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Iconic F: The Fairy Lights of Marie Curie

F is obviously for female and feminine, but also for a woman’s passion for research and discovery as exemplified by the Fairy Lights of Madame Marie Curie.

“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was a really lovely sight and one always new to us,”  –Marie Curie
Uranium ore, thorium, polonium, and radium are all radioactive and the Curies worked with them all, in fact they discovered the last two.  Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; she actually won two Nobel Prizes.

Cover from the comic, a biopic graphic novel, The Radium Fairy, by Chantal Montellier and Renaud Huynh.   Published 2017 by Europe Comics. For  sale by Comixology.


For most people Marie Curie is just known as Madam Curie and if they know anything about her, they probably know that she worked with radioactive materials.  But that is probably about it.
So here are a few nifty facts.

  •  Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland which was still part of the Russian Empire in 1867 when she was born.  Her family was well educated but women were refused admission into University by law.  She attended an underground university in Warsaw.  Then she traveled to France to pursue graduate studies at the Sorbonne.
    Comic panel from Montellier.

  • She was a physicist and a chemist, a wife and a mother.  She earned a university degree in 1893, and another in 1894.  Marie returned to Poland but found that as a woman she was would not be hired at a university.  She returned to Paris.  In 1895 she married Pierre Curie.  In 1897 she gave birth to a daughter,  Irène.  She taught at a University.  She and Pierre worked in a shed  they used as a laboratory behind the university at which he taught.
  • She researched and published.  Her work began in magnetism, continued into the electrical conductivity of the field of radiation around uranium, and advanced to the isolation of thorium, to which another research beat her to publication, and the discovery of polonium,  announced in a paper by the Curies in July 1898, and in December of that same year she announced the discovery of radium.   She coined the term radioactive, and advanced the theoretical understanding that radioactive radiation was an atomic level property.
  • In 1903 she shared Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband and with physicist Henri Becquerel. In 1911 she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She also conducted medically related research, founded two medical research elements, and created portable x-ray technology.
  • The Curie’s second daughter was born in 1904.  Pierre died in traffic accident in 1906. IN 1911 scandal erupted when the public found out about her affair with a student of Pierre’s who was estranged from his wife.  She was extremely active in the war effort of WWI, monetarily and medically, but received no acknowledgement from the French government for her efforts.  She died from aplastic anemia in 1934.

Marie Curie had such a productive, rich life that it  seems a wonder that more of her work, and her theoretical, practical, and technological discoveries are not well known.

The Substance

The carrying of radium in pockets, and its placement on night stands, by the Curies in order to admire and use the lovely blue green glow produced by radium certainly shortened Marie’s life.  With today’s knowledge of how radiation interacts with living tissue, it is tempting to note the ignorance of the careless researchers.  It was not just the Curies  who did not understand the harm that could come with exposure to radiation.
Radium Dial
I remember watching the hands move ever so slowly around the dial on a manually wound alarm clock numbers in the darkened bedroom where I was supposed to be napping as a little girl.  I was too old for naps, but my mom made me lay down and learn to tell time by watching the clock if I did not want to nap.  This took place around 1960 or 61, so radium-coated clock faces were still around and available then. Phosphorescent paint is now used.
The use of the illuminating element in paint, and the illness, suffering and death that workers who painted watch and clock faces by hand in the 1920s  provides  basis of the film, Radium Girls, which will debut April 27th at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Problems from other radioactive materials are relatively common.  Water supplies in Arizona, and other uranium mining areas, have been and continue to be contaminated with deadly run-off.  And of course there is the problem of nuclear reactor accidents and radioactive waste.

But the fairy lights were magical.

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  1. I’ve read about the Radium Girls and their horrific deaths from working with radioactive material. I’m surprised Marie Curie lived as long as she did (and that she managed to have a child after she started researching radium). Maybe the exposure was different to what the girls had – I believe theirs was ingested by licking the brushes they used.
    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    F for Family and Friends

    1. I had that same thought, and family did have health problems, but one of her daughters lived to be around 100. I didn’t go into how her husband has done self experimentation to long term exposure that should have been a warning, but that is easy to say with hindsight.

  2. It’s easy for us to think people were careless back then. But we should remember that we enjoy decades of knowledge and experience those people helped to start.
    Marie Curie was an awesome woman. I knew some of the things you recounted here. Others were unknown to me.
    A secret university???? I never known those excisted!

    1. I find her story to be fascinating. She was brilliant in so many different and complementary ways; a real strategic thinker. Yes, underground universities for those not allowed to study due to ethnicity, sex and so on. Perhaps something for you to include in a future novel.

  3. Love the excerpt from the graphic novel! I need to buy that for my middle school kiddos! I’m guessing the Radium Girls film is based off the book. I haven’t read it, but every person I follow on Litsy absolutely loved reading it, even if it did piss them off. Marie Curie is an inspiration!

    1. My grand twins are not quite old enough but I am getting them a copy anyway. Perfect science bio stuff.

  4. Hello fellow A-to-Zer! I liked this article, and I groaned aloud when I got to the part about using the pretty green glow of radium about the home. Ouch. Still, Marie Curie was an admirable scientist, and I’m glad I learned a little more about her.

    1. Well hello to you too. I love to write about inspiring women. Glad you found the article informative! It is alway a balancing act to manage readability and facts.

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