Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a Polish scientist who won a Nobel prize in both Chemistry and Physics. She made ground-breaking work in the field of Radioactivity, enabling radioactive isotypes to be isolated for the first time. During the First World War, Curie developed the practical use of X-Rays; she also discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. Her pioneering scientific work was made more remarkable because of the discrimination which existed against women in science at the time. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris and broke down many barriers for women in science.
“Humanity needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit.”
– Marie Curie
Short Bio Marie Curie
Marya Sklodowska was born on 7 November 1867, Warsaw Poland. She was the youngest of five children and was brought up in a poor but well-educated family. Marya excelled in her studies and won many prizes. At an early age she became committed to the ideal of Polish independence from Russia – who at the time were ruling Poland with an iron fist, and in particular making life difficult for intellectuals. She yearned to be able to teach fellow Polish woman who were mostly condemned to zero education.
Unusually for women at that time, Marya took an interest in Chemistry and Biology. Since opportunities in Poland for further study was limited, Marya went to Paris, where after working as a governess she was able to study at the Sorbonne, Paris. Struggling to learn in French, Marya threw herself into her studies, leading an ascetic life dedicated to education and improving her scientific knowledge. She went on to get a degree in Physics and finished top in her school. She later got a degree in Maths, finishing second in her school year. Curie had a remarkable willingness for hard work.
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”
It was in Paris that she met Pierre Curie, who was then chief of the laboratory at the school of Physics and Chemistry. He was a renowned Chemist, who had conducted many experiments on crystals and electronics. Pierre was smitten with the young Marya and asked her to marry him. Marya initially refused but, after persistence from Pierre, she relented. Until Pierre’s untimely death in 1906, the two become inseparable. In addition to co-operation on work, they spent much leisure time bicycling and travelling around Europe together.
Marie Curie work on Radioactivity
Marie pursued studies in radioactivity. In 1898, this led to the discovery of two new elements. One of which she named polonium after her home country.
There then followed four years of extensive study into the properties of radium. Using dumped uranium tailings from a nearby mine, very slowly, and with painstaking effort, they were able to extract a decigram of radium.
Radium was discovered to have remarkable impacts. In testing the product, Marie suffered burns from the rays. It was from this discovery of radium and its properties that the science of radiation was able to develop. It was found that radium had the power to burn away diseased cells in the body. Initially, this early form of radiotherapy was called ‘curietherapy.
The Curries agreed to give away their secret freely; they did not wish to patent such a valuable element. The element was soon in high demand, and it began industrial scale production.
For their discovery, they were awarded the Davy Medal (Britain) and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
In 1906, Pierre was killed in a road accident, leaving Marie to look after the laboratory and her two children. Her two children were Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) and Ève Curie (1904–2007). Irene won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, jointly with her husband.
In 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of actinium and further studies on radium and polonium.
The success of Marie Curie also brought considerable hostility, criticism and suspicion from a male dominated science world. She suffered from the malicious rumours and accusations that were spread amongst jealous colleagues.
The onset of World War I in 1914, led to Marie Curie dedicating her time to the installation of X-ray machines in hospitals. Marie understood that X-ray machines would be able to locate shrapnel, enabling better treatment for soldiers. By, the end of the First World War, over a million soldiers had been examined by her X-ray units.
At the end of the First World War, she returned to the Institute of Radium in Paris. She also published a book – Radiology in War (1919) which encompassed her great ideas on science. Curie was also proud to participate in the newly formed League of Nations, through joining the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation in August 1922.
“I believe international work is a heavy task, but that it is nevertheless indispensable to go through an apprenticeship in it, at the cost of many efforts and also of a real spirit of sacrifice: however imperfect it may be, the work of Geneva has a grandeur that deserves our support.”
Letter to Eve Curie (July 1929)
Marie Curie was known for her modest and frugal lifestyle. She asked any financial prizes to be given to research bodies rather than herself. During the First World War, she offered her Nobel Prizes to the French Treasury.
Marie Curie died in 1934 from Cancer. It was an unfortunate side effect of her own ground-breaking studies into radiation which were to help so many people.
Marie Curie pushed back many frontiers in science, and at the same time set a new bar for female academic and scientific achievement.
Her discovery of radium enabled Ernest Rutherford to investigate the structure of the atom and it provided the framework for Radiotherapy for cancer.
Curie also played a leading role in redefining women’s role in society and science.
The Inner World of Marie Curie
Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world. Features female Prime Ministers, scientists, cultural figures, authors and royalty. Includes; Cleopatra, Princess Diana, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Joan of Arc.
Scientists – Famous scientists from Aristotle and Archimedes to Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. Including mathematicians, biologists, physicists and chemists.
Famous Polish figures – including Marie Curie, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Frederick Chopin.