, it has been studied by a scientist named Alexandre-Edmon Becquerel. He was no longer alive when the discovery of X-rays was made but his son, Henri Becquerel decided to continue the research his father had started. The first few phosphorescent substances he tried showed no X-ray type action, contrary to the findings of others. Then he tried a sample of uranium salts and these produced immediate results. Uranium compounds gave off “rays of peculiar character”, akin to X rays. Becquerel demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself.

The discovery made by Becquerel intrigued a Polish, naturalized-French physicist and chemist, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, who decided to look into this curious phenomenon. Whilst other scientists were occupied studying the X ray, the rays generated by uranium was the subject which, as Maria wrote later, “seemed to us very attractive and all the more so because the question was entirely new and nothing yet had been written upon it.”337 The room in which Maria Skłodowska-Curie began to study Becquerel's discoveries was a depressing brick-walled storage space on the ground floor of the school where her husband Pierre Curie used to taught. Maria began measuring several uranium compounds as well as pure uranium and pitchblende. The compounds proved less active than pure uranium, but the pitchblende turned more active and so did thorium. On April 12, 1886, the French Academy heard a report written by Maria on “rays emitted by uranium and thorium compounds”. Because neither Maria nor Pierre was a member of the Academy, it fell on Gabriel Lippmann, Maria's teacher and advocate, to deliver it. The Academics were intrigued that two uranium minerals, pitchblende and chalcite, were much more active than uranium itself. This, as Maria noted herself, “is very remarkable and leads us to believe that these minerals may contain a much more active element than uranium”.338 In July 1898, the Curies announced the discovery of this new chemical element. It has been called polonium, after Maria's native country, Poland. Only few months later, the day after Christmas 1898, a second paper came out from the Curies announcing the discovery of another new element - radium. The French Academy began to take notice in Curies research. They had awarded Maria the 3,800-franc Prix Gegner citing her work in magnetic properties of steel as well as her work on radioactivity. As the academicians were not used to award prize to a woman, they did not inform her of it directly. The letters were written to Pierre Curie, informing him that his wife had won the prize. “I congratulate you very sincerely”, wrote Becquerel”, “and beg of you to present my respectful compliments to your wife”.339 Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that, when exposed to radium, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells, thus laying foundation of brachytherapy, the treatment of cancer by inserting radioactive material directly into the affected area. Despite early success, Maria always emphasized that she was “extremely handicapped by inadequate conditions, by the lack of a proper place to work in, by the lack of money and of personnel.”340 To advance her scientific research, Maria exploited her contacts at the French Academy to attract donors. With the first of many financial donations from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the Curies were able to procure over ten tons of pitchblende residue left after the extraction of uranium, to continue their research.341 In 1903, the Curies along with Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Thus a Polish scientist Maria Skłodowska-Curie became the first women to be awarded Noble Prize. Maria and Pierre continued working together until the tragic death of Pierre in a street accident in 1906. Soldiering on alone, Maria was able by 1910 to isolate pure radium from pitchblende and develop a method of extracting radium which was adopted by the industry. In 1911 she received second Noble prize in chemistry "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”. Maria decided not to patent her discovery, so that other scientists could investigate it freely. At the Sorbonne, Maria Skłodowska-Curie became the first female professor and was given charge of the physics laboratory that her husband had chaired. Not long after, in 1914, the French government, inspired by the research in radioactivity, built the Radium Institute for the study of chemistry, physics, and medicine which were Marie's foremost interests. Since it has always been Maria's intention for the science to serve the betterment of the human condition, when the First World War broke out in 1914, she developed mobile radiography units to assist battlefield surgeons. After the war, she travelled to America where she was welcomed like celebrity. Her willingness to give to humanity without material benefits appealed to the American public. Dr. Francis Wood, the head of the Crocker Cancer Research Laboratory in Columbia University, told the six hundred or so people in the audience that Marie had done more to help humankind than any other scientist of her time.342 In 1925, Frédéric Joliot, who became an assistant to Maria Skłodowska-Curie at the Radium Institute in Paris, fell in love with her daughter Irène and after their marriage in 1926, they both changed their surnames to Joliot-Curie. The couple continued the research on the structure of the atom and radioactivity, but the subject also arose interest among German and English scientists, who were equally determined to make achievements in this field.

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337 Susan Quinn, Marie Curie, A Life (London: Heinemann, 1995), p. 143 »

338 Quinn, Marie Curie, p. 149 »

339 Ibid., p. 153 »

340 Ibid., p. 154 »

341 Ibid., p. 155 »

342 Shelley Emling, Marie Curie and the Daughters ( U.S., 2012), p.52 »