Radioactive Renegade

No Duty more Urgent than that of Giving Thanks!

You Radiate Girl!  How do you satisfy a dabbler’s curiosity with materials and substances?

You wheel in eight tons of uranium, known as pitchblende. (Name given by German silver miners, because of its dark looks).  You boil, bubble, toil and trouble until this girl’s best friend has glowed down to a one-fifth of a teaspoon of pure magic.  Marie Curie thought she had the perfect pudding - a new element.  She DID … and called it ‘my child’. 


This chemical master chef was described as the original woman in nuclear.  She was an overachiever, superwoman, who cooked, cleaned, discovered radium, won a couple of Nobel Prizes, and raised a Nobel Prize-winning daughter. But she never forgot how to make a good pirogi… (I love meeting the Poles, not only because of their great minds and renowned romantic spirit -- but because of their potato pirogis…and demolition derbies in Thorpe, Wisconsin).  Any reader with a Polish background?

Curie was born in Poland but moved to France to study.  This young woman was determined to get an education and succeed in her studies. Overcoming numerous obstacles and criticisms, Marie Curie became a pioneer in the field of science in a male-dominated field greatly contributing to the worlds of both Physics and Chemistry as we now know them.

Vexing Puzzles

Self-taught and tenacious, she easily earned her degree in Physics and went on to receive another degree in Mathematical Sciences. She married French scientists Pierre Curie and they talked of uranium, radioactive material, polonium (which was named after her native land of Poland) and the stout, chunky hunk of positivity - Protons …you know, all those romantic subjects. They talked about piezoelectric quartz, and the beautiful glowing radium.

Their favorite baby was the hidden powerhouse of a new element, in uraninite – radium in 1898.  Everyone thought this was a dud, but because of the Curies, it shot to fame. They were interested in the discoveries in the field of radiation and began studying uranium radiations in pitchblende.  She found out that Uranium was a powerful element and it came to pass that it did indeed have a great impact on history.

On this quest for knowledge, Marie Curie worked with radium day in and day out for almost 9 years.  It glowed with supernatural energy, it was radioactive, and both Curies were very sick from working with it. They were too sick to pick up their Nobel Prize for Physics but kept working in the lab.   One day, Monsieur Pierre Curie was hit by a car and so weakened by the effects of overexposure to radiation, he soon died.  Students that painted clock dials died.  In that time they used radioactive material mixed with luminescent crystalline powder to paint the dials. 

During World War I, Madam Curie fought to provide the French military with mobile radiology units.  The first unit was deployed in 1914.

Marie thought it wise to have plenty of X-ray machines on hand to help the doctors better locate bullets and shrapnel in the injured soldiers. Undaunted by the fact that there was previously no easy way to accomplish this task, Marie created special X-ray vans, she drove them herself. She trained 150 women to do the job.  After the war, she did a tour of the United States, where she was welcomed triumphantly, to raise funds for research on radium.

Marie continued working, she was almost blind and her fingertips were burnt and worn.  She ignored the fact that radium was depleting HER power – science was more important than anything to her.  She kept experimenting holding test tubes with her rawish hands.  She used a straw in her mouth to move toxic ingredients from vessel to vessel.  Her ‘child’ was killing her.

Marie Curie died on July 4th, 1934, at the age of 66 from leukemia, brought on from massive overexposure to radioactive elements.

Marie’s scientific studies began with the research of a phenomenon for which she later coined the word “radioactivity”. Today radioactivity is used in cancer treatments, molecular biology, modern genetics, atomic bombs as well as the dating of artifacts. The contributions that Marie Curie made to science are immense.  She was a superwoman. 


Imagine surgeries in the old days…where they tried to cure illnesses by making holes in each other’s skulls to let out evil spirits.  If your arm or leg was crushed or diseased, you could have it cut off.  Knocking patients unconscious often caused dangerous injuries, getting people drunk might make surgery less painful, but some died of alcohol poisoning.  You could have opted to chew on leather! The stinging with nettles during surgery proved only to make the operation more miserable.  Laughing gas was an improvement, sniffing ether-soaked rags knocked you out and numbed pain –yes siree it worked well… trouble is, ether was an explosive.  Working close to lighted candles posed a problem.

Now, some said back in the 1840’s that “Suffering was right and natural”. The privileged had other ideas -- Queen Victoria used chloroform for childbirth -- so by this time, everyone wanted it. Some 150 years on, and science has carried us to dizzying heights.


And I would surmise that in 500 years more; THAT generation will look back upon our science of healing and query, “Now. Why did they actually cut people open and expose them to radiation; when fighting cancer is to simply…” A stinging weakness of a postmodern / aggressively progressive society is that we often see our “today” as THE paragon of all virtue and insight. And medicine IS one of those virtues of progress.

Even if we have most unsafely arrived at some existentialist wasteland, vapid in meaning of being. We are Neanderthal in “why are we here?” or “is there meaning to our being?” but we can certainly keep ourselves alive 4X longer than in 1400 – (simply avoiding the above questions until we are 85 vs. 500 years ago, when they faced death daily).

I love, most Americans love… science (and when you are sick, you love it even more). But it reminds me, at times, of how the love of it killed the Curies and in a somewhat less radioactive way, how it kills, so very often, our journey of faith. We are completely blind to how what we now call science will, in 500 years, most likely be scoffed at (and be misinterpreted) much the same as we, today, scoff and misinterpret the myth, faith and belief of those that came before us. We are not very humble for ones that know so little. And that may be one of the critiques that will come from future generations.


Hard to be thankful today, for what we have, when our news cycle has peripheral past-blinders on; being young, hip and cool is that what truly matters; and our best generation is forever the most current. In Tolkien mythology / story telling; he modeled the ancients that viewed the strongest warriors and maidens as being from a time long ago. That seems hardly worth a chuckle around today’s simulated fireplace. In only 3 generations; we have gone from getting a 1930s bag of apples, nuts and oranges for Xmas; to perhaps getting a 1970s baseball glove; to now getting a 2012  X-box, new bike, skateboard, vacation to Florida and $200 from Grandma. Hard to be thankful when past hardship is, for most youth, fiction; and life is, as far as the eye can wander, filled with delightful illusion.

But, Curie was a different story perhaps. Yes, it may have been vanity that pushed her on – she perhaps sacrificed a deeper relationship with her daughters. And intellectual pride / curiosity that prodded her even into lethal research. But there was an undeniable selflessness about her. Today, the Bin Laden’s of the world send others to be the suicide bombers in order to further their “holy” movement. Curie sent herself.   


As I think of the radiation treatments done over the past couple months on my friends for thyroid cancer, I am grateful today for people like the Curies, and doctors, for continuing to be glowing beacons for healing, for the progression in science and math.  Madam Curie died from exhaustion and complications which stemmed from her life work.

Her Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911 says this…” 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".

Curie intentionally did not patent the radium isolation process, instead leaving it open so the scientific community could research unhindered.

No Duty more Urgent than that of Giving Thanks!



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------ November 24, 2012 at 07:53 PM
Margaret, in case you missed my recent post, I want to thank you again for your kudo. It was greatly appreciated. And if you ever find flaws in my facts or logic, let me know. I am sure that I slip up many times. And I do appreciate your informative but typically light-hearted posts.
Margaret Wachholz November 25, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Hello Thomas, speaking of facts and flaws…today is Stir-Up-Sunday- the day you must prepare your Christmas Puddings & have the family take a turn in stirring (like The Fruit Cake). I’ve made mine (since last Sunday). People are curing cancer and doing worthy jobs, and mine is to remind Woodbury to make the Fruit Cake and Christmas Pudding. Ahhh, I almost neglected to let you know! Keep up a good combative fight in politics & religion. “Tis great fodder and I’ll keep the fodder up in other ways – in the gob… with the all important Christmas Fruit Cakes and Christmas Puddings that few care for - for tradition’s sake. Thanks for writngThomas, Margaret
------ November 25, 2012 at 02:09 PM
hi Margaret, sounds tempting. but, alas I'm on a low fat, low salt, low cholesterol diet. real bummer at Holiday time. Again, thanks for the compliments. And to you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


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