“I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: He is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. ? [I do not] believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world.”
–Marie Curie, 1933
Marie Curie’s Touch
Professor Curie, best known for her discovery of radium and polonium, was a scientist and pioneer of the 20th century and the only woman ever to win two Nobel Prizes. Curie coined the term “radioactivity” and her discoveries led to advances in medicine, especially in the treatment and cure for some kinds of cancer.
Curie’s work helped scientists better understand the structure of atoms and, subsequently, the structure of molecules. This ultimately helped in the creation of many medicines and health-saving products. Radioactive materials also proved to be extremely dangerous, especially when unleashed in nuclear weapons.
In the 21st century scientists continue to seek to safely harness the power of the materials Curie worked with 100 years ago, including efforts to obtain safe and affordable energy.
A Childhood of Challenges and Excellence Under Russian Rule
Marie Curie was born Maria (“Manya”) Salomee Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 7, 1867. At the time, Warsaw was under Russian rule. Curie’s Polish parents raised their children with little money as they were prevented from holding good-paying positions. However, they took in boarders to make ends meet and worked in concert to foster a good learning environment for their children.
Curie’s father was a physics instructor. His physics instruments always fascinated Curie. Curie’s mother was a school principal and she encouraged her children’s interest in reading and languages. Together, they taught their children the Polish language and traditions, passing on a strong sense of national and family pride.
Family Losses: Curie Loses Her Sister and Mother to Illnesses
When typhoid fever struck her two sisters, the eldest, Zosia, died. Curie was only 8 years old and greatly saddened. Two years later, Curie’s mother died from tuberculosis. Curie was further struck by this loss. She later recalled that her mother was very loving but at some point had stopped kissing the children. Curie realized this was her mother’s attempt to keep her children healthy.
Despite these significant losses, Curie continued to excel in her schoolwork. By age 15, Curie had won honors as the best student in Warsaw. Though she showed excellent academic promise, girls and women were not admitted to the University of Warsaw.
Sisters Work Together to Support Studies in Paris at the Sorbonne
Curie was determined to continue the study of science. She devised a plan with her sister, Bronya, to ensure that both young women could study at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Curie worked as a governess to earn money for Bronya’s move to Paris and studies in medicine. After Bronya was settled, she, in turn, funded Curie’s studies in physics and mathematics.
Once in Paris, Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne and earned her master’s degree in physics in 1893 as first in her class. The following year she earned a degree in mathematics, placing second in the class.
Love of Science and Love of Pierre Curie: Early Research and Collaboration
Curie met Pierre Curie in 1894 while seeking laboratory space for her first paid scientific work. Both loved research in physics. They married July 26, 1895, and enjoyed a bicycle trip for their honeymoon. After returning to Paris, the two studied magnetism. They became interested in Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of the existence of X-rays, invisible rays coming from an electric tube that could pass through soft substances, but not hard materials such as bone or metal. Roentgen named them “X” rays because he was unable to determine the substance or material causing the reaction. In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered more rays from a different source, seemingly from uranium. Curie decided to study these intriguing rays for her doctoral research.
Curie Becomes a Working Mother
In the midst of her research, Curie became pregnant. She worked during her pregnancy, and on Sept. 12, 1897, her daughter, Irene, was born. Curie returned to work and remained a working mother throughout her life. In 1900, Pierre’s father came to live with the Curies and helped care for Irene (and, later, the Curies’ second child). Curie taught her children for some time each day and encouraged them in their schoolwork.
Solving a Mystery, Finding a Discovery
In 1898, Curie had no funding for her research and worked in a cold and damp laboratory with equipment borrowed from friends. She was determined to discover the cause of the mysterious rays.
Curie worked with a material called pitchblende, which was known to contain uranium. She believed pitchblende’s emissions were too high to come only from uranium. Slowly, Curie removed known chemicals from the pitchblende. She worked through tons of pitchblende, boiling and distilling a few buckets’ worth at a time. Finally, she solved the mystery — discovering a new element, which she named polonium after her homeland, Poland.
Curie invented the term “radioactive” to describe elements such as polonium and uranium that gave off penetrating rays. She believed another element still awaited discovery. From 1899 to 1902, Curie worked to isolate the element. Her work was so fascinating that her husband began to spend his research time on her project.
Both Curies rejoiced when they returned to the lab one evening to find a slight glow in the dark — they had found radium!
A Growing International Reputation and a Growing Family
In 1902, Curie isolated 0.1 gram of radium. The tiny amount had taken years of labor and tons of pitchblende to find and was very valuable. Curie was not interested in selling the material or patenting her process. Instead, Curie reported her findings to the scientific community and news spread throughout the world.
In 1903, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on radioactivity, an award shared with Henri Bequerel. Neither Marie nor Pierre felt well enough to travel to Sweden to receive their award in person. They used the prize money to further their research. The Curies celebrated another glorious moment when their daughter Eve was born in 1904. Curie continued to balance her professional work with attentive care of her two daughters.
Personal Tragedy and Professorship
In 1906, the Curie family suffered a second tragedy when Pierre was killed accidentally by a large horse-drawn wagon. Though Marie was greatly saddened by Pierre’s death, she was also now solely responsible for their two daughters. Pierre had been made a professor at the Sorbonne two years earlier, and when the University invited Marie to work in his position, she accepted.
Curie was the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne and, after serving as lecturer for some time, Curie was made a professor in her own right in 1908, becoming the Sorbonne’s first female professor.
The First Person to Win a Second Nobel Prize
Curie’s work and findings about radium were challenged by Lord Kelvin, a Scottish scientist who questioned whether radium was really an element. In response, Curie purified polonium and radium. In 1910, she published her 971-page report on radioactivity and described radium in great detail. In 1911, Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for this work.
International Teacher and Educator
In the last years of her life, Curie pursued scientific studies but also worked to raise awareness about radium. In 1920, she undertook a lecture tour in America. Marie Meloney, an American journalist, spearheaded a campaign raising $100,000 from the “Women of America” to purchase one gram of radium for the Radium Institute of Paris, where Curie was the Director. Curie later took great pride in establishing the Radium Institute in her hometown of Warsaw.
Curie died on July 4, 1934, and left the world not only a scientific legacy but also two gifted daughters. Irene followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied polonium. She married Frederic Joliot, a French physicist. They worked together at the Radium Institute in Paris, where they discovered artificial radioactivity. For their work, they received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.