Marie Curie and the Progress of Cancer Treatment

Marie Curie, along with her husband Henri Becquerel, discovered radioactivity; a finding that paved the way for both the diagnosis (via X-rays) and treatment of cancer (radiation therapy) in medicine. As a woman who was barred from being a member of the French Academy of Sciences due to her gender, she was still the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes for her efforts. While her research on radioactivity had a great impact on the practice of medicine (that continues today), the lack of understanding of the dangers of ionizing radiation at the time led to her eventual death. Let's take a look at the life, education, and discoveries made by this amazing scientist.

Chemist Marie Curie in Her Laboratory
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images


Marie Sklodowska was born November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, and passed away July 4, 1934.

Maria Skłodowska was the youngest of five children, born to teachers in Warsaw, Poland. Family fortunes were not great, and Maria lost her mother at age twelve from tuberculosis. Even while her mother was alive, however, she received little affection from her mother, who was afraid she would infect her children. Maria's older sister, Zofia, tried to mother Maria following their mother's death, but she in turn died at the age of 15 from typhus.

When she was 10 years old, Maria moved to attend boarding school in Warsaw. Later, she was able to study in Paris at the Sorbonne with her sister's support.

In addition to studying in Paris, Marie took courses in secret from the Floating University, an underground educational institution in politically turbulent Poland that educated women, and later also men. Determined to work and make progress in her chosen field of science, Maria studied and practiced physics and chemistry – subjects her father had taught. Later, she was able to study in Paris at the Sorbonne with her sister's support. In 1894, Marie earned her second degree; this one in mathematics.

Pierre Curie, an instructor of physics and chemistry. Briefly separated when Marie returned to Poland, the two were married about a year later.

Marie and Pierre had three children. Irene was born in 1997. A baby girl she delivered in 1903 died shortly after birth. Their last daughter, Eva, was born in 1904. Sadly, on April 19, 1906, tragedy struck again and Pierre was killed in a road accident.

Research and Discoveries

Henri Becquerel soon discovered radioactivity while studying uranium salts. Marie took up the study of uranium rays, using a Curie electrometer. She was able to show that pitchblende, torbernite, and thorium were all radioactive. She published a research paper on her discovery, an unusual step for a woman in 1896.

Pierre set aside his own research and joined Marie in her work. By the summer of 1898, the Curies co-authored a paper on a new element, polonium. The day after Christmas 1898, a second paper came out, announcing the discovery of another new element: radium.

They continued working together until the tragic death of Pierre in a street accident in 1906. Soldiering on alone, Marie was able by 1910 to isolate pure radium from pitchblende. Marie Curie decided not to patent her discovery so that other scientists could investigate it freely.


Marie Curie received two Nobel prizes for her scientific work. First, in 1903 for Physics, she was also the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Again in 1911, she was awarded the Nobel for Chemistry and became the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes. Despite these honors, the French Academy of Sciences barred her from membership. But at the Sorbonne, she became the first female professor and was given charge of the physics laboratory that her husband had chaired. Not long after, the government of France built the Radium Institute for the study of chemistry, physics, and medicine, Marie Curie's foremost interests.

Impact on Medicine

Without the discoveries of Marie Curie, medicine may not be what it is today when it comes to both the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

In World War I, she made possible mobile X-ray trucks which helped diagnose wounded troops. Selflessly, she gave away the two golden Nobel medals to raise funds for the war efforts. A pioneer of the study of radiation, Madam Curie did not know how radioactivity would affect her health. Never wearing protective clothing, she worked with radioactive materials with her own hands, keeping radium in her desk drawer, or in a pocket of her dress. Over the 38 years that she researched radioactivity, the effects of ionizing radiation were wearing her down. She passed away in 1934 from aplastic anemia, likely due to the damaging effects of radiation on bone marrow.

Despite Marie Curie's tragic death, the impact of radium on health did not escape her notice. In the 1920s she was asked to look at diseases found in New Jersey women who worked on radium dial watches. These women were found to have a high rate of sarcomas, leukemia, anemia, and osteonecrosis. Her conclusion was that the only treatment was prevention. The year of her death, 1934, the International Labour office listed radium, radioactive substances, and X-rays as the cause of the new disease seen in the "radium girls."

While we may look at Marie Curie's story and attribute her demise due to lack of knowledge and occupational awareness at the time, it's likely that similar "experiments" are taking place today at work places around the country. On-the-job exposures are thought to play a role in 13% to 27% of lung cancers in men, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. Yet, these are exposures for which we have some awareness. With the vast quantity not only of chemicals, but other exposures that have been developed in recent years, we may look back at today as we do at Marie Curie today.

Unlike a century ago, however, we are much more aware of the potential for hidden dangers in our midst and understand preventive measures. Thinking of Marie Curie may just prompt us to remember our gloves, mask if indicated, and other measures to lower our risk of exposure to substances that may, similar to radium, turn out to be less than safe in the future.

Without Marie Curie's discovery and her husband Pierre's idea of implanting a small seed of radioactive material into a tumor to shrink it, we would not have brachytherapy. This type of internal radiation is used for many types of cancer, including early stage breast cancer.

The work of Marie Curie has an impact on everyone at some time in their life, whether you or a loved one are a patient or health professional. Her story also illustrates the sacrifice often made by researchers; how the process of making discoveries that will help others sometimes harbors unknown dangers. The next time you have an X-ray, or if you or a loved one need diagnostic tests or radiation therapy for cancer, you may wish to think of Marie Curie, and thank her for making our lives today easier and better not only from a diagnostic angle, but from her emphasis that prevention when it comes to risks is sometimes the only cure.

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