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Marie Curie, the Scientist: A Woman of Firsts


Marie Curie, chronomèter in hand, in the process of measuring radioactivity in the laboratory on Cuvier Street, 1904

The youngest of five, Marie Curie was a Polish physicist and chemist who discovered polonium and radium. She was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland and went by the nickname, Manya, to friends and family.

Her parents, Bronisława and Władysław Skłodowski, were educators. In May 1878, at 10 years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis.

At the age of 15, Marie Curie graduated high school first in her class and, along with her sister Bronisława, became involved with a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted female students.

Together, the two made a pact. Marie would work as a governess to pay for Bronya's education. Once completed, Bronya would use her earnings to help pay for Marie's university tuition. Marie completed her master’s degrees in physics and math in three years then began looking for a research topic that would earn her a doctorate in science.

She became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. The first woman faculty member at France’s top training school for women teachers, École Normale Supérieure. The first woman to earn a degree in physics from Sorbonne University. Within her peers, of 1,800 students there, only 23 were women... Marie Curie became the first woman a professor at Sorbonne on November 5, 1906. The first woman to have her remains entombed on her own merits in Paris' Panthéon, dedicated to the "great men" of France.

How and when did she become Marie Curie? She changed her first name to the French variation upon moving to Paris to study physics and mathematics at Sorbonne University. There, working on a research grant on the subject of the magnetic properties and chemical composition of steel, she met Pierre Curie; a French physicist who had achieved fame for his work on the piezoelectric effect. On July 26, 1895, they were married.

“It would...be a beautiful thing,” he wrote, “to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”

The couple conceived two daughters, Irène Jolio Curie (September 12, 1897) & Ève Curie (December 6, 1904).

Less than 11 years following their wedding, on April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was hit by a horse-drawn carriage and died instantly. Her father-in-law, Eugene, a retired physician, helped raise Irène and Ève. He soon passed away in 1910.

We discussed that Marie Curie was a woman of firsts, as well as a wife, a mother, a daughter... let's talk more about her achievements and impact in the scientific world.

In 1898, Marie & Pierre Curie announced the discovery of polonium, a new element that was 400 times more radioactive than any other. Thereafter, five months later in December, the discovery of radium salts weighing about 0.1 gram that had been derived from tons of uranium ore.... an amount which took her over three years to isolate. Following Pierre's death, she achieved their objective of producing a pure specimen of radium.

Marie, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. The nominating committee initially objected to including a woman as a Nobel laureate.

She applied for membership in the French Academy of Sciences in 1910, and although Pierre had been a member, she was denied by two votes. It would take over 50 years (1962) to finally induct a woman — Marguerite Perey, a French physicist who discovered the element francium, and a student of Marie Curie.

In 1911, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium. She traveled to accept the award in Sweden, along with her daughters.

When World War I broke out in 1914, she suspended her research and organized a fleet of mobile X-ray machines for doctors on the front. She sometimes operated and repaired the machines herself, and established 200 more permanent X-ray posts during the war.

After the war, Marie Curie worked hard to raise money for her Radium Institute. But by 1920, she was experiencing health problems, likely because of her exposure to radioactive materials.

In 1934, her daughter Irène and Irène’s husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, discovered artificial radioactivity at the Radium Institute.

Marie did not live to see Irène and Frédéric receive the 1935 Nobel Prize for their discovery. She died at the age of 66 of aplastic anemia on the 4th of July 1934, a condition she likely developed after years of exposure to radiation through her work.  She would be laid to rest next to Pierre in Sceaux, a village in southern Paris... the same place they'd exchanged vows.

In 1944, scientists at the University of California–Berkeley discovered a new element and named it “curium,” in honor of the scientific pair.

In 1995, their remains were moved and reburied in the Panthéon in Paris alongside France's greatest citizens on the orders of French President Mitterand. The Panthéon held one other woman at the time, Sophie Berthelot, who is there alongside her husband, Marcellin Berthelot, a chemist.

At a time when men dominated science and women didn’t have the right to vote, Marie Curie proved herself a pioneering scientist in chemistry and physics.

A two-time Nobel laureate, she is best known for her pioneering studies of radioactivity, and her contribution to finding treatments for cancer. A few of her books and papers are still so radioactive that they are stored in lead boxes.

Her youngest daughter, Ève, became a journalist and writer. In 1937, she published a biography of Marie's life titled, Madame Curie.

"You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful."

-Marie Curie

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