Discovery Of Radium

Feature, Modern Era

A New Weapon Against Pain and Suffering

“26TH December, 1898: The various reasons we have just enumerated lead us to believe that the new radioactive substance contains a new element to which we propose to give the name RADIUM.”

“5th January, 1899: Irene has fifteen teeth!”

Two entries in the same hand, the hand of a young Polish woman living happily, though not without twinges of nostalgia for her beloved Poland, in Paris with her French scientist husband and her baby daughter. She had been fascinated by science in all its aspects since childhood.

When her elder sister had left Poland to study medicine in Paris, had then married an exiled Pole and stayed there, young Marie Sklodowska made up her mind to go there too, and study science.

To save up the fare, and to see her widowed father through a spell of poverty, she took a job as governess to a wealthy family in the country near Warsaw. Her elder sister had been urging her to join them in Paris, but Marie delayed, month after month, until she had saved sufficient money to put her father on his feet and to get to Paris without arriving as a pauper. Then she wrote:

“Now, Bronya, I ask you for a definite answer. Decide if you can really take me in at your house, for I can come now. I have enough to pay all my expenses. If, therefore, without depriving yourself of a great deal, you could give me my food, write to me and say so.”

And Bronya, overjoyed, wrote back, urged her to come at once, but to bring bed clothes, towels, mattress, stout shoes and both her hats.

Marie came, moved in with the gay and hospitable Dluskis, her sister and brother-in-law, joined the milling international crowd of students at the Sorbonne, though she was far too shy to mix with the French ones. She was upset on finding that the French on which she had prided herself as a governess was not up to the demands she now made on it as a student: she found herself misunderstanding, failing to comprehend, whole sentences in the lectures; as a result, much of the time she should have been studying lecture-notes was taken up in learning the language. And this was made more difficult by her devoted, gay sister and her husband. In their home, night never fell; the house rang with music and laughter, or the late-night arrival of Casimir’s patients, for almost every hour of the twenty-four. She had set her heart on two Master’s degrees, in physics and in mathematics, and at last, in order to get the time, the environment, in which to master the subjects, she was forced to leave her sister and move into a bleak, depressing room at the other end of Paris.

And here she achieved her ambition, only to have it succeeded by another. As soon as she had obtained the degrees, the Society of National Industry ordered a study from her on the magnetic properties of various steels. Her own tiny laboratory was far too small for the work and the considerable quantity of equipment which would be required. When she looked round for another, she was told to contact a young French scientist, Pierre Curie, doing advanced work in his well-equipped laboratory: he, perhaps, might be able to find room for her.

She was shy, terrified, at the idea of approaching the man. She refused. A friend asked them both to tea. Shortly afterward, they were sharing Pierre’s laboratory. Not long after that they married.

They had discovered that their interests in research were the same. The German physicist Rontgen had only recently discovered what he christened “X-rays”, rays which would penetrate solid objects, and now the Frenchman, Henri Becquerel, proved that compounds of the element uranium had the same property. If he placed a lump of, say, pitchblende, on a sheet of black paper, with a photographic plate beneath, the lump made an impression. The impression was feeble, but it was there. Pierre and Marie were fascinated by this phenomenon, and Marie, convinced that there was far more to be learnt about it, began at once to dig deeper. Pierre and his brother made the complex equipment for her and she set to work to catalogue, one by one, the peculiarities, the incidence of this radiation. Soon she found that it occurred with the compounds of a second element, thorium. Now it seemed to her that it required a name: she christened it “radioactivity”.

Then came the major discovery. In search of other substances with the same property, she had been analyzing, with Pierre’s help, samples which they took from the mineral collection at the School of Physics. She knew, or thought she knew, that her samples, to be of any interest, to show any radio-activity, would have to contain, in one form or another, either uranium or thorium. She had investigated every other known element: only these two were capable of emitting the feeble, existing radiation. But now, quite unexpectedly, she came across a uranium compound with radioactivity far, far stronger than could have been foreseen from the amount of uranium in it.

Her first, wise reaction was to assume she had made a mistake.

But no, she measured the radioactivity a dozen or more times, checked the chemical analysis of the compound and its weight. It still emitted a powerful, absurdly powerful, radiation.

Then she discovered that one or two other compounds behaved in the same way.

There could be but one answer: mixed in with these compounds of uranium there must be a small quantity of some as yet undiscovered, fantastically radio-active, element. She consulted Pierre, and for the first time since she had begun her study of radio-activity he found himself fascinated not just by the young and attractive wife who was doing it, but by the work itself. He dropped his own research and joined her.

Neither could have guessed that the search for this new element of which they were so sure, yet which neither had seen, would take not a month, not two, not twelve, but forty-five months— nearly four years. We can hardly separate the work of husband from wife, largely because they were both desperately anxious, throughout their search, to be treated as one. In one of their early reports to the Academy of Science, in July, 1898, they went to some trouble to conceal their separate identities:

“Certain minerals containing uranium and thorium (pitchblende, chalcolite, uranite) are very active from the point of view of emission of Becquerel rays. In a previous communication, one of us showed that their activity was even greater than that of uranium and thorium, and stated the opinion that this effect was due to some other very active substance contained in small quantity in these minerals.”

Throughout their joint career, cut tragically short, they were either “we” or “one of us”.

They began by investigating pitchblende. They reasoned that the new element would be in it, and they calculated, with what they hoped was pessimism, that it would be present to a maximum quantity of one per cent. (In fact, it was a millionth part.) Within a month of the start of their collaboration they were able to isolate a radio-active substance, a new element, but it was not the one; it was not powerful enough to be. In honour of Marie’s country, they called it polonium, but it was not what they were looking for; it was, they felt, largely a waste of time. And time was slipping, racing, past. Month after month went by. They had already christened their powerful, unseen element “radium”, but they seemed no nearer to finding it.

“Pierre,” Marie said, “what will it look like?”

“I, I don’t know. But I’d like it to have a very beautiful colour.”

By now Pierre would cheerfully have abandoned the task of preparing pure radium. What did it matter? Surely the meaning of the phenomenon was more interesting than its material reality? He urged Marie to give up, and failed to shake her determination. They had found that the pitchblende they needed for their experiments was terribly, impossibly, expensive; but then “one of us” hit upon the idea of asking the Austrian government, which had large stocks of the ore, used in making glass, to let them have some of the residue after manufacture. They offered to pay for the transport of a ton of it to Paris, and weeks later, when they had almost despaired of ever seeing it, a horse-drawn waggon drew up outside their door, delivered a load of sacks, full of the dull brown ore, still mixed with the pineneedles of Bohemia.

They found that their guess of one per cent had been ludicrously wrong. The radiation was so powerful that only the tiniest quantity of radium was needed to produce amazing phenomena, yet they seemed no nearer to isolating it.

Forty-five months after they had announced the probable existence of radium they were successful. They had succeeded in preparing from this ton of pitchblende a tenth of a gram of pure radium, had succeeded in measuring its atomic weight.

At last the element which had existed for certain in their minds existed officially. It was more beautiful even than Pierre’s “beautiful colour”: it shone by itself, like a glow-worm.

And only now were the wonders of the new element revealed, only now were the four long years, sifting and testing their huge sample of pitchblende, really worth while. For their substance, their radium, apart from glowing in the dark, proved to have a radioactivity two million times stronger than uranium; it made, like Becquerel’s uranium, only far more so, an impression on photographic plates through paper, cardboard, wood and glass; it made the atmosphere around it conduct electricity; it coloured any glass vessel into which it was put a brilliant mauve; it reduced the paper in which it was wrapped to ashes and powder. And it made a host of other substances, but by no means all, glow under its influence, so that a diamond, for example, could be distinguished from a paste imitation: the diamond glowed brightly, the paste did not.

But the most important fact, the one which, alone, made the four years’ work worth while: radium had the power of destroying human cells. Both the Curies suffered burns from touching the substance, even from holding a tube of it. Their friend and confidant Henri Becquerel, who was as excited by their discovery as they were, carried a glass tube of it in his waistcoat pocket and was badly burnt. Pierre, still nursing badly burnt fingers, but determined to waste no time, studied the effect of radium on animals and proved what he had begun to suspect: radium destroyed diseased cells and could be applied, its radioactivity “aimed”, in such a way as to destroy them and do the minimum of damage to the healthy cells around them. It could be used to cure growths of all sorts, from ringworm to the dreaded cancer.

At last, and the Press was quick to take up the tale, the new element was useful, had more, far more, than a novelty, scarcity value. A French industrialist built a factory to make the substance, extract it from pitchblende, and he gave the Curies, for the first time since their work on radium had begun, a handsome laboratory. But they must, he urged, and their friends urged still more strongly, they must patent their discovery. They were poor people; in this way they would become rich, fabulously rich.

Pierre and Marie Curie refused to patent. Radium, they declared, belonged to the world. Such a healing agent, it was already alleviating cancers, and had been remarkably successful with less serious ailments like ringworm, which it cleared up miraculously, could not be the property of one person, even of a team.

In 1903 they shared with Becquerel the Nobel Prize for Physics. Yet, they were not happy: their lives were not their own, journalists pestered them for intimate details of their life, others grew impatient and angry that there was not, as yet, sufficient radium to go round, not enough for the sufferers all over the world who needed it. But as it took six tons of pitchblende to produce one gram of radium, this was not easy. Slowly, though, the world supply of radium mounted. In England, the Radium Institute was founded and soon, thanks to philanthropy and hard work, there was enough for all treatments needed in the British Isles.

The partnership of Pierre and Marie Curie was broken by death, when he was run over by a horse dray in a Paris street in 1906, but Marie went on with her work, investigating and working with the healing properties of her radium, until she died, a victim of it, in 1934. Her last illness was variously diagnosed but proved to have been due to the effects of radio-activity over a large number of years, a serious, incurable anaemia.

It was the work of the Curies that gave mankind a first insight into the possibility of dealing with “incurable” diseases, opened up the flood-gates of research into the healing effects of radioactivity. Soon it was discovered that “hard” X-rays, of a very short wave-length, had much the same curative effect as radium. New radio-active substances, not active in themselves, but made so, transformed into “isotopes” of the same element, with varying degrees of radio-activity, are being used to-day, not only for therapy, but for scientific research. New applications are being discovered each year, and all because a young Polish woman determined to chase an elusive “thing”, until it had been found.