Heroes of science: Marie Curie

Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory
Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory

Marie Curie is considered to be one of the foremost scientists of the 20th century, as well as a central pioneer of the radiology movement – winning the prestigious Nobel Prize not just once but twice in her lifetime. An achievement equalled by only three others.

Marie – whose original name was Maria Sklodowska – was born on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. She began her learning from her father, who was a teacher in the fields of mathematics and physics. During her early years, she was renowned for her prodigious memory, and by the age of 16 she successfully completed her secondary school education at the Russian lycée. Unfortunately, due to her father losing much of his money in bad investments, she was then forced to take up a teaching position in the country’s free but nationalist university. At 18, she then proceeded to take a governess position in order to raise money to fund her sister’s education, as well as her own future studies in Paris.

Arriving in Paris in 1891, Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne University, and began following the lectures of notable scientists Paul Appel and Gabriel Lippmann, the latter eventually drafting her into his research laboratory. It was here that she met her future husband and Nobel Prize winner, Pierre Curie, and they wed on 25 July 1895. Working together as a team, Marie and Pierre discovered polonium, and later in 1898, radium. Looking for a research thesis, Marie decided to explore the properties of uranium in an attempt to discover whether they were to be found in other matter. Marie ratified this in the element thorium.

It was this research, along with the physical study of new types of radiation, that led Marie to isolate pure radium in its metallic state. On publishing the results of her work, she was awarded her doctorate, and also co-received the Nobel Prize for Physics, which was shared between herself, Pierre, and the discoverer of radiation, Henri Becquerel. On the back of this success and fame, Marie was then appointed lecturer in physics at a notable girls school, and became chief assistant at Pierre’s laboratory. Unfortunately, on 19 April 1906, Pierre was killed in a carriage accident, leaving Marie and their two children on their own.

Despite this terrible setback, Marie continued their research, and also took up Pierre’s vacant lecturing position. In doing this, she became the first ever woman to teach at the Sorbonne. She became a full professor in 1908, and two years later in 1910 she published a fundamental treatise on radioactivity. On the back of this and her earlier isolation of pure radium, in 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This second Nobel Prize propelled her fame to new heights, and with the aid of this extra influence, she oversaw the completion of the Radium Institute at the University of Paris.

Marie Curie's 1911 Nobel Prize diploma
Marie Curie’s 1911 Nobel Prize diploma

Her work continued to draw praise from the scientific establishment, and Marie undertook two world tours with her daughters Irène and Ève Curie to raise funds for their work. She also gave multiple lectures during her travels, teaching as far away as Brazil, and developed the Curie Foundation in Paris. Unfortunately though, due to a lifetime of handling radioactive substances – of which their dangers to health were not yet understood – Marie developed leukaemia in later life, and in 1934 died in Passy, France, at the age of 66.

Today, Marie Curie’s great work is held in the highest esteem by the scientific establishment, not only because of the immense contribution to the field of physics that she made during her life, but also due to the importance of her work, and its influence on subsequent generations of scientists.

The big idea – Radioactivity

Marie Curie is known for her discovery and research into polonium and radium, two notable radioactive substances. She also coined the term ‘radioactivity’, the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionising particles. Along with her husband Pierre, Marie discovered radium by separating out one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride by differential crystallisation from over a ton of pitchblende in 1902, a process that led her to isolate pure radium metal in 1910.

5 Facts About Marie Curie

Tomb

In 1995, Marie Curie was the first woman to be entombed within the Panthéon, Paris, on her own merits alone.

Radio

Three radioactive minerals are named after Curie: curite, sklodowskite and cuprosklodowskite.

Inspired

In 2009, Marie Curie was voted the most inspirational woman in science in a poll conducted by New Scientist.

Daughter

Marie Curie’s eldest daughter Irène Joliot-Curie also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.

Sexism

Despite her two Nobel Prizes, Curie was refused entry to the French Academy of Sciences. They finally accepted a female member in 1962 – Marguerite Perey.

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