Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Something out of nothing: Marie Curie and Radium

Something out of nothing: Marie Curie and Radium

Carla Killough McClafferty
For ages 12 and up
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006   ISBN: 978-0374380366

Even though Marie Curie was extremely famous in her own time, today many of us do not really know that much about the women who discovered Radium. We do not know that she was a proud Polish woman who never forgot her homeland and who was forced to leave Poland so that she could have a proper university education. We do not know that Marie and her husband were almost always poor for they refused to patent what they discovered because they believed that their discoveries belonged to the world. We do not know that Marie set up and drove mobile X-Ray units during World War I so that the injured could be X-rayed in the field. Countless lives were saved because of these unites and because of Marie's courage and her dedication.

There is also the story of Radium itself which has been largely forgotten. Once the new element was discovered and isolated many people sought to find ways to use the new substance. Because it could glow in the dark it was painted on the hands of clock and watch dials. Radium was an ingredient in many so-called health treatments; in pills, liquids, and potions. It was said to be the cure for all manner of ills and thousands of people took radium based "medicines" every day. What people did not know was that radium is extremely toxic and as a result many people who came into contact with it in the workplace and who took the healthful radium nostrums ended up getting sick and dying. Several women who had worked painting watch dials had to die before people would accept that radium could only be used in very carefully controlled circumstances.

Marie Curie herself was made very sick by the radium that she worked with and her work spaces became highly radioactive. And yet, even when she was ill, and even after the death of her beloved husband, Marie kept on working.

This is a superb account of the life of a very special person who proved to the world that women are perfectly capable of becoming highly successful scientists. Marie won two Nobel Prizes and she refused to be held back by the social restraints of her time. She kept on working after her children were born, and she was her husband's partner and equal in all things. Liberally sprinkled with annotated photographs and quotations, this is both a wonderful biography and a fascinating portrait of an era.