SCK•CEN celebrates the 150th birthday of Marie Sklodowska-Curie

Radioisotopes produced by SCK•CEN are still used for brachytherapy

On Tuesday 7 November 2017, the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK•CEN) celebrates the 150th anniversary of Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s birth. Marie Curie paved the way for nuclear physics, chemistry as well as radiobiology and cancer therapy. This day is dedicated to one of science’s greatest pioneers and to 120 years of international research in radiobiology. In a video message, young pupils from the European school in Mol showed what Marie Curie means for them.

Outstanding scientist

Marie Sklodowska-Curie is one of the very first female scientists and she performed groundbreaking work throughout her life. In 1898, three years after the discovery of X-rays by Röntgen and two years after the discovery of the existence of radioactive materials by Becquerel, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie find out that uranium decays in other elements by emitting radiation. She named one of those elements “polonium” in reference to her country of birth, Poland, and another element “radium”, a compound formed out of the Latin word “radius” meaning “ray”. She received two Nobel Prizes : one in physics and the other in chemistry. She was also the first woman to receive one. In 1903, she shared the Noble Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. She was the first woman to be awarded a second Noble Prize in 1911.

Her discovery of radium laid the foundations for nuclear medicine and mainly radiotherapy. Currently, radiation therapy encompasses two techniques of which one is called brachytherapy. Brachytherapy makes use of irradiation and was originally named after Marie Curie (curiethérapie in French) and her discovery of radium. The Belgian Reactor 2 at SCK•CEN plays a crucial role in producing various types of medical radioisotopes. These are used for cancer treatment and are still being used for brachytherapy.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Belgium

During the first World War, Marie Curie manipulated radium for medical purposes. Her mobile units, small cars named the “petites Curies”, were used to analyse the soldiers’ wounds thanks to X-ray equipment. Marie Curie visited Belgium at least 11 times with her mobile units. Together with her daughter Irène, she would bring her knowledge in medical radiobiology to hospitals at the Yser Front and around Ypres. She shared this knowledge with doctors and nurses. She also helped to install equipment in these hospitals.

In 1915, a geologist from the Union minière finds out uranium oxide in Congo. This uranium ore was brought to Belgium after World War I. The Union minière then built the first radium factory in Olen, close by Mol. In 1921, Marie Curie came to visit this factory in particular. There, radium, an element she had discovered, was extensively purified. It could then be used in the medical field, for instance in radiotherapy to cure cancers. More than half of all the radium in the world comes from Belgium, from the radium factory in Olen. This radium production played an important role in the Belgian radium industry. Belgium dominated the world market in the ‘20s and ‘30s. After World War II, better radionuclides for radiotherapy have been found.

“It is important to remember the pioneers. Marie Sklodowska-Curie made a significant contribution to science and we are still benefiting from it. I actually started my career in science thanks to her. My doctoral thesis focused on the noble gas radon. Marie Curie is a model for scientists”, explains Hans Vanmarcke, head of expert group Interdisciplinary Biosciences and chairman of the UNSCEAR, a scientific committee within the UN.

Unveiling at SCK•CEN

This 150th anniversary could not be disregarded. SCK•CEN asked experts from different fields to present the discoveries and applications of Marie Sklodowska-Curie in our society all day long. In the afternoon, an official delegation will inaugurate a wing of the radiobiology laboratory and name it after Marie Sklodowska-Curie. Finally, pupils from elementary and secondary school will talk about the influence Marie Sklodowska-Curie had on our society.


From left to right:

Hans Vanmarcke, head of  Expert Group interdisciplinary biosciences
Eric van Walle, Director-General
Christian Legrain, Secretary-General
Joanne Doberszyc-Toulsaly, minister-counselor, Polish Ambassy
Sarah Baatout, Head of Unit Radiobiology
Frank Deconinck, member Board of Governors
Hildegarde Vandenhove, Institute Director Environment, Health and Safety

To show your support for "The day of radiation biology and medicine", may we kindly invite you to visit this page