The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Radium Fame

Caricature of Marie and Pierre Curie

The discovery of x-rays, in 1895, had created a worldwide frenzy for radiation technologies, with researchers experimenting with x-rays for a variety of applications, ranging from imaging to therapy to contacting the spirit world. Radium was swept into this frenzy, with much of the initial interest in the new element explicitly focused on using it as an alternative to x-ray emitters. Stories with headlines like “Radium Better Than The X Rays,” promised that radium emanations, possessing “all the qualities of the Röntgen rays,” meant that “the wonderful results of the X rays . . . can be duplicated by a method much cheaper.” When the Curies began to release small samples of radium and polonium salts to other researchers--an act of generosity that also created additional publicity for their discoveries--the vials emitted a faint, luminescent glow that never failed to excite a crowd. A story in the Boston Globe captured the amazement created by this new “light without heat”; according to the reporter, when a scientist at the Smithsonian opened a radium sample, “the room was filled with a clear, greenish glow, bringing out in relief the features of everybody present.” All of the press, along with the more than 30 papers published by the Curies between 1898 and 1902, made Marie and Pierre into scientific celebrities. In 1903, the couple shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel--thus making Marie the first female Nobel winner--and images, like this Vanity Fair caricature, appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. 

The Discovery of Radium

Unfortunately, Marie and Pierre did not have long to enjoy their shared celebrity; in 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident. Marie felt a lasting grief over the loss, but she continued her work, becoming the first person to win two Nobels when she was awarded the prize in chemistry in 1911. Marie's fame would ultimately eclipse that of her husband, and the iconic image of radium, used in publications, pamphlets, and advertisements around the world, would show Marie, in her blue dress, holding a glowing tube. Curie remained a worldwide celebrity throughout her life and even after her death, and she received a variety of honors, including, in 1995, re-interment in the Paris Panthéon--an honor reserved for those designated by the French Parliament as "National Heroes."