The Life of Marie Curie

The Life of Marie Curie

Feminabanu A M (IISER Bhopal), Sameeha VP (IISER TVM)

“ We must believe that we are gifted for something, at whatever cost, must be attained ” 

--Marie Curie                                            

      Maria Skłodowska, later known as Marie Curie, was a Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist, famous for her work on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and Chemistry, and became the first person to claim Nobel honors twice. She is one of the brightest and most inspiring people, who pushed the borders of the existing science and a role model for women.

Marie Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Congress Kingdom of Poland. Both her parents were teachers. Her dad taught math and physics and her mom was headmistress at a girl's school. She was the youngest of five children and growing up the child of two teachers, she was taught to read and write early. As Marie grew older her family came upon tough times. Poland was under the control of Russia at the time, and people were not even allowed to read or write anything in the Polish language. Her father lost his job as he was in favor of Polish rule. Then, when Marie was ten, her oldest sister Zofia became sick and died from the disease typhus and two years later her mother died from tuberculosis. This was a difficult time for young Marie. She was a very bright child and did well in school. She had a sharp memory and worked hard on her studies and at the age of 16, she won a gold medal on completion of her secondary education at the Russian lycée.

After graduating from high school, Marie wanted to attend a university, but this wasn't something that young women did in Poland in the 1800s. The university was for men. However, there was a famous university in Paris, France called the Sorbonne that women could attend. She did not have the money to go there, but agreed to work to pay for her sister Bronislawa to go to school in France, if she would help Marie after she graduated. Then, in 1890, Marie started her scientific training in a chemical laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture at Krakowskie Przedmieście 66, run by her cousin  Józef Boguski,  who had been an assistant to a Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. It took six years, but, after Bronislawa graduated and became a doctor, Marie moved to France and entered the Sorbonne. During the six years, Marie had read a lot of books on math and physics and she knew she wanted to become a scientist.

In 1891 Marie arrived in France and enrolled at the Sorbonne. She lived the life of a poor college student, but she loved every minute of it. She threw herself into studies, but this dedication had a personal cost: with little money, she survived on buttered bread and tea, and her health sometimes suffered because of her poor diet. She completed her master's degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics in the following year with the help of a fellowship. She was a working student – studied in the morning and tutored in the evening.

In the spring of 1894, she met a French physicist Pierre Curie, who was a Professor in the School of Physics. They married a year later and soon had their first child, a daughter named Irene. And in 1904 the couple had a second daughter, Ève.

Fascinated with the work of a French physicist Henri Becquerel, who discovered that uranium casts off rays weaker than the X-rays, Marie took his work a few steps further and she discovered radioactivity. Turning her attention to minerals, she found her interest drawn to pitchblende, a mineral whose activity is superior to that of pure uranium, which could be explained only by the presence in the ore of small quantities of an unknown substance of very high activity. Then Pierre Curie joined in her work. One day Marie was examining the mineral pitchblende. She expected there to be a few rays from the uranium in pitchblende, but instead, Marie found a lot of rays. She soon realized that there must be a new, undiscovered element in pitchblende. Marie and her husband spent many hours in the science lab investigating pitchblende and the new element. They eventually figured out that there were two new elements in pitchblende for the periodic table! She named one of the elements polonium after her homeland Poland and the other radium, because it gave off such strong rays. And she came up with the term "radioactivity" to describe elements that emitted strong rays.

On the results of this research, Marie received her doctorate of science in June 1903 and, with Pierre, was awarded the Davy Medal of the Royal Society. In the same year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Marie and Pierre Curie as well as Henri Becquerel for their work in radiation. Then she became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel prize. In December 1904, she was appointed chief assistant in the laboratory directed by Pierre Curie.

Marie suffered a tremendous loss on 19 April 1906 when Pierre was killed in Paris after accidentally stepping in front of a horse-drawn wagon. The sudden death of Pierre Curie was a bitter blow to Marie Curie, henceforth she was to devote all her energy to completing alone the scientific work that they had undertaken, but it was also a decisive turning point in her career: On May 13, 1906, she was appointed to the professorship that had been left vacant on her husband’s death. She was the first woman to teach in the Sorbonne. In 1908 she became a titular professor, and in 1910 her fundamental treatise on radioactivity was published. She also championed the development of X-rays after the death of her husband. In 1911 Marie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the two elements, polonium, and radium. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes and she became very famous. Scientists came from around the world to study radioactivity from Marie. Also after the death of Pierre, she joined with other famous scientists, including Albert Einstein and Max Planck, to attend the first Solvay Congress in Physics and discuss the many groundbreaking discoveries in their field. 

When World War I started Marie devoted her time and resources to help the cause. And learned that doctors could use X-rays to help determine what was wrong with an injured soldier. However, there weren't enough X-ray machines for every hospital to have one. She came up with the idea that the X-ray machines could move from one hospital to another in a truck. She even helped to train people to run the machines. The trucks became known as “Petites Curies'', meaning "little Curies" and are thought to have helped over 1 million soldiers during the war. Soon doctors found that radiology could also help with curing cancer.

In 1921, accompanied by her two daughters, Marie made a triumphant journey to the United States, where President Warren Harding spoke at length, praising her “great attainments in the realms of science and intellect” and saying she represented the best in womanhood. “We lay at your feet the testimony of that love which all the generations of men have been wont to bestow upon the noblewoman, the unselfish wife, the devoted mother.” 

Marie Curie (far right) and her daughter Irène (second from right) posing with their pupils from the American Expeditionary Forces at the Institut du Radium, Paris, 1919. 

On May 15, 1922, Marie was made a member of the International Commission on Intellectual Co-operation by the Council of the League of Nations. In addition, she had the satisfaction of seeing the development of the Curie Foundation in Paris and the inauguration of the Radium Institute  in Warsaw, of which her sister Bronisława became director.

Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her mother's footsteps, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Joliot-Curie shared the honor with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, for their work on the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Unfortunately, the Curies had no idea of the dangers inherent in exposure to radioactive elements. In fact, She was known to carry test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat. So her many years working with radioactive materials took a toll on her health and she died on 4 July 1934, in Savoy, France due to aplastic anemia, a blood disease that often results from exposure to large amounts of radiation, both from her experiments and from her work with X-ray machines.

Curie made many breakthroughs in her lifetime. Remembered as a leading figure in science and a role model for women, she has received numerous posthumous honors. Several educational and research institutions and medical centers bear the Curie name, including the Curie Institute and Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC). 

In 1937, Ève Curie wrote the first of many biographies devoted to her famous mother, Madame Curie, which became a feature film a few years later.

Her office and laboratory in the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute are preserved as the Curie Museum.