poster for cancer detection campaign
Poster for a campaign urging early detection of cancer. Radium and related materials had some success in destroying some types of cancers, but they have since been replaced by other radioactive materials, direct radiation treatments, and chemicals.

The Radium Institute

A World Center for the Study of Radioactivity

UNDER CURIE'S DIRECTION the Radium Institute in Paris became a world center for the study of radioactivity (there were only a few others on the same level--the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England; Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry; and Vienna's Radium Institute). Between 1919 and Curie's death in 1934, scientists at her Radium Institute published 483 works, including 31 papers and books by Curie herself. Until the end of her life she continued research to isolate, concentrate, and purify polonium and actinium.

She considered it important to get enough of these elements to do thorough scientific studies of them. At the same time, the work was intimately related to the commercial production of radioactive substances and many applications in science and industry as well as medicine.

Alongside the research, the Radium Institute became an international center for measuring the radium content of various products. Curie believed that providing this service, necessary for doctors and others who used radium, was a personal responsibility.

Marie Curie's office at the Institute Marie Curie's reconstructed laboratory
The Curie Museum in Paris keeps Marie Curie's office in the Radium Institute as she left it, as well as the chemical laboratory that she and Irène Joliot-Curie used. The laboratory (right) was reconstructed in 1981--and decontaminated, for it was too radioactive for safe occupancy. (© Rachel Paty-Musée Curie)

THE CENTRAL TASK of her life was no longer her own research, but directing the Curie Institute. Seeing that science was becoming specialized, she organized the Radium Institute in a new way--an entire major laboratory devoted to a single subject. Researchers formed small teams, each team with its own independent questions but always about radioactivity. Each team not only attacked its questions but also served as a training-ground for students. The institute housed three or four dozen researchers, and Curie kept in touch with the details of the work of every one of them. From the moment she arrived in the morning she would be surrounded by researchers. Often she stopped to sit with them on the stairs of the narrow entrance hall, briskly discussing the problems of the day.

Curie's research staff always included some foreigners, especially Poles and some women. She considered all the researchers working under her direction her “children.” One of them, Salomon Rosenblum, made a major discovery in 1929, when his work with actinium (prepared by Curie herself) helped confirm quantum theory. But her own daughter Irène and son-in-law Frédéric Joliot became the stars of the Radium Institute. Curie did not live to see the Joliot-Curies receive a joint Nobel Prize for Chemistry in December 1935. But she did witness in early 1934 their triumphant discovery of artificial radioactivity, for which the prize would be awarded. Meanwhile Eve too achieved distinction--not in science but for her writing (including a popular biography of her mother).

“It was certainly a satisfaction for our late lamented teacher, Marie Curie, to have seen the list of radioactive elements that she had the honor to inaugurate with Pierre Curie so extended.”--Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in his Nobel Prize lecture

Irene Curie receiving 1935 Nobel Prize
Receiving the 1935 Nobel Prize. Unlike Marie Curie's experience when sharing her first Nobel Prize with Pierre, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie each delivered part of the Nobel lecture explaining the significance of their work. (Photo ACJC)

As all-consuming as her involvement with the Radium Institute was, Curie also found time in the last 12 years of her life to serve on the commission on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. In this capacity she worked toward establishing an international bibliography of scientific papers, developing standards for international scientific scholarships, and protecting researchers' ownership of intellectual rights for their discoveries.

Physical Decline

The Unstable Nucleus and its Uses
Joliot and Irène Curie

Marie Curie and Einstein
When Curie learned that Einstein, like her, had been appointed to the League's Commission on Intellectual Cooperation, she sent a letter urging him to serve: “I believe your acceptance, as well as mine, is necessary if we have any hope of rendering any real service.”
© 2000 - American Institute of Physics