Childhood & Early Life
Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska on 7 November 1867, in Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire. She was the youngest of the five children born to Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowski. Both her parents were employed as teachers.
From a young age, she followed in the footsteps of her father and showed keen interest in mathematics and physics. After receiving her preliminary education from ‘J. Sikorska,’ she enrolled herself at a gymnasium (a type of school) from where she graduated with a gold medal in 1883.
Unable to enroll at the men-only ‘University of Warsaw,’ she took up a teaching position at the ‘Flying University.’ However, she did not let her dream of earning an official degree fade away, and struck a deal with her elder sister Bronislawa, according to which, she would support Bronislawa initially and would later be assisted by her.
She took up odd jobs, that of a tutor and governess, to earn extra money to assist her sister’s education. Meanwhile, in her spare time, she continued to learn new concepts by reading books. She even started her practical scientific training at a chemical laboratory.
In 1891, she moved to France and enrolled herself at the ‘Sorbonne University.’ It was there that she came to be known as Marie. With meagre financial aid, she took to tutoring in the evening to earn money to make both ends meet.
In 1893, she earned a degree in physics, and received a degree in mathematics the following year. She started her scientific career by investigating the different types of steel and their magnetic properties.
The need for a larger laboratory led to her being introduced to Pierre Curie, who was an instructor at the ‘School of Physics and Chemistry.’ Curie helped her find a better space to work.
Though she made several attempts to move back to Poland and continue her research in her own country, she was denied a place to work in Poland because of her sex. As a result, she returned to Paris to pursue a PhD.
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In 1896, Henri Becquerel’s discovery of uranium salts emitting rays deeply inspired and interested her. She then intensified her research and the pace at which she was working. She employed electrometer to determine that the rays remained constant, irrespective of the condition or form of uranium.
After conducting her research, she found out that the rays were emitted from the element’s atomic structure and were not the outcome of the interaction of molecules. It was due to this revolutionary finding that the field of atomic physics came into existence.
Since conducting research did not bring much financial assistance to the family, she took up a teaching position at the ‘École Normale Supérieure.’ Meanwhile, she continued her research, employing two uranium minerals, ‘pitchblende’ and ‘torbernite.’
Intrigued by her work, Pierre dropped his own research on crystals and started working with Marie Curie in 1898. They began conducting a study to learn about additional substances that emitted radiation.
In 1898, while working on the mineral ‘pitchblende,’ they discovered a new element which was also radioactive. They named it ‘polonium’ after Poland. Later in the year, they discovered yet another element and named it ‘radium.’ It was during this time that they coined the term ‘radioactivity.’
To eliminate any doubts about their discovery, the two undertook the ardent task of extracting polonium and radium in their pure form, from the mineral ‘pitchblende.’ In 1902, they finally succeeded in separating out radium salt by differential crystallization.
Meanwhile, from 1898 to 1902, Pierre and Curie published about 32 scientific papers, giving a detailed account of their work on radioactivity. In one of these papers, they said that the tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than the healthy cells when exposed to radioactivity.
In 1903, she received a doctorate degree from the ‘University of Paris.’ The same year, Pierre and Curie were bestowed with a ‘Nobel Prize’ in physics which they accepted only in 1905.
In 1906, following the death of Pierre, ‘Sorbonne University’ offered her his chair of physics and professorship which she accepted in order to set up a world-class laboratory.
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In 1910, she successfully isolated radium and defined an international standard for radioactive emissions, which was eventually named after her surname.
In 1911, she was bestowed with a second ‘Nobel Prize,’ this time in chemistry.
International fame and recognition helped her set up ‘Radium Institute’ with the support of the French Government. The center aimed at conducting research in the field of chemistry, physics, and medicine.
During ‘World War I,’ she set up radiology center to assist military doctors in treating ailing soldiers. She directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and 200 radiological units at field. It is estimated that over one million wounded soldiers were treated with her x-ray units.
Post ‘World War I,’ she penned down a book titled ‘Radiology in War,’ which gave a detailed account of her experiences during the war.
For most of her later years, she travelled to different countries to raise funds for research on radium.
In 1922, she was appointed as a fellow of the ‘French Academy of Medicine.’ Additionally, she also became a member of the ‘International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.’
In 1930, she was appointed as a member of the ‘International Atomic Weights Committee.’
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Awards & Achievements
In 1903, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie were jointly awarded the ‘Nobel Prize’ in physics for their extraordinary services and joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.
In 1911, she was awarded the ‘Nobel Prize’ in chemistry for her various contributions, such as the discovery of radium and polonium, isolation of radium, and the study of the nature and compounds of radium.
Various buildings, institutions, universities, public places, roads, and museums have been named after her. Additionally, there are several works of art, books, biographies, films, and plays that give an account of her life and work.
Personal Life & Legacy
She was introduced to Pierre Curie by the Polish physicist, Professor Józef Wierusz-Kowalski. There was an instant chemistry between the two as they shared a common passion for science.
Pierre proposed marriage to her but was declined. He tried again and the two tied the knot on July 26, 1895. Two years later, they were blessed with a baby girl whom they named Irene. In 1904, their second daughter Eve was born.
Marie breathed her last on July 4, 1934, at the ‘Sancellemoz’ sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, France after suffering from aplastic anemia due to prolonged exposure to radiation.
Her mortal remains were interred next to Pierre Curie’s tomb in Sceaux. About six decades later, their remains were transferred to the ‘Pantheon’ in Paris.