Modern History Sourcebook:
Marie Curie (1867-1934):
On the Discovery of Radium
I could tell you many things about radium and radioactivity and it would take a long
time. But as we can not do that, I shall only give you a short account of my early work
about radium. Radium is no more a baby, it is more than twenty years old, but the
conditions of the discovery were somewhat peculiar, and so it is always of interest to
remember them and to explain them.We must go back to the year 1897. Professor Curie and I worked at that time in the
laboratory of the school of Physics and Chemistry where Professor Curie held his lectures.
I was engaged in some work on uranium rays which had been discovered two years before by
Professor Becquerel.***I spent some time in studying the way of making good measurements of the uranium rays,
and then I wanted to know if there were other elements, giving out rays of the same kind.
So I took up a work about all known elements, and their compounds and found that uranium
compounds are active and also all thorium compounds, but other elements were not found
active, nor were their compounds. As for the uranium and thorium compounds, I found that
they were active in proportion to their uranium or thorium content. The more uranium or
thorium, the greater the activity, the activity being an atomic property of the elements,
uranium and thorium.Them I took up measurements of minerals and I found that several of those which contain
uranium or thorium or both were active. But then the activity was not what I could expect,
it was greater than for uranium or thorium compounds like the oxides which are almost
entirely composed of these elements.Then I thought that there should be in the minerals some unknown element having a much
greater radioactivity than uranium or thorium. And I wanted to find and to separate that
element, and I settled to that work with Professor Curie. We thought it would be done in
several weeks or months, but it was not so. It took many years of hard work to finish that
task. There was not one new ,lenient, there were several of them. But the most important
is radium, which could be separated in a pure state.***Now, the special interest of radium is in the intensity of its rays which several
million times greater than the uranium rays. And the effects of the rays make the radium
so important. If we take a practical point of view, then the most important property of
the rays is the production of physiological effects on the cells of the human organism.
These effects may be used for the cure of several diseases. Good results have been
obtained in many cases. What is considered particularly important is the treatment of
cancer. The medical utilization of radium makes it necessary to get that element in
sufficient quantities. And so a factory of radium was started to begin with in France, and
later in America where a big quantity of ore named carnotite is available. America does
produce many grams of radium every year, but the price is still very high because the
quantity of radium contained in the ore is so small. The radium is more than a hundred
thousand times dearer than gold.But we must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove
useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific
work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must
be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a
scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.***The scientific history of radium is beautiful. The properties of the rays have been
studied very closely. We know that particles are expelled from radium with a very great
velocity near to that of the light. We know that the atoms of radium are destroyed by
expulsion of these particles, some of which are atoms of helium. And in that way it has
been proved that the radioactive elements are constantly disintegrating and that they
produce at the end ordinary elements, principally helium and lead. That is, as you see, a
theory of transformation of atoms which are not stable, as was believed before, but may
undergo spontaneous changes.Radium is not alone in having these properties. Many having other radio-elements are
known already, the polonium, the mesothorium, the radiothorium, the actinium. We know also
radioactive gases, named emanations. There is a great variety of substances and effects in
radioactivity. There is always a vast field left to experimentation and I hope that we may
have some beautiful progress in the following years. It is my earnest desire that some of
you should carry on this scientific work and keep for your ambition the determination to
make a permanent contribution to science.
Source:From Marie Curie, The Discovery of Radium, Address by Madame M. Curie at Vassar
College, May 14, 1921, Ellen S. Richards Monographs No. 2 (Poughkeepsie: Vassar
College, 1921), n.p.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998