Marie Curie (nee Sklodowska) was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. She was the youngest of five children. Her father taught mathematics and physics, and her mother was the headmistress of a girls’ school, so Marie received a good education early in life. She proved to be intelligent and had an excellent memory. Marie had a difficult childhood in many ways. Poland at this time was under Russian rule, with many aspects of Polish culture forbidden. Marie’s father was against this and lost his job as a result. Times were tough; Marie lost her sister to typhus when she was just ten and her mother to tuberculosis when she was only 12.
The Sorbonne and Pierre
Marie continued to read and learn, and she graduated from high school despite the changes in her life and the difficult times she had to go through. She was keen to continue her education, but this was something that simply didn’t happen for women at this time. There were very few options for female students, but the Sorbonne in Paris accepted women. Marie couldn’t afford to go, but she made an arrangement with her sister. She would work to help pay for her sister to attend, and then her sister would help pay for Marie to attend. It meant waiting for six long years of working and studying alone, but Marie finally managed to secure a place at the Sorbonne in Paris.
It was while studying at the Sorbonne that Marie met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who was a professor of physics. They got married in 1895 and went on to have two daughters; Irene was also a Nobel-prize winning scientist and Eve who wrote her mother’s biography. Marie and Pierre famously worked together to conduct experiments and shared their discoveries
Marie Curie’s Achievements
- New Elements – New rays had been discovered by other scientists, and both Pierre and Marie were fascinated by the possibilities that this opened up. X rays had been discovered, and scientists were aware that the element uranium gave off strange rays. Marie experimented with uranium using pitchblende, a mineral that is rich in uranium. When Marie was experimenting with this material, she was surprised by the high number of rays she was measuring. She thought that there must be something else causing this; a new element. In fact, she discovered two new elements; polonium, which she named after her home country, and radium.
- ‘Radioactivity’ – Marie Curie discovered how to isolate radioactive isotopes, and she coined the term radioactivity to describe elements that gave off high levels of these powerful rays.
- Nobel Prizes and Tragedy – Marie and Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel, won the 1903 Nobel Prize for their research into radiation. In 1906, Pierre Curie was killed suddenly in a carriage accident. It was a sad end, and a very difficult tragedy for Marie to bear. However, she decided not just to carry on with the work they had been doing together but also to fill Pierre’s teaching position at the Sorbonne, where she was the first female professor. In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize for her discovery of two new elements. Marie was the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize. In fact, she was the first person – male or female – to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields. The publicity she received catapulted her into the public spotlight. Her work received a lot of attention, and she became very famous, leading to more collaboration with other leading scientists.
- Medical Applications – Marie Curie pioneered the use of radioactivity to treat abnormal growths. She founded two medical research institutions, the Curie Institutes in Warsaw and Paris. During the Second World War, she designed mobile x-ray machines, mounted on trucks that could travel to where injured troops needed them. She trained the medical staff in how to operate these and actually drove many of them to the front line, at considerable risk to her own life. There is no doubt that many lives were saved as a result of her efforts. Marie was made head of radiology for the International Red Cross, and she dedicated herself to educating and training medical staff in techniques using new technology.
Opposition to Females in Science
Marie Curie was very much a woman at the forefront of what was considered a male domain. She encountered opposition from the male-dominated scientific world throughout her career, despite her continued success both with her scientific theories and with actually putting them into practice to bring positive benefits to her fellow human beings. She made very little money from her work and often had to fight in order to have her work accepted. In the 1920s, she traveled to the USA, South America, and across Europe to give lectures and raise funds to support her work. She did not enjoy the publicity, but it was a necessary burden in order to finance her work.
In 1934, Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia. Her health had been failing for some time, and we now know that her illness – and ultimately, her death – was a result of many years of exposure to radiation. Her work, which has since saved so many lives, was the cause of her death. In time, safety measures were put in place to protect scientists and doctors from the damaging effects of radiation.
Marie Curie’s legacy is more than the sum of her academic and scientific achievements. She had a generous and caring nature and a genuine regard for human life. She did not patent the breakthroughs she made, instead allowing them to be used to the benefit of the medical field. She often declined the offer or awards or medals, in favor of dedicating herself to work. Much of her Nobel prize money she gave away to loved ones or to other researchers. In conducting her work and not allowing the societal norms to stop her from succeeding, she is often viewed as a feminism role model, and no doubt, led the way for generations of female scientists.