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Marie Curie And The Importance Of Her Discovery Of Radium

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Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland, 1867, growing up in an environment that encouraged the seeking of knowledge – and that its importance was not to be underestimated. Although due to political instability, education prospects in Poland were not accessible to the female gender, therefore in order to further her education, Curie relocated to Paris, France, in 1885. Because of Curie’s pursuit towards a doctorate, the ground breaking discovery of Radium was a direct result of her hard work. Radium can be considered as the foundation for the advancements in medicine. Many benefited from this discovery especially patients needing diagnosis or therapy. Since its first implementation in the early 20th century, we have evolved in the ways we treat cancer patients, while Radium had many benefits, due to the lack of knowledge society once had about it, many died or suffered from health complications due to its properties.

The chemical element Radium was discovered in 1898 by Polish physicist and chemist, Marie Curie. Prior to the 19th century, scientists had only discerned one radioactive element; presently identified as Uranium. The discovery of Radium posed 100,000 times more radioactive than any other element and created the foundation to support new therapeutic and diagnostic methods in medicine. Once disclosed globally, various sectors tried implementing this new material into a multitude of diverse products and applications. In 1903, doctors began experimenting with how Radium reacted with diseased animals; revealing that this new element retained the ability to destroy diseased cells. Subsequently, additional research was conducted to evaluate if Radium would have similar effects on abnormal growths in the human body – such as cancer cells and tumours. Dawn of the 20th century presented an increase in studies reporting the administration of Radium to patients. Skin cancers were frequently treated and a new cure termed ‘Curie Therapy’ was founded. This cure was named after the woman that enabled these life changing discoveries.

Before Radium was discovered, the medical standard to cure cancer was through surgical removal, although many patients were considered incurable after the diagnoses had been made. The process of removing the tumour didn’t take into account its rapid growth and was extremely painful for patients. General anaesthetic was not available until the 1840s, and antiseptics weren’t introduced until the 1860s. To an extent, the belief that cancer is incurable has still persisted into the 21st century. Radium has now been an effective treatment for oncology patients for centuries. Radium 223 is a form of ‘Radiation Therapy’ (or ‘Radiotherapy’) used to treat cancers in the bone that begin in the prostate. This practice has been used since 1895 and works as radium’s properties are very similar to those of calcium – which form our bones. The cancer cells absorb the chemical which releases radiation; traveling a short distance. This process is activated through an injection into the patient’s vein. Treatment is fast and causes few side effects. Its estimated that about two thirds of all cancer patients will receive treatment in this form. Radiotherapy has now become a standard treatment option. Compared to when Radium was first discovered, the development of better health practices has enabled patients who are suffering from cancer less pain when undergoing treatment (). Ultimately, the discovery of Radium has significantly impacted towards the advancements of modern-day medicine.

The benefits Radium possessed appeared never-ending, and while its effects were valuable, the results were insignificant when compared to the side effects. Due to the absence of proper safety procedures, those who were exposed or in close proximity to the toxic chemical, suffered from numerous health complications, including anaemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (primarily bone cancer), and death. The risks associated with Radium, were not recognised at the time, and the development of these health issues could take years, however particularly in hospitals, the approach doctors took when administering this chemical were unsafe for themselves and patients. Radium’s properties were not fully understood; thus, its overuse was inevitable. External beam radiation was primarily used, along with another form of Radiotherapy called ‘Brachytherapy’ – Greek term “Brachy” meaning “near”. This method applied the radioactive source directly in contact with the tissue of the tumour. Both methods not only killed cancerous cells, but also attacked healthy cells, meaning that this could cause cancer or other disorders.

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Most tumours that underwent therapy during the 20th century, could not be cured without extensive normal tissue damage. Doctors began introducing the radioactive source interstitially to treat cancers of the breast, prostate, esophagus, and brain as early as the 1910s. But it wasn’t until years later when technology was better and with the help of X-rays that cancer cells in patients were able to be easily and precisely pinpointed; with this advancement meant there was a less chance of impact to any other surrounding tissue and was now safer for the doctors who administered and handled the chemical. Procedures in Brachytherapy were substantially improved with the new ‘afterloading’ method. This is an automated system that administers a radioisotope directly to cancerous tissue. This method minimizes the radiation dose to surrounding, healthy tissue and eliminates radiation exposure to medical staff. The introduction of computers has enabled proper treatment planning, precise dosage, and minimal impairment of surrounding normal tissues. This is perhaps the most important development for the foundation of modern-day medicine. The recognition of dangers involved with exposure to Radium came too late for Marie Curie and her daughter Irene, both dying from secondary hematopoietic disorders. The chemicals rapid increase in use and enthusiasm lead to any health concerns being overlooked. There is now a tremendous body of knowledge on how radiation affects human tissue and the biology of cancer cells which would not have been possible without these advancements.

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, he was a Professor at Wuerzburg University in Germany. In his application of x-rays, he discovered there was a fluorescent glow that emanated from the test tube. He knew that this was a new ray not seen before but as to what, was still not known. This discovery of a new ray generated much public interest and the possibilities in medicine and surgery were recognised. This unknown element we now know as Radium thanks to the work of Marie Curie. Radium became the initial industrial gamma ray source. The discovery of x-rays and radioactivity meant people like scientists and physicians set up x-ray machines with no regard to any potential risks or dangers. There was an ambivalence that because the rays emitted couldn’t be seen or felt they were harmless. The slow onset of symptoms further delayed people’s recognition that something was terribly wrong.

Prolonged exposure to radium had nothing but bad consequences as discussed previously. Unlike at the end of the 19th century now investigations into the use of x-rays and radiation are thoroughly researched. Now it is known what dose or radiation level to give so as to minimise the risk. The process of Radiography has changed little from when it was first introduced in the early 20th century. We still capture a shadow image on film, whether it is paper or digital. Technologic advances have allowed us to produce smaller, lighter and more portable equipment that can produce high-quality images. The practice has changed though with more studies into the proper use of radiation, this has resulted in guidelines being introduced for health professionals to follow when using the chemical. The monitoring and control of hazardous wastes and being mindful of limited exposure to this element has meant improved health outcomes.

In the discovery of Radium Marie Curie changed science. Because of her, doctors recognised that cancerous tumour cells, when exposed to Radium were destroyed faster in comparison to past practices that stated the removal of tumours through surgery. The administration of Radium was hazardous for those supplying and receiving, therefore formed the foundation for safe and effective therapies now used today. This steamed the development of new diagnostic and administration methods such as now using technology’s that reduce the expose to such high, toxic chemicals. Thus, able to delivery dosage, produce X-rays more sufficiently and improved imaging. All because of Radium, specialists can now predict how cancers behave and know the most effective way to approach therapeutics. This revolutionised modern day medicine.

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Marie Curie And The Importance Of Her Discovery Of Radium. (2022, February 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
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