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Vol. 33 No. 1
January-February 2011

Preface |

Celebrating One Hundred Years

by Guest Editors Robert Guillaumont, Jerzy Kroh, Stanislaw Penczek, and Jean-Pierre Vairon

When the United Nations declared that 2011 would be the International Year of Chemistry, it did so in part because the year 2011 coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Madame Marie Curie—an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science. With this in mind, IUPAC has devoted this special issue of Chemistry International devoted entirely to Marie Curie. Produced under the direction of a French-Polish editorial board, the issue explores the impact of Marie Curie’s discoveries and personality on the development of modern chemistry, physics, and nuclear medicine. The closely linked contributions to this issue merge the scientific and personal aspects of Marie Curie—the scientist and the woman—to offer a new perspective on her unique life.

In addition to the eminent specialists who contributed articles, this issue features two authors with firsthand knowledge of Marie Curie. We are very much grateful to Hélène Langevin-Joliot, granddaughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, who kindly agreed to
coauthor the first article. In addition, we are thankful for the contributions from guest editor Jerzy Kroh, a former student of one of Marie Curie’s coworkers—in essence a grandson-through-science of Marie Curie.

Let us point out, in a few words, why Marie Curie is so closely tied to the International Year of Chemistry.

Marie Curie is a legendary figure of science. She received the highest scientific recognition for her work twice: being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903 and 1911. The first time, she shared the third-ever Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie; half to Henri Becquerel for “the discovery of the spontaneous radioactivity” and half to Pierre and Marie Curie for “their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Henri Becquerel.” It is notable that in these statements that the word “radioactivity” is associated with the name of Henri Becquerel since the word was coined by Marie Curie in her doctorate, which was presented at the Sorbonne in 1903. Pierre and Marie Curie had already announced, five years earlier, the discovery of the elements polonium and radium. But physicists and chemists were still disputing the existence of “radioactivity” and the chemists on the Nobel Prize jury refused to mention the word “radium” in the heading of a Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1911 Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements polonium and radium, by the isolation of radium, and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Her scientific stature was now at the level of her friends Jean Perrin, Paul Langevin, Henri Poincare, Albert Einstein, and many others who renewed the sciences of physics and chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Curie received a thorough education in chemistry in Poland before graduating with degrees in physics and mathematics from the La Sorbonne, Paris, in 1893 and 1894. A year before attending the Sorbonne in Paris, she worked in the laboratory of the Warsaw Museum of Industry and Agriculture, which was headed by Professor Józef Jerzy Boguski, a former assistant of Dymitri Ivanovich Mendeleev in St. Petersburg. In this lab, she learned qualitative and quantitative chemical analysis, studied the chemistry of minerals, and gained practice in various chemical procedures. In Poland, Curie also studied with Napoleon Milicer (a pupil of Robert Bunsen) and Ludwik Kossakowski. She wrote, “If Professor N. Milicer and his assistant lecturer, Dr. L. Kossakowski, hadn’t given me a sound grasp of analysis in Warsaw, I would have never separated out radium.”

In Paris, Curie promptly became acquainted with the state of the art of the 1895 fundamentals of chemistry, mainly analytical chemistry, working with Gustave Bémont, chef de travaux at the Ecole Municipale de Physique et Chimie de la ville de Paris. Clearly, Pierre and Marie were already au fait in radiation physics and the measurement of radioactivity. From her 1911 Nobel Lecture, it is clear that by mastering both chemistry and radioactivity, she pioneered the concept of chemistry based on the “atom.” Marie Curie’s Nobel lecture summarized the state of the art of this “new science” she created, today known as radiochemistry. This could be described as the sunrise for a new school of thought in chemistry, and in science in general, centered upon the atom. In this context, it is worth noting that Pierre and Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, discovered artificial radioactivity. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for this discovery, one year after Marie Curie passed away.

Marie Curie is one of the most important women in human history. The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s list of “300 Women Who Changed the World” rightly includes Marie Curie. Clearly, she is someone who helped change the course of science, but she also helped change the course of women in society. Faced with a male-dominated world—in particular, a male-centered academia and press—she still managed to advance farther in science than any woman before her. In the media frenzy surrounding her accomplishments, she overcame discrimination on the part of numerous prestigious academic institutions that refused to fully recognize her scientific achievements. Françoise Giroud’s biography, Marie Curie: A Life, explores this aspect of her life and career and emphasizes her role as a feminist precursor. Today, although inequalities still linger, the opportunities available to women in science have grown steadily since Curie’s heroic achievements. In fact, in 2009, for the first time three women received Nobel prizes in the sciences—nearly a century after the two-time Nobel Prize winner was barred from France’s science academy.

In addition to helping advance the rights of women, Marie Curie had a major impact on society through her establishment of Institutes of Radium in France and Poland, providing them with large specimens of radium. During World War I she helped improve treatment to soldiers in France (together with her young daughter) by providing them with X-rays out of a small army of cars called “Petites Curie” (Little Curies).

A great deal has been already said, written, and disseminated about Marie Curie. Of the many Marie Curie biographies, the one written by Marie Curie’s daughter Eve is particularly popular; it is often a reference text for students, especially in Poland (E. Curie 1937). Marie Curie’s name is inseparable from that of radium, the most popularized chemical element among all others during the first half of the 20th century. Around the world, her name has also become attached to numerous international scientific programs, research institutions, universities, high schools, streets, and more. Her image appears on many medals, stamps, and currency. Her ashes, along with Pierre Curie’s, are in the French Pantheon, the greatest tribute paid by France to its most renowned citizens.

We are convinced, as guest editors, that this issue of Chemistry International will help illuminate the life and career of Marie Curie. In addition, we hope it proves inspirational to young scientists everywhere. The legacy of Curie is that talent, combined with perseverance and hard work, can lead to exceptional results.
The following quotes from Marie Curie capture the essence of the woman and her unique contributions. “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” And then, in her Nobel Lecture, she modestly stated that “In the case of radium, isolation was completely successful but required several years of unremitting effort.” Obviously, her colleague Albert Einstein was correct when he said “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not spoiled.”

Robert Guillaumont is an honorary professor of chemistry at the University of Paris-Sud, Orsay; a member of the French Academy of Sciences; and president of the French National Committee of Chemistry. His research field in radiochemistry focused mainly on tracer scale chemistry and on thermodynamics of actinide chemistry. He is a member of several committees on radwaste management.

Jerzy Kroh is a full member of the Polish Academy of Sciences, honorary member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, doctor honoris causa of four universities (Glasgow, Leeds, Pavia, Lodz), exRector of Lodz Technical University, author and coauthor of 400 scientific papers, and founder of the radiation chemistry school in Lodz, Poland.

Stanislaw Penczek is a professor of polymer chemistry at the Polish Academy of Sciences and is a member of the Academy. He is also an honorary professor of the Jagiellonian University (Krakow), Doctor h.c of the University Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris), and Dr h.c. of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is a foreign member of the German (Nord Rheinische) Academy of Sciences and a member of the IUPAC Bureau.

Jean-Pierre Vairon is emeritus professor of chemistry at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris; a member of the French National Committee of Chemistry; coordinator of the 2011-Marie Sklodowska-Curie Nobel prize celebration; and Dr. h.c. of the Russian Academy of Sci. and honorary member of the Polish Chemical Society.


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