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Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary science personalities the world has ever gotten. Her full name was Marie Salomea Sklodowska Curie. She was a well-known physicist and a chemist as well. She was Polish as well as a French citizen. She did pioneer research on radioactivity and found elements like Polonium and Radium. She has different firsts in her name, like she was the first person to get the Nobel Prize in two different science streams, Physics and Chemistry. Marie and her husband, Pierre Curie, were the first couple to be Co- Nobel Laureates. She was also the first woman professor at the University of Paris.

Personal Life

Marie was born on November 7th 1867, in Poland's capital, Warsaw (then under Russian Empire). Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowska, was a mathematics and physics teacher, and her mother, Bronislawa, also used to be a teacher in a boarding school. Still, after the birth of her children, she resigned to look after them. Marie was the fifth and the youngest among all her siblings. They were Maria, Zofia, Bronislawa, and Helena. Marie and her sister's upbringing were purely Polish, and they took pride in their land.

Her mother died in May 1878 due to tuberculosis when she (Marie) was just ten years old. Within three years, her sister Zofia also died due to typhus. Her mother used to practice Catholicism, and her father was an atheist, but all these incidents of death of her loved ones strived her to leave Catholicism, and she chose to be agnostic.

Her hardships in education

Marie struggled very hard to get a good education. She joined the boarding school of J. Sikorska at the age of 10 years. Then she went to a secondary school, also called gymnasium for girls, and completed her graduation with a gold medal in 1883.

Her family's financial condition was also not good because her father was thrown out of his job by Russian authorities for being pro-polish, the blunt of which the whole family faced. Her father sent her to his relative for some time, but she returned to Warsaw. She then chose to work as a tutor so that she could help her family and collect money for her formal higher education.

She and her sister Bronislawa came in contact with Flying University. It was a patriotic institution to help women to get admission to higher education institutes. With that help, her sister Bronislawa got the opportunity to study medicine in Paris. Marie made a contract with her sister to help her financially in her medical studies; in return, after two years, Bronislawa would also have to give her the same help.

After that, Marie began working as a governess and a home tutor. When she was a governess in Szczuki in the house of Zorawskis, she fell in love with Kazimierz Zorawski, one of the members of the family, who also became a very famous mathematician in the future. But his parents disagreed with their relationship. It was heartbreaking for both of them. She returned to Warsaw in 1889, continued tutoring, and enhanced her knowledge by studying at Flying University. In 1890, she started her practical scientific training in a lab at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Old Warsaw.

In 1890, Bronislawa married Kazimierz Dluski, a physician in Paris. They called Marie to Paris, but she refused as she was still short of funds. Finally, in 1891, she flew to Paris for her higher education. Her sister and brother-in-law helped her find a garret (a living place at the top of the house). She enrolled in the University of Paris to study Mathematics, physics, and chemistry at the end of 1891.

It was hard for Marie to survive in Paris financially. She used to go to college in the morning and the evening, and she tutored to earn some money for her expenses. She completed her degree in Physics in 1893 and got a job in Gabriel Lippmann's industrial lab. Then she got fellowships for her brilliance and completed her second degree in 1894.

Her scientific career

She started her scientific journey in Paris. Her first project was to investigate the magnetic properties of different types of steel, assigned by the Society for Encouragement of National Industry. For this research, she needed a large lab area. She asked Polish Physicist Józef Wierusz-Kowalski to help her to find the big lab area for her research. Józef introduced her to Pierre Curie for the first time to provide her with the lab space. Pierre managed to find her a pretty good place, and she began her project.

Wilhelm Rontgen's discovery of X-rays in 1895 and Henri Becquerel's discovery about uranium, that its salt emits rays similar to X-rays with penetrating power, concluded that this radiation arises from uranium without the help of any external sources of energy. These two discoveries instigated Marie to do further research on this matter.

She started her research with the help of an electrometer developed by Pierre Curie and his brother. Firstly, she observed that the air around the object conducted an electric current due to uranium rays and concluded that uranium compounds act based on the quantity of uranium. Therefore, she concluded that atoms are divisible.

Marie continued her research of uranium minerals. The two uranium minerals she was working on were torbemite (also called chalcolite) and pitchblende. She observed that chalcolite was two times more active than uranium and pitchblende was four times. She concluded that these two minerals have something in a particular proportion that is more active than uranium. In 1898, she got the answer that thorium was the element in that and had the properties of radioactivity. She was two months late for officially publishing her discovery of thorium, an element having features of radioactivity like uranium. Two months earlier, in Berlin, a scientist named Gerhard Carl Schmidt published this discovery in his name.

In July 1898, Marie and Pierre jointly issued a paper stating the discovery of an element and named Polonium to honour her home nation-Poland. In December 1898, the duo again announced the discovery of another element, 'radium', which meant ray in Latin. During that time, they also named the phenomena 'radioactivity'. Marie did not patent radium so that everyone could get benefit from that efficiently and economically.

A total of 32 research papers were published, individually or jointly with Pierre, by Marie, between 1898 to 1902. She was inducted as the first woman faculty member of Ecole Normale Superieure in 1900. Marie was awarded a Doctorate from the University of Paris in June 1903 for her research works.

Till 1903, Marie did all her research in a shed that was a medical dissection room and was not in good condition. There was no safety provision for radiation. Later in 1909, a radioactivity Laboratory, Radium Institute, was established by Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris. This research laboratory resulted from the efforts of Pasteur Institute's director Pierre Paul Emile Roux, who insisted the University of Spain, provide Marie with a fully equipped laboratory.

In 1910, she explained the international standard for radioactive emissions and named it Curie. In 1914, she was made director of Curie Laboratory, situated at Radium Institute, University of Paris.

During this period, World War I (first) had begun. Marie halted her research work at Radium Institute and contributed from her side in the time of war through her scientific works. One of her prominent inventions during wartime was the mobile X-ray. She felt the need for on-ground X-ray units for the armed forces doctors to quickly identify the fractures and the need for amputation for the soldiers on the battlefield. She gathered generators, X-ray devices, and vehicles and made the Mobile X-ray unit, which was popular on her name as Petites Curies. After that, she established the first military radiology centre in France in 1914 and was appointed the Red Cross Radiology Service director.

Another invention of Marie during wartime was the 'radium emanation' in 1915. It was the colourless radioactive gas from radium to sterilize infected tissue contained in the empty needles for the soldiers. She summed up her experience of world war and discussed her contribution in her book 'Radiology in War in 1919.

Marie's relationship with Pierre Curie

Pierre met Marie in 1894 through Józef Kowalski. Pierre was working as an instructor at ESPCI, an educational institution for science undergraduate and graduate students in Paris.

Science was the bridge that connected their hearts. Initially, Pierre realized that he had feelings for her, and one day, he proposed to her, but Marie refused because she had plans to return to Poland and work there after she completed her studies. Then she went back to Poland after her studies, but there she became the victim of sexism and was rejected for a job by Krakow University in Poland because she was a woman. Then Pierre convinced her to return to Paris to complete her PhD in 1895.

In Sceaux, they married on July 26th, 1895, effortlessly. He was the perfect life partner for her. They were the science-mate.

Marie Curie

The couple welcomed their first daughter 'Irene' on September 12th 1897. She did exemplary work in chemistry and received Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with her husband, Frederic Joliot- Curie, for discovering radioactive isotopes in 1935.

Their second daughter was born on December 6th 1904, and became famous for writing her mother's biography.

Marie and Pierre worked as partners in the science field and life, issued various research papers, and were awarded Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their work in radiation. But in April 1906, Marie lost Pierre in a road accident at Rue Dauphine in Paris. This incident shattered her. She was offered a professorship at the Department of Physics at the University of Paris.

Nobel Prizes

Marie curie was the first woman recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. She was awarded half of the prize jointly with her husband Pierre Curie and another half to Henri Becquerel for their work in radioactivity.

Initially, only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the award, but in their radioactivity research of Pierre, she (Marie) also had an equal contribution. Magnus Gosta Mittag-Leffler, one of the committee members and a woman activist, advocated for her nomination. Thus, Marie was nominated for the award.

Marie Curie alone attended the award ceremony in 1905 because Pierre was not fond of attending award functions. Again in 1911, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honoured her with Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This time she was awarded for her discovery of radium and polonium elements.

She became the first person to be honoured with two Nobel Prizes in two fields, i.e., Physics and Chemistry. Later, only Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes in 1954 and 1962 for his work in Chemistry and Peace, respectively.

Her affair rumours after Pierre

In 1911, a controversy broke out that she had a love affair with a married man Paul Langevin, who was five years younger than her. Paul used to be a student of Pierre. People criticized her extensively when the news came out through her fellow competitors. At that time, she was in Belgium for a conference, and people protested against her at her house when she returned. Then she took asylum with her daughters at the place of Camille Marbo, her friend.

The heat of this scandal also reached Sweden. When she was awarded Nobel Prize in 1911, she was refrained from attending the award ceremony by the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Savante Arrhenius, for her negative image in public.

Then she finally replied that the award had been awarded to her for her professional, scientific research, and it had no relation to the things going on in her private life. She also declined any affair with Paul Langevin.

Her appointments, awards, and legacy

In 1922, she was inducted as a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, created by the League of Nations until 1934. The same year, she was appointed a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine. She also served as a member of the committee of Polonia in France.

In 1930, she joined International Atomic Weights Committee and served there till her last breath. Due to her outstanding work in chemistry and physics, element number 96 was named Curium.

The European Union started the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions fellowship program for young scientists. Likewise, Maria nuclear research reactor in Poland is named to honour her.

Apart from Nobel Prizes, she won several other honours too, like Davy Medal in 1903, Matteucci Medal in 1904, Actonian Prize in 1907, Elliot Cresson Medal in 1909, and Franklin Medal from the American Philosophical Society in 1921.

Several biographies were also written on her life by various authors like Eve Curie's Madame Curie in 1938, Francoise Giroud's Marie Curie: A Life in 1987, Barbara Goldsmith authored Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie in 2005, and Lauren Redness' Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout in 2011.


Marie curie died on July 4th 1934, at age 66, at Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy of Haute-Savoie in the south-eastern region of France. She was suffering from aplastic anaemia, which led her to death. Her radioactive research work in an unprotected environment was the cause of all her ailments.

She was cremated at the cemetery of Sceaux near her husband's grave, Pierre. After six years of her death, the couple's remains were shifted to Pantheon as an honour for dedicating their life to science. They were kept in a lead container as a safeguard from radioactivity because both Marie and Pierre's bodies were exposed to radioactivity, which was very dangerous. She was the second woman whose remains are at the Pantheon for her achievements.

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