Inside the Collection

Marie Curie and the radioactive challenge

Golden coin with four mens heads with the text " Rontgen. Becqueral. M.Curie. P.Curie" around the circumference of the coin
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of the Estate of Robert Bennett, 2008.

Why is 2011 the International Year of Chemistry? To celebrate the achievements of chemists, inspire people with chemical ideas – and to mark the centenary of Marie Curie‘s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Curie was a remarkable scientist. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, and won the 1911 Chemistry prize on her own for the discovery of radium and polonium, two rare radioactive elements. Her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie won the Chemistry Nobel in 1935 for creating new radioactive elements, making the Curie family the most successful in the Nobel pantheon. (Checking the legitimacy of this metaphor, I read that the bodies of Pierre and Marie were disinterred in 1995 and placed in the Pantheon in Paris.) Marie and Pierre were further honoured when a unit of radioactivity was named the curie and a radioactive element was dubbed curium.

The medallion above depicts Röntgen (who discovered X-rays), Becquerel (who discovered radioactivity), and Pierre and Marie Curie (who jointly studied radioactivity and recognised it as an intrinsic property of certain elements). The medallion is set into a wooden plaque along with a plate bearing the text: “To commemorate the centenary of the discovery of the X-rays in 1895. Presented by the estate of Robert Bennett (1927-1994).” Radiologist Robert Bennett left a bequest that allowed the Powerhouse to acquire a large collection of X-ray machines and related material.

Imagine being a chemist in the last years of the nineteenth century, part of an enterprise that is making continual progress within an established paradigm. The 60+ known elements fit quite neatly into Mendeleev and Meyer’s periodic table. Spectroscopes have even provided glimpses of the elemental composition of stars. Modern chemistry has dismissed the alchemists’ long search for a method to transmute lead into gold, and the elements are instead considered immutable. Now some elements are discovered to be radiating energy: the paradigm faces a severe challenge.

Scientists rose to the challenge. Research into radioactivity led to discovery of the atomic nucleus, unearthing of additional elements and synthesis of elements unknown in nature (transmutation undreamt by any alchemist). It also led to new treatments for many diseases, and new techniques for use in mining, manufacturing and many other fields.

Radon needles, gold long tube objects in a cardboard box
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of Ms Margaret Manny, 2008.

Marie and Irene both spent long hours in their labs, and radiation probably caused both their deaths. During World War I they equipped ambulances with X-ray machines and trained women to run them; Marie also regularly pumped the radon gas emitted by radium into small glass tubes for insertion into tumours, an early example of radiotherapy. The photo shows radon needles from a batch used at Sydney Hospital in the 1950s.

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