The Life of Madam Curie

By Hannah Johnson

Figure 1: Marie Curie née Skłodowska1

Marie Curie is mostly remembered for her contributions towards the discovery of radioactivity1,2,3. The full scope of the groundbreaking contributions she has made as one of the first women in STEM are less commonly known. As the driving force behind the discovery of two radioactive elements, polonium and radium, Marie Curie’s legacy in scientific research continues today1,2,3. The discovery of polonium and radium are just two of the many accomplishments she achieved in her lifetime due to her continued pursuit of furthering the scientific understanding of radiation.  

Madam Curie (Figure 1) was born on November 7th, 1867, as Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, Poland1,2,3. Maria was born as the youngest of five children to Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowski. Her parents, who had been minor Polish nobility before their status was taken by the Czarist Russia, were from highly educated families and believed that both boys and girls should be extensively educated2. Due to this belief, Maria received a rigorous education in multiple languages, math, and science during her youth through public and private schooling, but any formal university-level education in Poland was impossible, as no university in the country accepted women at the time2. However, this did not stop Maria from continuing to pursue her studies. In defiance of the Russian occupation’s prohibition of advanced education for women in Poland, there were illegal “Flying Universities” where scholars and scientists would meet women in varying locations to provide them higher education.2

Maria attended a “Flying University” in Poland to continue her education and worked as a private tutor2.  Maria and her older sister Bronia then hatched a plan to leave for France, where women were accepted into universities. The plan was for Bronia to attend medical school in Paris and for Maria to support her during school. In return, Bronia would support Maria in her schooling in Paris once she had finished medical school1,2,3. When Maria was 18 years old, she started to work as a governess for the next three years to support Bronia’s education1,2. As a governess, she was introduced and discovered her passion for laboratory research by her cousin, Jozef Buguski, who directed the Museum for the Ministry of Industry and Agriculture2. By the age of 23, Maria enrolled at Sarbonne in Paris, where she began using the French spelling of her name “Marie”.2 Marie obtained her Licence des Science in 1893 and her Licence des Mathematics in 1894, which are the equivalent to a master’s degree in each subject1,2. In the spring of 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie at a dinner through mutual friends where lively scientistic discussions took place2. Their relationship progressed from intellectual discussions to personal letters and visits such that after her exams Marie stayed in Paris instead of returning to Poland1,2. Pierre then finished his dissertation on magnetism and Marie completed her own experimental work in a converted storage room in Pierre’s laboratory. They eventually married in 1895 and spent the next three years highly focused on conducting research into the magnetism of steel before shifting towards studying radioactivtiy2.

Henry Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity (later coined as such by Marie) in uranium in 1896 paved the way for Marie’s pioneering research1. In deciding her doctoral research project, Marie wanted to see if the activity seen in uranium was in other substances as well leading to the turn towards minerals1. The seminal work conducted by the Curies was in the discovery of higher radioactivity in the mineral pitchblende, which contains uranium ore, than in purified uranium alone1,2,3. This finding strongly indicated that there were more radioactive substances contained in pitchblende than just uranium.3 To investigate this further, Marie and Pierre extracted an unknown radioactive element from the pitchblende, which they eventually succeeded in purifying resulting in the discovery of polonium1,2. However, the substance leftover from the polonium extraction still contained radioactivity, which eventually led Marie discovering a second element, radium1,2. Unfortunately, due to the lack of safety measures when working with the radioactive substances both Maire and Pierre suffered from radiation poisoning with side effects such as anemia, fatigue, burns, and movement problems in hands and legs2. Pierre died in 1906 due to a traffic accident with a horse, but Marie lived until 1935 where at the age of 66 she died of aplastic anemia believed to have been caused by the radiation1,2.

Marie Curie’s extensive research and influential discoveries earned her three distinguished professional accomplishments. First, in 1903, she became the first woman in France to obtain her PhD in Physics1,2. Second, later in 1903, Marie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, which she was awarded alongside Pierre and Henri Becquerel for the discovery of radioactivity1,2. Finally, in 1911, Marie became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes when she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and isolation of polonium and radium.2 Beyond the professional recognitions from the scientific community, Marie Curie is also remembered for other notable achievements such as the development of portable x-ray machines for use in battlefield diagnostics during World War I, which she developed in conjunction with her eldest daughter, Irene.1,2,3 Irene later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for designing new artificial radioisotopes, making Maire Curie the first Nobel Laureate to have a child also win a Nobel Prize.2,4

These are just some of the highly groundbreaking work Marie Curie conducted during her lifetime. Her research set the stage for many more discoveries made in physics and chemistry, such as the discovery of the neutron in 1932 by Sir James Chadwick1. Her work also greatly contributed towards the use of radiation in the treatment of cancer2,3. Marie Curie’s groundbreaking research was a phenomenal contribution towards the science of radioactivity we use today.  

TL: DR

  • Madam Curie was essential in the discovery of radioactivity and the identification of two radioactive elements, polonium and radium.
  • Curie is the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, a second Nobel Prize, and have a child receive the Nobel Prize.

References

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Marie Curie”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Jun. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Curie. Accessed 13 August 2022.
  2. Rockwell S. The life and legacy of Marie Curie. Yale J Biol Med. 2003;76(4-6):167-80. PMID: 15482656; PMCID: PMC2582731.
  3. “Marie Curie the Scientist: Biog, Facts & Quotes.” Marie Curie, https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/who/our-history/marie-curie-the-scientist.
  4. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Oct. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederic-and-Irene-Joliot-Curie. Accessed 23 August 2022.

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