The chemist and physicist Marie Curie (1867–1934), née Maria Skłodowska, is remembered today for her discovery of polonium and radium, and her pioneering research on radioactivity. In the chapter, we learn how Curie rose from humble beginnings to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person – and only woman – to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences.
Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire. She was the youngest of five children. Her parents, Bronisława and Władysław, were both teachers, and her father lectured in maths and physics – both subjects that Maria went on to pursue herself.
Maria received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. As university education was not accessible to women at that time, she studied clandestinely at Warsaw's Uniwersytet Latający (‘Flying University’), a secret underground educational network. Its courses were held throughout the city, often changing location to prevent the Russian authorities from arresting the teachers and students.
In 1891, Maria followed her elder sister Bronisława to study in Paris. At the Sorbonne, she earned two degrees – one in maths and one in physics, studying by day and tutoring by night to pay for her education.
Three years later in Paris, Maria met her research partner and future husband Pierre Curie, a tutor at the School of Physics and Chemistry. When they married in 1895, Curie changed her name to Marie Skłodowska-Curie, preferring to keep the Polish part of her name, rather than simply take her husband’s.
In Paris, the Curies began their pioneering work into the invisible rays given off by uranium – a new phenomenon which had recently been discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel. In doing so, they became convinced that they had found a new chemical element. They extracted a black powder many times more radioactive than uranium, a new chemical element they named polonium (after Marie’s native land).
Further research suggested the presence of another, even more radioactive element, that they named radium. In 1898, the Curies published strong evidence supporting the existence of the new element but they had no physical sample of it. Several years of physically demanding processing – grinding, dissolving, precipitating, and so on – was carried out by the Curies to isolate the element.
Marie finally isolated radium – as radium chloride – in 1902 but the journey of its discovery had been arduous.
The Curies’ research work involved health risks that they did not fully understand at the time. They began to feel sick and physically exhausted, symptoms that we would recognise today as radiation poisoning.
In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, jointly with Henri Becquerel, for their collective work on radioactivity. In the same year, Marie passed her doctorate thesis in Physics.
Marie's life was struck by tragedy in 1906 when Pierre Curie was killed after being knocked down in the street by a horse and car. Nonetheless, Curie’s indomitable spirit kept her working. She took her late husband’s place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had held this position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.
Marie Curie’s determination and remarkable endeavours led to a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry for creating a means of measuring radioactivity. Not long after, Sorbonne built the first radium institute with two laboratories; one for study of radioactivity under Marie Curie's direction, and the other for biological research into the treatment of cancer.
During the First World War, Marie Curie worked to develop small, mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront. As founding Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service, Curie solicited donations from wealthy Parisians to fund medical supplies and vehicles that could be converted.
In October 1914, the first machines, known as "Petites Curies", were ready for deployment at the front. Curie worked with her daughter Irene, then aged 17, at casualty clearing stations close to the front line, X-raying wounded men to locate fractures, shrapnel and bullets. Curie also established a programme to train other women to use the X-ray equipment.
Marie inspired her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) to pursue a scientific career.
Remarkably, Joliot-Curie was jointly awarded (with her husband) the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. This made the Curies the family with the most Nobel laureates to date.
Joliot-Curie became actively involved in promoting women's education, serving on the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and the World Peace Council. She was enrolled as an Officer in France’s Légion d'honneur.
After the war, Curie continued her work as a researcher, teacher and head of a laboratory. She received many awards and prizes, including the Ellan Richards Research Prize (1921), the Grand Prix du Marquis d'Argenteuil (1923) and Edinburgh University’s Cameron Prize (1931). Curie was also the recipient of honorary degrees from universities around the world.
Under Curie’s direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms (masses of tissue that can develop into cancer), using radioactive isotopes, and led to the radiotherapy treatment available to cancer patients today.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
Marie Curie died in a French sanatorium in 1934, aged 66, of aplastic anemia – a rare condition in which the body stops producing sufficient red blood cells. Her illness was attributed to radiation exposure in the course of her scientific research and during her work at field hospitals during World War I.
Unassuming and dignified, Marie Curie is admired and respected by scientists throughout the world. Not only did Curie’s work make an immense contribution to human knowledge, but her pioneering life also advanced the role of women in science and society.