Marie Curie

Biography of Marie Curie a great Polish scientist whose research on radiation was central to modern physics.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

Marie Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw. She died in France on July 4, 1934.

Marie Curie, when she was 36 years old, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physicsin recognition of the extraordinary services rendered in her joint investigations into the radiation phenomena discovered by Henri Becquerel“.

Together with her,  Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel received this award.

It is notable that the Curie couple, despite living with very limited financial resources, never wanted to patent their discoveries. They always stuck to their ideas that knowledge should be made fully available to other scientists.

Marie Curie Pierre
Marie and Pierre Curie in 1903, when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Childhood of Marie Curie Sklodowski

Marie was the youngest of the five children of Wladyslaw Sklodowski (Lyceum, Physics and Mathematics teacher) and Bronislawa Boguska (teacher, pianist and singer).

At that time, most of Poland was occupied by Russia, which had imposed its language and customs on it.

Along with her sister Helena, Marie Curie attended clandestine classes offered in a boarding school, where Polish culture was taught.

Warsaw street. Credit: photographer Nelson Pérez

In high school, Marie Curie was always the first student in her class; and was fluent in Russian, Polish, German, and French.

Her interests included a passion for reading, especially those of natural history and physics. She graduated at age 15, in 1882.

Marie Curie decided to go to France

At that time, in Poland, women were prohibited from studying at the University. So in 1891, when she turned 24, she decided to go to France.

Her diminished financial means did not allow her to pay for university studies, but she got a scholarship and enrolled in the Faculty of Mathematical and Natural Sciences of the Sorbonne University.

Marie Curie graduated in Physics and Mathematics

There she obtained a degree in Physics (with first place in her class) and also a degree in Mathematics (second in her class). It is important to remember that, as soon as she could, she returned the scholarship money.

sorbonne Marie Curie
The Sorbonne University and those of Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca are one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world. Credit: Non Omnis Moriar

In Paris, this extraordinary woman met Pierre Curie

In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, who was a professor of Physics. The two began working together in the laboratory.

The following year, in 1895, Pierre and Marie were married, in a simple wedding where friends gave them some money. With this money they bought two bicycles and spent the entire summer traveling the roads of France. This shows both a frugal and simple lifestyle; and that they knew how to enjoy the joys of life.

Pierre Curie
Portrait of Pierre Curie (1859-1906) French physicist, discoverer of piezoelectricity. Credit: Welcome Images

Marie Curie began to investigate radiation

In 1896, encouraged by Pierre, Marie decided to do her doctoral thesis on the recent works of Henri Becquerel and Wilhelm Roentgen.

These two researchers had discovered that uranium salts emitted rays of an unknown nature. They were convinced that this phenomenon was related to the recent discovery of X-rays by the physicist Wilhelm Roentgen.

Wilhelm Roentgen, German physicist, discovered X-rays. Credit: Nicola Perscheid

The Curie couple started researching with uranium

Marie Curie became interested in these works and, with the help of her husband, decided to investigate the nature of the radiation produced by uranium salts.

The first thing both discovered was that radiation was not the product of chemical reactions, but was due to the very nature of uranium.

In 1898, they began several years of constant work, accumulating various kinds of pitchblende, a material that had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it.

They isolated two new chemical elements: polonium (element 84, they named it that way in reference to their native country) and radium (element 88), the name is due to its intense radioactivity.

In those years they worked in a shed. Pierre was in charge of supplying all the means and gadgets for Marie to work.

Both suffered burns and sores, produced by the dangerous radioactive materials.

On June 25, 1903, Marie published a doctoral thesis, titled “Research on Radioactive Substances“.  She defended this thesis before a court, and obtained the doctorate with a “cum laude” mention.

Marie and Pierre Curie received the Nobel Prize

That same year, 1903, together with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Marie Pierre Irene Curie
Pierre and Marie Curie, with their daughter Irene. Credit: Eve Curie 5,259

Joys and tragedies at this stage of her life

In 1904, they had their second daughter, Eve. The first had been Irene.

The happy birth of this girl represented an immense consolation for Marie and Pierre, since Marie Curie had already had an abortion, probably caused by radioactivity.

On April 19, 1906, a tragedy occurred: Pierre was hit by a six-ton carriage. He died without anything being done for him.

Marie was greatly affected; however, she rejected the offer of a life pension.

She preferred to continue with her work, and accepted the Chair of Physics that her husband had obtained in 1904.

Marie Curie accidente Pierre
Engraving of the time, illustrating the fatal accident in which Pierre Curie died. Credit: Robert Six. Nikim

Her first class at the University caused great expectation, as she was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne University, founded 650 years ago.

Soon after, Austrian scientist Lise Meitner was able to capitalize on her research.

Marie Curie continued investigating alone

In 1910, after painstaking efforts, and after handling up to eight tons of pitchblende in her shed, Marie barely got “one gram” of radiochloride.

The following year, in 1911, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistryin recognition of her services in advancing chemistry for the discovery of the elements radio and polonium, the isolation of radium, and the study of the nature and compounds of this element“.

With a disinterested attitude, she did not patent the radio isolation process, leaving it open for investigation by the entire scientific community.

Marie Curie was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, each in different fields.

During World War I, Marie Curie proposed the use of mobile radiography for the treatment of wounded soldiers. The car was named Petit Curie.

Ambulancia Marie Curie
Car carrying an X-ray equipment at the suggestion of Marie Curie. Credit: National Library of France

Her daughter Irène, when she turned 18, began helping her with her laboratory work.

Death of Marie Curie

Marie Curie died near Salanches, France, on July 4, 1934, from aplastic anemia, probably as a result of the radiation to which she was exposed in her work.

A year later, in 1935, her eldest daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, also received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.

In 1995, the remains of Marie Curie were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, thus becoming the first woman buried in it.

In Warsaw, you can now visit what was her family home, converted into a “Museum of remembrance” of this great woman.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

Please rate this biography using the stars: