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Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie Read by Eve Rodsky

Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie were brave pioneers in science who devoted their lives to helping others. A mother-daughter team with fierce curiosity and determination, they helped save millions of lives by exploring radioactivity.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Brian Skipworth and Mumble Media. It was written by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Eve Rodsky. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, there were two women in a rickety blue van, driving straight into battle on the front lines of World War I! These women weren’t here to fight, though. They were here to help save soldiers’ lives. 

Marie Curie, who was in the driver’s seat, had designed this special blue van so it could hold an x-ray machine in the back, along with an exam table, some darkroom equipment to develop the x-ray pictures, and an electrical generator called a dynamo so they had enough electricity. It was very crowded in there!

Once Marie found a safe spot to park the van, her daughter, Irène, jumped into action. Irène was only 17 years old, but she was just as fearless and determined as her mom. The two of them threw open the van doors and started guiding wounded soldiers inside so they could be x-rayed and examined. 

At first, the soldiers didn’t know what was going on and why these women were here. But Marie explained that she was the new Director of the Red Cross’s Radiolo gy Unit and she knew what she was doing. Pretty soon, Marie, Irène, and their blue vans became known throughout the land and by the end of the war, they had helped save over a million lives!

But wait, maybe we should go back to the beginning of this story, since it took so much hard work and scientific research to even get here….

Before there were x-rays or world wars, there was a little girl named Maria Sklodowska [Skwo-DOVE-ska] who was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Maria was the youngest of five children and her parents were both teachers. Maria loved school. She learned to read and write at a very young age and was especially in love with books about science. But in those days in Poland, girls weren’t allowed to stay in school very long. They were supposed to learn how to cook and clean and take care of the family instead. 

Maria refused. She and her sister came up with a plan. They’d heard there was a university in France that was allowing women to attend. Maria said she’d work as a governess – which is like a cross between a nanny and a teacher – to help pay for her older sister to go to the French university, if her sister would do the same for her after graduation.

It took six years, but, after Maria’s sister graduated and became a doctor, Maria moved to France and went to university. She also changed her name to Marie so she would feel more French and she filled every minute with reading, writing, and studying science. She was thrilled.

In 1894, Marie met a professor of physics named Pierre Curie. They were both fascinated by two recent scientific discoveries — a kind of electromagnetic wave called an x-ray, and a new invisible ray that came out of an element called uranium. Marie and Pierre were both passionate about figuring out how these mysterious rays worked. They talked endlessly about their ideas, and soon it became clear they were in love.

When Marie and Pierre got married, they used their wedding money to buy matching bicycles for outdoor adventures. But most of the time, they were in a lab together, huddled over beakers, test tubes, and large metal equipment. 

Imagine a small, dim laboratory that the Curies have made out of an old shed. There are pots of chemicals bubbling over small flames and a mist of sharp acidic smells. There are jars filled with different colored powders and crystals. Marie is outside, stirring a huge vat of chemicals with a long metal rod. Pierre is inside, standing over a large metal tube, trying to measure the minerals leftover after boiling, once all of the energy has come out of them. It was very dangerous work, experimenting with all of these powerful substances. Lots of times, Marie and Pierre were breathing in poisonous gasses. They didn’t have protective clothes or gloves, so their hands swelled and their skin peeled. No matter how much it hurt though, they kept going because they felt sure they were on to something important. And they were right. 

Together, Marie and Pierre discovered two new elements in the periodic table. They called the first Polonium, after Marie’s homeland, and named the second Radium, because it gave off such strong rays. The Curies also came up with the word “radioactivity” to describe elements giving off rays of energy when their nuclei break down. 

There are different kinds of radioactivity and radiation that we experience every day. The sun radiates light and warms the earth. The solar system radiates cosmic rays from outer space. Even our bones and muscles have naturally occurring radioactivity. Marie and Pierre were thrilled to learn about all of these different ways radioactivity can occur. And in 1903, they were awarded the Nobel [no-bell] Prize in Physics for their incredible work. That day, Marie became the first woman EVER, to get this world-famous honor… 

Marie and Pierre were not only busy in the lab together, they also were making a family! In 1897, Marie gave birth to a girl named Irène. Irène was very curious and shy. She was also lonely with both of her parents working in the lab so many hours each day. Until one day, her Grandpa Eugene came to take care of her. 

Irène loved playing with her grandpa. The two of them went on outdoor adventures, read poetry, and even discussed politics together. Grandpa Eugene made Irène feel smart and confident and they were the best of friends. He was especially comforting when Pierre, her father, tragically died in a traffic accident. 

When Irène and her little sister Eve started going to school, their mom Marie was very disappointed by the Paris public school system. She decided that in order for her daughters to get a great education, she’d have to teach them herself – with a few of her very smart friends. Lucky for Marie, her friends were all geniuses and scholars!

Together, they started a little school in their homes called “The Cooperative”. So Irène wound up getting a world-class education (as Eve was too young to attend at the time) without having to put on a backpack! Marie also made sure that her girls were always active with horse riding, hiking, swimming, skiing, and acrobatics.

She wanted them to always take risks and challenge themselves.

When World War I began, Marie put her laboratory research on hold. She told her daughters that she had to figure out a way to use science to help their country through this awful time. She knew that x-rays could travel through human skin to make pictures of what’s going on inside the body. They could save soldiers’ lives by helping doctors see bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. So, Marie came up with a plan to go to the front lines of battle and set up x-ray machines and small traveling clinics. 

“I want to go too!” Irène said.

It was a pretty crazy idea. Irène was only 17 years old. She’d just started attending university. But Irène insisted. She signed up for a nursing course in addition to all her university classes so she’d know what to do. 

Meanwhile, Marie hounded the French government to give her funds and equipment. She got wealthy friends to donate cars and convinced automobile shops to transform the cars into vans. Then she got all the equipment she needed, like x-ray machines, generators, and examining tables. She trained a dedicated group of nurses to go with her too.

In October of 1914, Marie’s first fleet of traveling medical vans, called the “Petites Curies” was ready. She and Irène made sure little Eve was being looked after at home. Then, they loaded up their blue van and took off, headed into the unknown.

Once they got to the battlefront and threw open the van doors, the Petites Curies were flooded with patients. Day after day, night after night, Marie, Irène and their team of nurses helped the wounded men into their vans and had them lay under the x-ray machines. The x-rays were quick and painless, and could figure out whether they had broken bones, or if they were suffering from bullets and shrapnel lodged inside their bodies.

It was grueling work, but Marie and Irène were excited to do it. After being in a laboratory for so long, gathering and analyzing tiny particles, here they were, out in the fields, saving lives!

Marie and Irène depended on each other a lot during this time. Not only for each other’s brilliant minds, but also for moral support. 

After the war was over, Irène finished her degree in mathematics and physics and became Marie’s lab assistant. Marie started her own scientific institute, called the Radium Institute, where she studied all the different ways radioactivity could help people who were sick. She had about three or four dozen researchers working with her, including Irene. They researched different ways to use radium so they could diagnose and shrink cancer cells.

One day, Marie asked Irène to train a new member of their laboratory team. He was a chemical engineer named Frédéric. Irène and Frédéric had a lot in common and they really hit it off. Soon, they got married and started doing research together, just like Marie and Pierre had done years before. 

Irène and Frédéric were both passionate about using radioactive elements in medicine. They were sure radiation could be the tool to many new treatments, and they were right. At the Radium Institute, Irène and Frédéric figured out a way to artificially make atoms become radioactive, which was a huge achievement. When Irène handed her mother a test tube filled with newly radioactive phosphorus, Marie beamed with pride. By making their own radioactive elements, they could make so many more medical treatments possible!

Sadly, both Marie and Irène died young, most likely because they were exposed to so many radioactive materials without any of the protections we have today. 

Eve went on to become a very distinguished writer, and wrote a beautiful biography of her mom and the important work she did. Radiation and radioactive treatments are used all over the globe now in many medical procedures, and to help treat cancer patients. That is all because of Marie and Irène’s dedication and courage. 

Between the two of them, they won four Nobel prizes for their discoveries. They also opened a hospital that was run by and for women. They inspired each other to always push harder for answers, and to not be afraid of the unknown. As Marie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.” 

Every day millions of lives are saved all over the world, thanks to Marie and Iréne’s curiosity, daring, and determination.