In focus: Marie Curie

Physicist, chemist and forerunner in radioactivity research, Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the discoverer of two new elements

Marie Curie posing in her laboratory

Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. Manya, as she was known, was the youngest of five children.

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Relocating to Paris in 1891, Maria became ‘Marie’ – perhaps in an attempt to sound more French – and studied physics and mathematics at the world-renowned University of Paris, known as the Sorbonne. Working out of a tiny, drafty laboratory, Marie had little money and so lived off bread and tea. Her hunger would be so bad sometimes she would faint but despite this, she earned her master’s degree in July 1893.

Marie and Pierre

In the hope of sharing his workspace, she was introduced to fellow physicist and Professor in the School of Physics, Pierre Curie. The chemistry between them was instant as they began working together in 1894 and married the following year. Building on the discoveries of French physicist Henri Becquerel, Marie and Pierre Curie focused their work on radioactivity. Indeed, it was Marie who first coined the term, ‘radioactivity’.

Their hard work paid off when, in 1898, they identified two new chemical elements, polonium – named after her native Poland – and radium.

This historic discovery saw the Curies awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, which they shared with Becquerel. 

When Pierre died in 1906, after being knocked down by a carriage, Marie took over his post as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne – the first woman to hold the position. Her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry came in 1911 for her continued study of radium.

World War I

The declaration of war in 1914 saw Marie alter her research to using x-rays in surgery. Working near the front line, she equipped ambulances – which she drove herself – with x-ray machines to quickly treat wounded soldiers. Her 17-year-old daughter Irene assisted her.

The dangerous materials used in her work were by now affecting her health, but Marie still managed to open the Radium Institute, Warsaw, in 1932, which is still carrying out research into cancer treatment today.

The dedication Marie had for her work would lead to the ultimate sacrifice. She died on 4 July 1934 from a rare blood disease, caused by her work. 

5 Facts

Maries Curie’s contributions continue to shape the studies of physics and chemistry today. Her achievements are all the more impressive as she was met with resistance by some of her male colleagues at the Sorbonne and at the Nobel Prize committee who thought a woman shouldn’t be doing such work. Here are five ways she proved them wrong:

1) She was really smart: Marie finished high school at the age of 15 with the highest possible honours.

2) She was a respected physicist: Marie became friends with Albert Einstein, even taking their families on holidays together.

3) Her two new elements were important discoveries: Marie was presented with a gram of radium worth more than $100,000 by President Harding during her first trip to America in 1921.

4) Her family loves science: Marie’s daughter Irene won a Nobel Prize for chemistry and her grandchildren are respected scientists.  Helene is a nuclear physicist and Pierre is a biologist.

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5) She if forevermore an elemental part of science: Marie has an element named after her, curium.