Featured History: Marie Skłodowska Curie

Marie Curie

Maria, c. 1898.

Born in Warsaw in 1867, Maria Salomea Skłodowska was the youngest of five children. Both of her parents were trained as teachers, though her father’s work for Polish independence was sometimes unpopular with employers and disrupted his employment. After graduating from high school at 15, Maria attended classes at a secret “floating university,” which met at night in varying locations to avoid police attention. She and her sister Bronisława were committed to seeking professional education in Western Europe, so they agreed that Maria would work to support Bronisława’s medical studies in Paris. When Bronisława graduated and started earning money, she would support Maria’s education.

Maria, age 16.

Maria, age 16 (1883).

To this end, Maria worked for several years as a governess and private tutor. By age 24, Maria had saved enough to buy a fourth-class train ticket to Paris, which meant supplying her own chair and food for the 40-hour journey. Once in Paris, she enrolled at the Sorbonne. Although she was not as prepared in math, science, or technical French as her classmates, her hard work quickly began to pay off. Two years later, in 1893, Maria graduated at the top of her class with a master’s degree in physics. A year later, she also received her master’s in math.

Around this same time, a colleague suggested that Maria could find lab space with a French scientist named Pierre Curie. The rest, as they say, is history. Maria and Pierre were married in July 1895, Maria wearing a simple dark-blue dress that she would later often wear in the lab. Children soon followed — Irène in 1897, Ève in 1904. While the Curies’ home life was often hectic, Pierre reportedly “had so much respect for his wife’s scientific career that he never contemplated her abandoning it,” which worked well after his father moved in with them and was able to care for the children while Maria was in the lab.

Pierre, Irene, and Marie, c. 1902.

Pierre, Irène, and Maria, c. 1902.

Around the time of her marriage, Maria was looking for a doctoral thesis topic. As luck would have it, two discoveries occurred at this time that attracted her attention: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in December 1895, and Henri Becquerel’s similar findings with uranium rays early in 1896. While the news of X-rays went viral and uranium rays were dismissed as weak and impractical, Maria was captivated by Becquerel’s findings.

After many experiments, Maria was able to present a more complete picture of uranium’s properties, along with the revolutionary hypothesis that its behavior was produced by its atoms’ structure. Further experiments showed that thorium had similar properties, which Maria began to call “radioactivity.” When she noticed that uranium ore was more radioactive than pure uranium, she suspected that undiscovered elements were at work and eventually identified the two culprits: polonium in July 1898 (named after the Latin word for “Poland”), and radium five months later (after the Latin for “ray”).

Maria earned her doctorate in science in 1903, the first woman in France to do so. In the same year, Maria, Pierre, and Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Once a few questions about polonium and radium were cleared up, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry followed in 1911, this time solely for Maria’s efforts. It is likely that Pierre would have been nominated as well, had he not been killed in a street accident in 1906.

1911 Solvay Conference. Maria is in the front row, second from the right. Other notable attendees include Max Planck (top row, 2nd from left), Ernest Rutherford (top row, 4th from right), and Albert Einstein (top row, 2nd from right).

1911 Solvay Conference. Maria is in the front row, second from the right. Other notable attendees include Max Planck (top row, 2nd from left), Ernest Rutherford (top row, 4th from right), and Albert Einstein (top row, 2nd from right).

During World War I, Maria worked to equip battlefield hospitals with mobile X-ray units, which gained the nickname petites Curies. When the French National Bank issued a call for scrap metal, she offered her many medals, including her two Nobel medals. (The bank declined her offer.) Besides serving in Pierre’s place as a lecturer at the Sorbonne (the first woman to do so), Maria spent her time in founding the Radium Institute to sponsor continuing research in radioactivity.

Marie in a mobile X-ray unit, c. 1915.

Maria in a mobile X-ray unit, c. 1915.

In 1920, Maria’s health — long unstable after 25 years of high radiation exposure — began to seriously decline. She eventually died on July 4, 1934. In 1995, she and Pierre were interred at the Panthéon. At the event, President Mitterand said, “By transferring these ashes of Pierre and Marie Curie into the sanctuary of our collective memory, France not only performs an act of recognition, it also affirms a faith in science, in research, and its respect for those who dedicate themselves to science, just as Pierre and Marie Curie dedicated their energies and their lives to science.”

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Sources used

Images from Wikimedia Commons. Click image for source page. Web. 30 Jan. 2015 <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Maria_Sk%C5%82odowska-Curie>

“Marie Curie – Biographical.” NobelPrize.org. Web. 10 Jan. 2015 <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1903/marie-curie-bio.html>

“Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity.” American Institute of Physics. Web. 15 Jan. 2015 < http://www.aip.org/history/curie/>

Pasachoff, Naomi. Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.