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Curies discover radium

This Day in World History

December 21, 1898

Curies discover radium


Working in an old shed on a sample of pitchblende, or uraninite, using chemical processes to separate different elements, the wife and husband team finally reached their breakthrough. They isolated a new element more radioactive than the uranium studied two years before and called it radium. Five days after their discovery, Marie and Pierre Curie published the first announcement of their find in the weekly notes of a French scientific journal.

Marie Sklodowska Curie was born in Poland and came to France in 1891, at age twenty-four, to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics. She advanced rapidly and in 1895 met and married Pierre Curie, an accomplished laboratory physicist and teacher. Searching for a subject for her doctoral research, Marie was intrigued by Henri Becquerel’s announcement in 1896 that uranium gave off some form of energy similar to the X-rays discovered the year before by Wilhelm Röntgen. She began looking for other elements that gave off similar rays, quickly identifying the known element thorium as one. Pierre joined her in the work, and in June 1898, they announced the discovery of a previously unknown element they named polonium after Marie’s homeland, which they found in pitchblende. In the article announcing this find, they coined the term radioactivity for the new phenomenon. Continuing work on pitchblende, they discovered radium later in the year.

The couple became dedicated to isolating a larger sample of radium, which they succeeded in doing in 1902. The next year, the Curies and Becquerel received the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work. Pierre died in an accident just three years later, but Marie continued her work. In 1910, she succeeded in finally isolating a sample of pure radium in metallic form and measuring its atomic properties. For this research, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry the following year—becoming the only woman to receive Nobel Prizes in two fields. Remarkably, the Curies’ older daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie also shared a Nobel Prize, in collaboration with her husband Frédéric Joliot,  in chemistry, in 1935.

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