Legends of the Lab Coat: Marie Curie
In the first of this series celebrating legends of the lab coat, we turn our attention to Marie Curie.
Marie Curie was a lab coat wearing badass. When she died, her body was such a casualty of her own work that it was riddled with radioactive atoms. As such, she needed to be buried safely in a lead-lined coffin that was almost one inch thick. This fact embodies the invincible fire and a sense of purpose that this gifted student of the sciences indebted to the world.
Pure all-consuming fatal devotion was the price Curie paid without fear for coining the term radioactivity. The fruits of her lab coat passion were discovering two radioactive elements, polonium and radium. She is also remembered for bringing X-rays to the bullet-ridden and bone-crushing frontlines of World War I.
Not only was Curie’s corpse dispatched in a lead-coated coffin, but so was her lifetime of research. Her original study notes that fermented and brewed her theories and ideas on radioactivity are kept in France’s National Library in Paris. However, so exposed to radiation were these notebooks that they are kept in lead-lined boxes. It is said that they are contaminated with radium 226, which has a half-life of roughly 1600 years. That is the same amount of time that had spanned from when current-day Istanbul became the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire to when Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. In other words, a bloody long time indeed! Visitors to the library can have the luxury of viewing the items. However, to do so, you must sign and waiver and wear protective clothing.
Lab Coat Be Damned!
In the early days of her research, Curie, alongside her husband Pierre, worked in a ramshackle shed with fractured windows, which offered the sole source of a ventilation system. Giving these conditions and the serious raw materials they were experimenting with, a dangerous iceberg was unknowingly lurking beneath the surface. Thus, it was no surprise when the husband and wife team became inflicted by burns and exhaustion that, in hindsight, were obviously in thanks to unprecedented exposures to high doses of radiation. However, neither would dwell on any assertion that their research materials were the root cause of their ailments. Instead, they remained committed to an aggressive and impressive work ethic concentrated on a single point. In fact, they seemed to blossom under the extreme duress of their lab work despite the treacherous and irreversible dangers of it.
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That said, despite the absolute chronic levels of radiation that ended up loitering in her body at the time of her death, Curie was not completely ignorant of the risks she exposed herself to daily. Simply put, she just profoundly believed in the importance of her work and was willing to be a martyr in the name of enlightenment and advancement. For instance, when her research cracked the big lab coat leagues and she found herself with a team of researchers, their safety was at the front and center of her staff policy. Here, she advocated lead screens and blood tests for those working with radioactive materials. In addition, she stoutly believed that only trained colleagues should wrangle the radioactive materials.
By 1911, Curie was very ill with clear signs of radiation sickness: dull aches in the bones and chronic feelings of discomfort. Radiation was unsurprisingly chewing her insides apart. An operation to cut away lesions from her uterus and kidney was required leaving her weakened and fraught. Yet, she never let it affect her work and was never prompted to stop her research. And remarkably, she lived another 23 years. But finally, her body began to wither beyond maintenance. In 1934, she developed aplastic anemia, a rare condition linked to high exposure to her famed discoveries, polonium and radium. As a result, her body stopped producing new blood cells, and she passed away on July 4, 1934, at the age of 66 - a true martyr to the lab coat world.
News of her death brought great praise and reflection on her life. The New York Times bestowed on her the label: a “martyr to science.” Other media crowed she had contributed magnificently to the lab coat community and the greater good of mankind across the world . Fine plaudits indeed to carry you across the void. But let’s take it back a notch. What was the single step that began Curie’s incredible journey to becoming this lab coat wearing badass?
The Path to the Lab Coat
In a nutshell, Polish-born Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist that gained wide credence as one of the most famous scientists of her generation. Known as the 'mother of modern physics,' decked in a lab coat, she discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. This feat enabled her to become the first and only woman to capture a Nobel Prize in two different fields (physics and chemistry).
This was kickstarted when she was chosen as the catalyst in furthering the research of French physicist Henri Becquerel. In 1896, he discovered that the element uranium emits rays.
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As Bill Bryson notes in his bestselling book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, “considering the importance of what he had found, Becquerel did an extraordinary thing: he turned the matter over to a graduate student for investigation. Fortunately, the student was a recent emigre from Poland named Marie Curie.”
Tackling the abrupt transition to this beautiful gift of a project head-on, Curie threw on her lab coat and with her husband Pierre, discovered that certain rocks poured out constant and extraordinary amounts of energy without demising in size or changing in any detectable way. Curie dubbed this effect radioactivity.
Curie built on Becquerel’s observations of the element uranium with unforgiving supremacy. At first, she and other lab coat wearers were baffled about the source of the high-energy emissions. “The uranium shows no appreciable change of state, no visible chemical transformation, it remains, in appearance at least, the same as ever, the source of the energy it discharges remains undetectable,” she documented in 1900.
Finally, she posited a daring narrative: The rays emitted might be a fundamental property of uranium atoms. We now know these to be subatomic particles released as the atoms decay. Her theory had radical implications because, at the time, the atom was thought to be a poor man’s particle that could not be divided: nothing fancy, nothing to see here. Curie’s hypothesis turned this scientific understanding of matter on its head.
However, Curie remained puzzled by data that showed that the intensity of the radiation emitted by uranium was more significant than expected based on the amounts of the elements she knew to be in her samples. Re-donning her lab coat, in 1898 she made the key breakthrough and identified one of the substances and named it polonium, after her homeland. Five months later, she repeated the feat and christened a second element, radium. Curie described the elements she studied as “radioactive.”
In isolating these radioactive elements to study their properties, Curie’s lab coat certainly got put through its paces. Curie extracted pure radium salts from pitchblende, a highly radioactive ore obtained from mines in Bohemia. The extraction required tons of substance. She dissolved in cauldrons of acid before getting barium sulphate and other alkalines. She then purified and converted it into chlorides. To filter radium from the alkalines, Curie had to go through hundreds and thousands of painstaking crystallizations of the raw materials. And yet, after a mind-numbing cycle of this for years, had only acquired enough pure radium to fill a thimble.
A Lab Coat Star Is Born
But, her tedious dedication would not go without notice or reward. In the year 1903, Curie became the first woman in France to earn a physics Ph.D. But win it in style she did. So well versed was her thesis on radiation that professors at the university glowed that it was one of the most outstanding contributions to science ever submitted.
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Amazingly, in perhaps a sign of the times, the Nobel Prize committee nearly skipped over her when awarding the prize later that year. Instead, it was almost awarded only to Becquerel and Pierre Curie. Perhaps driven by tradition and history, the committee appeared unable to fathom the undeniable truth that the scientific breakthroughs had congregated around a woman in a lab coat.
True to pattern, stiff male opposition tried to reduce her contributions to a minimum. Curie was eventually brought on board by the committee after intense and unrelenting lobbying and insistence from her husband won out. He insisted that his wife had originated their research, conceived the experiments, and generated their theories about the nature of radioactivity. In the end, both Curies would share the Nobel Prize in physics with the man who lay down the groundworks for them, Becquerel. This nod meant that Curie was the first female recipient of a Nobel.
It was the beginning of a glorious stretch for Curie that ordained her a lab coat wearing star. She would match her Nobel Prize in Physics with one in Chemistry in 1911, this time sweeping the award all by herself.
Yet, despite a Nobel Prize for each hand, Curie's work and contribution to the world were far from over. She still had a stamp to leave on the world of x-ray technology. And it was in this area that made invaluable contributions to the war effort in the fields of France between 1914-1918.
Transitioning Lab Coat Fields
Curie's research was a lynchpin in the advancement of x-rays in medicine. So when World War One broke out, she realized that the electromagnetic radiation of x-rays could help doctors to see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in the soldiers' bodies and remove them, as well as locate broken bones.
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But at the outbreak of the Great War, x-ray machines were only available in the hospitals of bustling cities, making them a far and unrealistic journey for the bloodied and battered men on the war torn fronts of Belgium. Never one to be deterred by inconvenience Curie’s cunning was to create a hybrid vehicle she dubbed a “radiological car”. This road worthy machine was simply a converted ambulance with an x-ray machine and a darkroom in the back.
Curie helped equip and drive these vehicles to the front lines of war. In fact, such was her prominence that the Red Cross made her head of its radiological service. She held training courses for medical orderlies and doctors in the new techniques. Once up and running, she retrofitted 18 ambulances with portable x-rays that meant wounded men could be treated all but at the scene of the crime.
Naturally, she led the training of the people required to operate these machines too. This was an intense crash course that covered a far flung field of physics, radiation, and anatomy. By war’s end, 200 of these vehicles were in operation with over one million soldiers receiving a much needed x-ray in them.
Lab Coat Legacy
Curie's epitaph in the world of science is an impressive one, all thanks to a persistence in pursuing and understanding this unknown mystery of radioactivity. The value of this of course is that cancers could now be tackled with these new radioactive elements. Thus, Curie helped pave the way to safe hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of lives by beating back the advancing tides of cancer with radiotherapy.
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In addition, despite the physically demanding nature of her work and the role it played in diminishing her body and health, Curie's fire and passion for her research never extinguished.
Her contributions to medicine and science have been immense. She is still the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in different fields, and to boot she left two huge imprints on the medical world - the use of radiotherapy on cancer patients, and championing the widespread use of x-ray machines.
Where the majority of us struggle to make a dent in the world, Curie left a crater sized hole of influence in the fields that she dominated. Lab coat wearers don’t come much more impressive than that.