Marie Curie, Nobel Lecture: Radium and the New Concepts in Chemistry, 1911

Marie Curie

Physicist and Chemist

In 1911, when Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she became the world’s first double Nobel laureate (to this day, just four people hold that distinction). When she travelled to Stockholm to accept the prize, she arrived on a wave of scandal and personal tragedy. Pierre Curie, her husband and lab partner, with whom she shared her first Nobel, in Physics, had died in a carriage accident five years earlier. Marie had since begun a new relationship with the married physicist Paul Langevin, and the French press would not leave her alone.

Marie’s Nobel lecture describes the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, and outlines its implication for the new field of radioactivity. The speech was trailblazing in multiple ways. In 1903, when the Curies shared their award with Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Henri gave the lecture; as the first woman to win a Nobel, Marie was not asked to speak. Eight years later, accepting her solo award, she spoke alone, clearly defining her own work while acknowledging that the prize ‘pays homage to the memory of Pierre Curie’.

Born in Poland, Marie spent most of her life in France, where she went on to found two institutes for the study of radioactivity and to use X-ray technology to aid wounded soldiers during the First World War. She taught for many years at the Sorbonne, where she was the first female lecturer and, in 1995, sixty years after her death, she became the first woman to be buried in Paris’s famous Panthéon. Her daughter, Irène, won a shared Nobel in Chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, in 1935.

Nobel Lecture: Radium and the New Concepts in Chemistry 1911

Some 15 years ago the radiation of uranium was discovered by Henri Becquerel, and two years later the study of this phenomenon was extended to other substances, first by me, and then by Pierre Curie and myself. This study rapidly led us to the discovery of new elements, the radiation of which, while being analogous with that of uranium, was far more intense. All the elements emitting such radiation I have termed radioactive, and the new property of matter revealed in this emission has thus received the name radioactivity. Thanks to this discovery of new, very powerful radioactive substances, particularly radium, the study of radioactivity progressed with marvellous rapidity: Discoveries followed each other in rapid succession, and it was obvious that a new science was in course of development.

… Far from halting, the development of the new science has constantly continued to follow an upward course. And now, only 15 years after Becquerel’s discovery, we are face to face with a whole world of new phenomena belonging to a field which, despite its close connexion with the fields of physics and chemistry, is particularly well-defined. In this field the importance of radium from the viewpoint of general theories has been decisive. The history of the discovery and the isolation of this substance has furnished proof of my hypothes is that radioactivity is an atomic property of matter and can provide a means of seeking new elements. This hypothesis has led to present-day theories of radioactivity, according to which we can predict with certainty the existence of about 30 new elements which we cannot generally either isolate or characterize by chemical methods. We also assume that these elements undergo atomic transformations, and the most direct proof in favour of this theory is provided by the experimental fact of the formation of the chemically-defined element helium starting from the chemically-defined element radium.

Viewing the subject from this angle, it can be said that the task of isolating radium is the cornerstone of the edifice of the science of radioactivity. Moreover, radium remains the most useful and powerful tool in radioactivity laboratories. I believe that it is because of these considerations that the Swedish Academy of Sciences has done me the very great honour of awarding me this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

It is therefore my task to present to you radium in particular as a new chemical element….

Discoveries followed each other in rapid succession, and it was obvious that a new science was in course of development.

Marie Curie