What Were The Curies' Contributions To Medicine?
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French chemists and physicists (people who study the relationship between matter and energy) and husband-wife team Pierre (1859–1906) and Marie Curie (1867–1934) discovered radium, the first radioactive element, which proved to effective in treating cancer. After French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) discovered that radium could burn skin, Pierre Curie and French physician Henri Danlus determined that radium would kill both skin cells and cancer cells. Yet while the skin cells would grow back, the cancer cells did not. This discovery led to the creation of radiation therapy for cancer.
After Pierre was killed in a street accident in 1906, Marie continued their work, which included teaching at the University of Paris. In 1912 she became research director of the newly built Radium Institute in Paris, a position she held until her death. During World War I (1914–19), Marie Curie and her daughter Irène (1897–1956) organized a corps of small trucks into which X-ray machines were built. These mobile X-ray units allowed doctors to more easily locate and remove bullets and shrapnel (metal fragments) from wounds. Although the Curies had discovered that radium could kill cancer cells, at the time they did not know that exposure to radium over a long period of time could also cause cancer. In 1934, Marie Curie, who had twice won the Nobel Prize, died of leukemia, a form of cancer.
Further Information: Curtis, Robert H. Great Lives: Medicine. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993, pp. 230–39; Mulcahy, Robert. Medical Technology: Inventing the Instruments. Minneapolis, Minn.: Oliver Press, 1997; Nobel Foundation. Marie and Pierre Curie. [Online] Available http://www.nobel.se/physics/articles/curie/, November 6,2000; Poynter, Margaret. Marie Curie: Discoverer of Radium. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1994.
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