Polish-French chemist and physicist
"A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales."
Whenever Marie Curie was asked in her later years when she was going to write her autobiography, she responded, "[My life] is such an uneventful, simple little story. I was born in Warsaw of a family of teachers. I married Pierre Curie and had two children. I have done my work in France." Thus did Marie Curie respond in her later years to those who asked when she was going to write her autobiography. A brilliant physicist and tireless researcher who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was always exceedingly modest about her achievements and emphasized that they belonged to science, not to her. Yet as Mollie Keller put it in her biography of Curie, "this tiny woman with her decigram of radium turned the world upside down, forever changing the way we look at, understand, and use our environment."
Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska, the fifth and youngest child of Bronsitwa Boguska, a pianist, singer, and teacher, and Ladislas Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Bronsitwa Sklodowski died of tuberculosis when Marya was not quite 11, leaving Ladislas Sklodowski as his daughter's chief role model. Even as a very young girl she was fascinated by his physics equipment, and like him she was quiet and studious.
Marya was an outstanding student who graduated at the top of her high school class when she was only 15. She then spent eight years working as a tutor and a governess to earn enough money to attend the Sorbonne in Paris. In her spare time, she studied mathematics and physics on her own and attended a so-called "floating" university, a loosely-organized, clandestine program conducted by Polish professors in defiance of the Russians then in charge of the educational system. Finally, in November 1891, Marya left Poland and registered at the Sorbonne under the French version of her first name, "Marie."
Despite living under conditions so spartan that she grew ill on several occasions from lack of food and sleep, Marie graduated first in her class in the spring of 1893. A year later, she obtained her master's degree in mathematics, then remained in Paris to conduct some experiments for a French industrial society. Finding the Sorbonne's facilities inadequate, Marie set out to learn where she might find the necessary laboratory space and equipment. Her search led her to Pierre Curie, a highly acclaimed professor at the School of Physics. The two scientists shared many of the same beliefs and habits and were immediately drawn to each other. They married on July 26, 1895, thus launching one of the most significant partnerships in scientific history.
Marie and Pierre Curie were inseparable, working side by side in the laboratory during the day and studying together in the evening. Even the arrival of their daughter, Irene, in 1897 barely interrupted their routine. By this time, Marie had decided to pursue her doctorate in physics, and for her thesis she chose to focus on the source of the mysterious rays given off by uranium, a phenomenon scientist Henri Becquerel had first observed in 1896.
Curie set up her equipment in a small, glass-walled shed at the School of Physics. Despite the primitive conditions dirt floor, drafty windows, and perpetual dampness within just two months she had made two important discoveries: the intensity of the rays was in direct proportion to the amount of uranium in her sample, and nothing she did to alter the uranium (such as combining it with other elements or subjecting it to light, heat, or cold) affected the rays. This led her to formulate the theory that the rays were the result of something happening within the atom itself, a property she called radioactivity. Subsequent tests she performed on the minerals chalcocite, uranite, and pitchblende revealed higher-than-expected levels of radioactivity and led her to conclude that a new, more powerful element had to be responsible.
Curie began working on this problem during the spring of 1898, and by summer her husband had abandoned his own research to help her. Confining their study to pitchblende because it emitted the strongest rays, they developed a painstaking refining method that required them to process tons of the mineral to obtain just a tiny sample of radioactive material. At last they uncovered a new radioactive element they named polonium in honor of Marie's native Poland. They then identified an even stronger radioactive element, which they named radium. Although they announced their discovery to the world on December 26, 1898, it was March 1902, before they were able to isolate enough radium to confirm its existence and thus earn Marie Curie her doctorate (the first awarded to a woman in Europe) and both Curies the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics.
With this honor came immediate international fame disrupting the two scientists' personal and professional lives for quite some time and enough money to ease some of their financial burdens. (They had supported the radium research with their own money.) After the birth of her second daughter, Eve, in December 1904, Curie rejoined her husband in the laboratory. Then came news that the French government wanted to reward the Curies by creating a new professorship in physics at the Sorbonne for Pierre and building a new laboratory for Marie. But before the deal could be finalized, Pierre was killed when he absentmindedly stepped into the path of a horse-drawn wagon on a Paris street.
After her husband's death, Curie assumed his physics professorship at the invitation of the Sorbonne, making her the university's first woman faculty member. In addition to teaching, Curie also continued to spend time in the laboratory, determined to isolate pure polonium and pure radium to remove any remaining doubts about the existence of the two new elements. Her success in doing so garnered her another Nobel Prize in 1911.
By 1914, Curie was the head of two laboratories, one in her native Warsaw and one at the Sorbonne, known as the Radium Institute. Unable to continue her experiments after the outbreak of World War I and eager to be of service, she received approval to operate X-ray machines on the battlefield so that the wounded could receive immediate treatment. It was exhausting and dangerous work, but within two years she had established two hundred permanent X-ray units throughout France and Belgium.
After the war ended, Curie campaigned to raise funds for a hospital and laboratory devoted to radiology, the branch of medicine that uses X rays and radium to diagnose and treat disease. An American journalist named Marie Meloney heard about Curie's efforts and invited her to tour the United States to publicize the project. Although she dreaded the thought, Curie accepted and sailed for America in 1921. The excited reception she received left her frightened and exhausted, but she did manage to return to France with enough radium, money, and equipment to outfit her new laboratory.
Realizing that her status as a celebrity gave her the power to have an impact on causes she favored, Curie began speaking at meetings and conferences throughout the world, gradually becoming more comfortable in the spotlight. She found that people were very willing to support her work, and she had great success as a fundraiser for the Radium Institute. Curie also lent her name to the cause for world peace by serving on the council of the League of Nations and on its international committee on intellectual cooperation.
As the 1920s drew to a close, Curie began to suffer almost constantly from fatigue, dizziness, and a low-grade fever. She also experienced a continuous humming in her ears and a gradual loss of eyesight that was helped only partially by a series of cataract operations. Even though a number of her colleagues who had worked with radium were displaying many of the same symptoms and others had died at relatively young ages of cancer, for a very long time Curie could not bring herself to admit that the element she and her husband had discovered could possibly be at fault. Eventually she did accept the fact that radium was dangerous, but she continued to work with it anyway. In the early 1930s, however, Curie's health noticeably worsened, and doctors finally discovered the cause: pernicious anemia caused by the cumulative effects of radiation exposure. The news was kept from the public as well as from Curie herself, and on July 4, 1934, she died at the mountain sanitorium where she had gone to recuperate.
Curie lived long enough to see her investigation into the "mysterious rays" emitted by uranium give birth to an entirely new scientific discipline, atomic physics. And in the years since its discovery, radium has been put to use in many different ways. Despite the fact that she was not directly involved in any of these developments, Marie Curie is nevertheless a part of every one, "like the fifteenth century navigators who set out to the west and sighted continents of an extent that they could not conceive," as Waldemar Kaempffert observed in the New York Times. "Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Madame Curie," declared another New York Times reporter. "Her epoch-making discoveries..., the subsequent honors that were bestowed on her ... and the fortunes that could have been hers had she wanted them did not change her mode of life. She remained a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun."
In April 1995 Madame Curie and Pierre's remains were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris, France. According to the Detroit Free Press, "the Pantheon [is] the memorial to the nation's 'great men.'" Madame Curie is the first women to be honored in such a way for the achievements she made in physics. Also a new book entitled Marie Curie: A Life, was published and which made public letters that Curie had written.
Curie, Eve, Madame Curie, Doubleday, 1938. Reprint. Da
Detroit Free Press, April 21, 1995, p. 4A.
Giroud, Francoise, Marie Curie: A Life, translated from French by Lydia Davis, Holmes & Meier, 1986.
Keller, Mollie, Marie Curie, F. Watts, 1982.
New York Times, July 5, 1934; July 8, 1934, section 8, p. 9.
Quinn, Susan, Marie Curie: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995.