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Marie Curie

One of the Most Important Scientists of the 20th Century

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Picture of scientist Marie Curie.

Marie Curie, the Polish scientist and Nobel prizewinner. (circa 1926)

(Photo by Henri Manuel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who Was Marie Curie?

Marie Curie distinguished herself as one of the leading scientists of all time during an era when few women attended college and fewer still became scientists. With the help of her husband Pierre Curie, she discovered two new elements: polonium and radium. The Curies' study of radioactivity led to advances in the treatment of cancer as well as the development of nuclear power. Marie Curie was the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize and the first individual to win it twice.

Dates: November 7, 1867 -- July 4, 1934

Also Known As: Marya Sklodowska, Madame Curie

Marie Curie's Childhood in Poland

The youngest of five children, Marie was born to Wladislaw Sklodowski and Bronislava Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. Both of her parents were well-respected teachers who inspired in their children a love of learning. In a family of exceptionally bright children, young Marie was considered the most gifted.

Unfortunately, because Poland was under strict Russian rule at that time, Polish students were often treated unfairly in school and were only permitted to speak Russian. Marie had to work especially hard for her good grades, but always managed to be the top student in her classes.

Double Tragedy

In 1876, Marie's sisters Bronya and Zosia became ill with typhus, probably contracted from boarders living with the family. Bronya recovered, but Zosia succumbed to the disease and died at age 14.

Marie's grief-stricken mother, already seriously ill herself with tuberculosis, lost the will to live. She died two years later. A devastated Marie coped by immersing herself in her studies and graduated from high school in 1883, first in her class.

Planning a Future

After graduation, Marie faced some important decisions about her education. Polish universities didn't accept women, nor did Marie's family have the money for tuition abroad. Marie and her sister Bronya came up with a plan. Marie would work as a governess, saving her money for Bronya to attend medical school in Paris. When Bronya became a doctor, she would return the favor, enabling Marie to study in Paris as well.

Marie left her father's home at the age of 17 for a governess position outside of Warsaw.

Rebellion and Romance

Although she was homesick, Marie soon grew fond of the family for whom she worked. During her off hours, Marie taught local peasants' children how to read and write Polish. This was strictly forbidden by the government and might have led to banishment to Siberia had she been caught.

When Casimir, the eldest son of the family for whom Marie was a governess, came home from college, he and Marie fell in love. They planned to marry, but Casimir's parents would not condone his marriage to a "working-class" woman. Casimir yielded to his parents' wishes, breaking the engagement. Despite the awkward situation, Marie stayed on, honoring her three-year commitment.

Returning to Warsaw in 1889, Marie found another governess position. On her days off, she attended science classes held in secret for aspiring Polish scientists. Marie began conducting basic experiments -- her first exposure to working in a real laboratory.

Paris at Last

In 1891, Marie's sister Bronya, by then married to a fellow medical student, graduated from medical school. The couple invited Marie to come live with them and to begin her own long-awaited education. Marie enrolled at the Sorbonne, becoming one of only a handful of women in the science program.

Marie struggled at first to gain fluency in French, but soon became proficient. After living with her sister and brother-in-law for a few months and commuting two hours a day by bus, Marie found an apartment closer to the Sorbonne. Marie graduated in 1893, first in her class in physics, and completed her master's degree in mathematics in 1894.

Just before graduation, Marie was hired by a national scientific society to study the magnetic properties of different steels.

Scientific Soul Mates

Seeking a lab space for her research, Marie was referred to scientist Pierre Curie, an expert in magnetism. The two scientists had much in common. Both came from well-educated, intellectual families; both were very passionate about science. The friendship grew into a romance within a few months, but Marie was hesitant to commit herself after being rejected by Casimir. Pierre finally won her over and they were married in July 1895.

Marie and Pierre both taught classes and worked together in the lab as often as they could on the magnetism project. Marie gave birth to their first child, Iréne, in September 1897. Pierre's father, recently widowed, came to live with the Curies and took care of the child, enabling Marie to return to work.

A Historic Discovery

After Iréne's birth, Marie Curie began working toward a PhD in physics. For her thesis topic, she chose to study the element uranium. It was from this research, and with Pierre's assistance, that Marie discovered polonium (named in honor of her homeland) in July 1898.

Just months later, Marie Curie identified and named another new element, radium, and coined the term "radioactivity," for the property of giving off rays. In June 1903, Marie completed her PhD in physics, the first woman in France to do so.

A Nobel Prize for the Curies

In November 1903, the Curies received word that they had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on uranium. Marie was the first woman to receive the prestigious honor. The Curies were not able to attend the award ceremony because of teaching duties, instead traveling to Sweden the following year to accept their prize.

The much-needed prize money was put to good use by improving their lab. Marie took some time off during a third pregnancy (she had miscarried the previous year) and gave birth to daughter Eve in December 1904.

A Devastating Loss: Pierre Curie

Hurrying down a busy street on a rainy day in April 1906, Pierre Curie stepped out in front of a horse-drawn wagon. The driver tried frantically to stop the wagon, but the rear wheel struck Pierre's head. He was killed instantly.

Marie was in disbelief. She had lost not only her beloved husband, but her professional partner as well. Numb with grief, Marie found comfort in keeping a journal which was written as if she were speaking directly to Pierre.

She returned to the lab a month later and was also hired by the Sorbonne to take over Pierre's physics class. When offered a widow's pension by the French government, she refused it, insisting that she was capable of earning a living.

Triumph and Scandal

Following her first, impressive lecture to Pierre's physics class at the Sorbonne in November 1906, Marie Curie began to gain acceptance as a brilliant scientist in her own right. She participated in scientific conferences, usually as the only woman in attendance.

The public -- and many colleagues -- judged Marie Curie harshly when the news broke in 1911 that she had been having an affair with a married man. Paul Langevin, father of four, was a fellow scientist and a long-time friend of the Curies.

Once Madame Langevin heard about the affair, she demanded that Marie leave France, threatening to kill her if she didn't. Concerned about the safety of her children, Marie Curie sought shelter at the home of friends. Marie and Paul Langevin avoided one another after the threat, although both denied the affair.

In the midst of the scandal, word came that Marie Curie had been awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her discovery of polonium and radium. Determined to ignore her critics, she traveled to Sweden to accept the award and gave a well-received speech.

World War I

By 1914, Marie was preparing to take on a new challenge as the director of the just-completed French Radium Institute in Paris. The Radium Institute, which had been funded by the Pasteur Institute and the Sorbonne, was to be a research facility devoted to the study of radioactivity and was built to Marie Curie's specifications. Once World War I began, however, all non-essential research was put on hold. Marie's dream would have to wait.

Marie felt compelled to make an important contribution during the war. Using donated equipment, she set up radiology units in clinics and hospitals throughout Paris. She learned how to take X-rays and taught the technique to others. Aware of the need for mobile care during wartime, she created radiology cars (known as "petit curies") that could be driven to wherever wounded troops needed them. At times, Marie herself drove the vehicles to the front lines.

The French Radium Institute

After the war, Marie was finally able to turn her attention to the Radium Institute, but the world-class research facility that she envisioned would require more funding to become fully equipped. Convinced by an American journalist that Americans would be sympathetic to her cause, Marie agreed to make appearances in the United States in 1921. She was greeted by enthusiastic crowds.

An impressive $100,000 was raised, enabling Marie to purchase the radium needed for her research. A highlight of the trip was meeting President Warren Harding, who personally handed the radium to her. Thanks to Marie Curie's oversight and tireless fund-raising efforts, the institute grew in both size and status throughout the 1920s and beyond.

Later Years

After years of having suffered constant fatigue and muscle aches, Marie's health began to rapidly deteriorate in 1933. She was plagued by cataracts and kidney ailments and developed a fever and cough. By 1934, she was unable to work any longer and was placed on bed rest.

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 at the age of 66. The official cause of death was listed as aplastic pernicious anemia, caused by long-term exposure to radiation. Marie did not live to see her daughter Iréne win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry a year later.

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