Marie Curie is one of the most celebrated women in the history of modern science. A pioneer in the field of radiology, she accomplished an impressive number of firsts: she was the first person to be honored with not just one, but two Nobel Prizes, one each in physics and chemistry. She was also the first female professor in the centuries-long history of the University of Paris. Along with her husband, also an accomplished scientist, she helped set the groundwork for a modern understanding of radioactivity – a term that Curie actually coined herself. Curie, birth name Maria Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. The daughter of a schoolteacher, she received a basic education at local schools and learned the rudiments of science from her father. Women were not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw at the time, and Maria and her patriotic Polish family chaffed under Russian rule. At age 23, she left for Paris, where she obtained degrees in Physics and Math. There she met Pierre Curie, a professor of physics; the two began a life-long collaboration in life and science, being wed in 1895.
Early on, the Curies struggled in their scientific pursuits. Laboratory and living conditions were sparse, cramped, and poor. But physics was a study of great importance in France, thanks to recent advances in the use of electricity, and other exciting discoveries. As Marie sought a research topic that would win her a doctorate, other researchers’ discoveries helped spur her scientific imagination. Working out of a storeroom, Marie studied x-rays and the mysterious “rays” given off by uranium, first noticed by French physicist Henri Becquerel. Curie’s experiments led her to the conclusion that the strength of the “rays” in minerals containing uranium depended only on the amount of uranium itself – with that, she had begun her foray into the frontiers of radiology. With the help of her husband, Marie Curie isolated many other radioactive elements After much hard work, her efforts led to the discovery of a new element – polonium – that was intensely radioactive. The discovery came in July of 1898, and by December, the couple had discovered another new element, radium.
Commercial companies began to fund the Curies’ research, giving them resources for a fully-stocked lab. In 1903 Marie Curie completed her thesis and became the first woman to receive a doctorate in France. That same year, the two were honored with a shared Nobel Prize in physics. Both Marie and Pierre grew ill with the passing of time, and in April 1906, Pierre died in a sudden accident. Marie soon took over his professorship and persuaded the French government to create a Radium Institute that would encourage science and honor Pierre’s memory. In 1911, Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, her work at the Radium Institute was postponed. With her daughter Irene as her assistant, Curie organized the creation and deployment of 20 mobile X-ray stations and 200 stationary X-ray machines to help those injured in the war. She also invented a means of delivering radioactive gas into patients’ bodies to destroy diseased tissue, developing the first radiation therapy. When the war ended, Curie worked hard to strengthen the Radium Institute and support her daughter’s research. Marie Curie died of complications from aplastic anemia – a blood disorder related to radiation exposure – in 1934, a year before Irene and her husband received the Nobel Prize for discovering artificial radiation. In her 66-year life, Curie had made many incredible discoveries, left an indelible mark on the modern world, and opened new horizons for women in the sciences. Even in death, she managed a final great accomplishment: she is the only woman buried at the Pantheon of Paris.
For more about Marie Curie’s amazing life and discoveries, see these links:
Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Radium: An exhaustive biography, including links and information on other Nobel Prize winners who were Marie Curie’s contemporaries.
Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity: An in-depth biography, including photographs and accounts of personal papers, from the American Institute of Physics.
Women in Chemistry: Marie Curie: More on her life, work, and influence.
Did Marie Curie Die of Radiation Over-Exposure?: More on Marie Curie’s physical condition and ailments, from the Health Physics Society.
‘Obsessive Genius’: The Life of Marie Curie: Interview with one of Curie’s biographers provided free by National Public Radio online.
Science in Poland: Maria Sklodowska-Curie: A comprehensive, illustrated biography that also includes information on Curie’s cultural impact, some quotations, and more.
Museum of Maria Sklodowska-Curie: English-language website of the Curie museum in Warsaw, Poland.
Museum of the Curie Laboratory at the Institute of Radium, Paris: French-language website and visitor information for the preserved Curie laboratory.
Marie Curie: Gateway to other credible Internet resources derived from university-level study of the life of Marie Curie.
Early Study of Radioactivity: Marie Curie: Informative article discussing some of the technical details behind Marie Curie’s groundbreaking early research.
Marie Curie at The Franklin Institute: Detailed biography, several pages long, with some insight into family and friends in Marie Curie’s life.
Marie Curie Display: Information on, and publicly-available resources from, the permanent Marie Curie display at the Science and Engineering Library at The Ohio State University.
Marie Curie Visits the United States: Illustrated page commemorating Marie Curie’s 1921 visit to the U.S.
Traveling with the Atom: Further biographical info, including detailed information about important sites in Curie’s life.
Nobel Prize Women: Biographical sketches and photos of female Nobel winners, including Marie Curie.
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