The Discovery of Radium

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Discovery of Radium


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


December 20th, 1898

A few days before the Christmas of 1898, Pierre Curie scrawled the word `radium' in his notebook as the name for a new element he and his wife Marie had brought laboriously to light in their ramshackle laboratory in Paris. Radium is a brilliant white, luminescent, rare and highly radioactive metallic element. The name comes from the Latin word radius, meaning `ray'. The notebook in which the name first appears is still highly radioactive and dangerous.

Pierre Curie was a Parisian doctor's son, born in 1859, who studied at the Sorbonne and in 1882 was appointed head of the laboratory at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Marie Curie was a Pole, who started life in Warsaw as Maria Sklodowska in 1867, the daughter of a teacher of maths and physics. Prodigiously bright and dedicated, she went to Paris in 1891 to study science and live in a Latin Quarter garret on tea and bread and butter. She met Pierre and they fell in love and were married in 1895, when she was twenty-seven and he thirty-six. It was a happy partnership of two people absorbed in science and each other.

Marie started working in a storage space on the ground floor of the Physics and Chemistry school where Pierre was teaching. It had brick walls, one or two rickety chairs and a few wooden worktables. They built their own ionisation chamber out of wooden grocery crates. Marie sat at one of the worktables with a flimsy apparatus of rods, cylinders and wires. On February 17th, 1898, she tested a sample of heavy black pitchblende (a naturally-occurring mineral containing uranium) which she found was emitting unexpectedly strong radiation. …

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