Polonium was discovered by Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre Curie in 1898 and was later named after Marie Curie’s native land of Poland (Latin:Polonia) Poland at the time was under Russian, Prussian, and Austrian partition, and did not exist as an independent country. It was Curie’s hope that naming the element after her native land would publicize its lack of independence. Polonium may be the first element named to highlight a political controversy.
This element was the first one discovered by the Curies while they were investigating the cause of pitchblende radioactivity. The pitchblende, after removal of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, was more radioactive than both the uranium and thorium put together. This spurred the Curies on to find additional radioactive elements. The Curies first separated out polonium from the pitchblende, and then within a few years, also isolated radium.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie were awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, for their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity.
Interestingly, the Nobel Prize ran in the family. The Curies’ elder daughter, Irene, married Frederic Joliot in 1926 and they were joint recipients of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. The younger daughter, Eve, married the American diplomat H.R. Labouisse. They have both taken lively interest in social problems, and as Director of the United Nations’ Children’s Fund he received on its behalf the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1965. She is the author of a famous biography of her mother, Madame Curie (Gallimard, Paris, 1938), translated into several languages.