Mother of Modern Physics

Marie Curie is considered one of the most brilliant woman scientists in the 20th Century. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize in Physics. Her combined efforts with Pierre Curie in the field of radioactivity lead to the discovery of polonium and radium. Marie Curie’s insatiable soul is also accredited with the discovery of radioactive treatments for cancer.

Published Categorized as Biography
Marie Curie posing in a laboratory with a grave look.
"I am among those who think that science has great beauty. 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" – Marie Curie

A Marie Curie biography

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) – Physicist, Chemist

Pole by birth and French by adoption, Maria Salomea Skłodowska came to life in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, from a teachers’ family. Her father was a Maths and Physics professor. Her mother was headmistress of a respected boarding female school in Russian-occupied Warsaw. The couple instilled in their five kids the love of learning.

School and home intertwined in Maria’s life. Since childhood, she proved to be gifted—as her brother and sisters—with a particular intelligence and considerable curiosity. She remembered how her father stimulated her to turn everything on to learn science, history, geography, or English.

Even after Maria departed from Warsaw, he sent her advanced math problems by mail. Maria also inherited her father’s patriotic spirit and character, free from any conditioning. In addition to science, Maria was very interested in literature and languages. She wrote poems and portrayed exceptional memory.

Some daunting hurdles marked Maria’s childhood. The Russian, Austrian and Prussian occupation became more and more oppressive for the Poles, influencing Skłodowskis’ financial state. In addition to financial struggles, Maria suffered personal losses. Her sister and mother died of typhus in 1876 and tuberculosis in 1878, respectively. The solemn mourning also led to her estrangement from the faith.

Maria becomes Marie

Maria graduated from high school with honors, obtaining the gold medal, a symbol of excellence—like her sister Bronia. Once at the end of “gymnasium years,” Maria and her three sisters were not allowed to follow Warsaw University courses – as their brother Józef did.

They could study abroad in Paris or St. Petersburg or they could teach, as their mother did before them. However, for the first option, the limiting factor was that Maria’s father couldn’t afford to send any of the girls abroad.

Bronia and Maria made a deal to get the university education they dreamed of. Bronia left to take up Medicine in Paris. Maria followed as soon as her sister’s profession settled down. Meanwhile, Maria worked as a governess. She kept studying insatiably, both within the Flying University—a secret academy for women—and self-education once she achieved her governess’s duties.

The departure for Paris desired by Maria comes at a significant cost, which Maria's father cannot afford on his own, especially as Bronislawa also wants to go to Paris to study at the Faculty of Medicine. The two sisters make a pact: Maria hires as governess and saves money to finance her sister's studies in France. In return, once Bronislawa becomes a doctor, she will pay for her younger daughter's studies.
Maria and Bronia work together to finance each other’s studies. Photograph circa 1886.

Maria Skłodowska set foot in Paris in 1891. In Paris, she started signing as Marie Skłodowska. Eager to expand her knowledge, she immediately entered the Sorbonne and obtained her Physics license in 1893, then a mathematics license the following year.

Despite her shyness, she established a network of acquaintances in the scientific community, which allowed her to cross paths with Pierre Curie, a teacher at the School of Physics and Industrial Chemistry in Paris.

Although they came from profoundly different countries, their affinities were surprising. Their relationship soon became an almost symbiotic one. The two got married in 1895, a happy event that did not distract the young Marie, who had now become Marie Curie, from her goals.

Two new elements: Polonium and Radium

In 1896, the physicist Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity by chance (Becquerel rays) while researching uranium salts’ fluorescence. The discovery was a massive success among researchers worldwide. In particular, Becquerel discovered almost by chance that uranium salts had the property of blackening photographic plates even when an opaque envelope enclosed them to light.

The phenomenon attributed to uranium emitted radiation with characteristics similar to those of X-rays was discovered the year before by Röntgen. At the time, they were called “uranium rays” and still represented an unknown phenomenon.

Intrigued, Marie chose it as the thesis’ subject. In her first publication, she used the term “radio-active” to designate natural radioactivity for the first time. She described the discoveries that she and her husband made:

“Pitchblende (radioactive uranium mineral) and chalcolite (composed of uranium phosphate) were two to four times more radioactive than uranium.”

Finally, the work showed that Becquerel rays were a property of the atom and not a chemical property. She presented the results at the Academy of Sciences on April 12, 1898, earning the Gegner Prize.

“We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for mankind.”

– Marie Curie

Soon, the Curies devoted their studies to radioactivity. They reasoned that some elements could be hidden in the pitchblende, causing all the radiation. Thus, refining tons of it—an arduous process operated under challenging conditions—allowed the discovery of polonium and radium, respectively 400 and 900 times more radioactive than uranium.

It required another three years before Marie isolated radium and established a precise method to extract it. This enabled her to position the element in Mendeleev’s table. The year 1903 was a dream year for Curie’s family. Marie presented her Ph.D. thesis entitled “Research on radioactive substances,” obtaining the “very honorable” mention.

Marie is operating the apparatus. With her right hand she is adding/subtracting known weights from a pan hanging from a strip of piezo-electric material which generates a very small elecrical charge (in the region of pico-amps) according to the weight hung on it. This is nulled against the charge accumulated on an ion chamber due to radioactivity. In her left hand she has a stopwatch to measure the rate of change of charge using a quadrant electrometer. When the weight is changed, the time elapsed for the charge to be nulled is measured by the stopwatch. The charge is indicated by a light spot on the scale in front of her projected by the quadrant electrometer, which is off the left of the picture.
Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory, demonstrating the experimental apparatus used to detect the ionsation of air, and hence the radioactivity, of samples of purified ore which enabled their discovery of radium, 1904

A few months later, she received the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband and Henri Becquerel. This achievement crowned her as the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize and the Davy Medal from the Royal Society (United Kingdom).

One year after, thanks to the Nobel Prize, Pierre Curie accepted a professorship at the Academy of Sciences. After years of working in small laboratories, Marie and Pierre could install themselves in more modern facilities.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie died, hit by a horse-drawn carriage in Paris’ busiest crossroads. Marie took almost four years to recover from her grief. Yet she continued her research. She succeeded her husband’s legacy at the academy by becoming the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. Simultaneously, she managed to isolate a gram of radium in the form of pure metal and published the “Treaty of radioactivity.”

A massive scandal erupted in 1911 over an extramarital affair between the physicist Paul Langevin and Marie Curie. However, the latter received a Nobel Chemistry Prize, the same year. She stands out to be the only person to have received this prestigious award in two different subjects. In 1914, her desire to devote a laboratory for the study of radioactivity materialized by the Radium Institute’s founding.

An unconventional woman

Marie Curie is the woman of “firsts” and an important female figure of the 20th century. She was the first woman in many different areas. Excellent during her studies, in 1893, the year Marie received the license ès sciences, she was one of two female recipients in the entire university. In 1894, when she received the license ès mathématiques, she was one of five.

Marie Curie in 1903 posing for a photograph. She is seated on a chair in the corner of a room. There is a nature painting in the background. On the right, the curtains are drawn to let the light in.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie, 1903

She was brilliant during her research, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize and the second woman to receive the Davy Medal. She was the first woman professor at the Sorbonne when sexism was much more glaring than today. Between 1906 and 1934, it welcomed 45 women without any sexist selection as part of recruitment.

She passed on her passion to her eldest daughter, Irène. The latter in 1935 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with her husband Frédéric Joliot for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

During World War I, Marie and the 17-year-old Irène settled up a mobile radiology service to treat the wounded using X-rays, improving surgical operations conditions.

Of a shy and modest character, her personality is challenging to grasp. The film ‘Radioactive’ (2019) depicts Marie as a strong and individualistic woman, even apologetic toward the end of her life for the deaths that radioactivity’s discovery caused.

“You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think can be most useful.”

― Marie Curie

However, from other sources, Marie Curie emerged as profoundly proud of the discovery she made and thought that the security measures they followed in the laboratory were sufficient to protect them from radioactivity.

The biography, written by Susan Quinn, “Marie Curie: a life,” highlights a strong woman who uses her voice to be respected. However, only through her vulnerability, we can see a woman who profoundly cares about her family, friends–Jean Perrin, Paul Langevin, Hertha Ayrton, Albert Einstein–and the researchers who worked with her at the Radium Institute. In Quinn’s book, she reports how in the last years of life, when she preferred anonymity, “She could not tolerate brazenness… but she rewarded emotional subtlety”.

Death and cultural heritage

In the last year of her life, Marie’s fame became international. She went to New York in 1921, wherewith the help of the journalist Marie “Missy” Meloney, she raised one hundred thousand dollars to buy one gram of radium. Already a member of the Solvay Physics Committee, from 1922, she participated in the International Commission for Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations.

Marie Curie posing in a laboratory
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie

After devoting her entire life to science, Marie Curie died in Sancellemoz Passy’s sanatorium in Haute-Savoie in 1934, following a “pernicious anemia in its extreme form” to which the handling of radioactive elements was not unrelated.

Still today, all her laboratory notes after 1890 are considered dangerous because of their contact with radioactive substances and are stored in lead boxes. Their consultation requires the use of specific precautions.

Her second child, Ève Denise Curie, writer, and editor of her mother’s first biography, was one of the special advisors to the United Nations Secretariat and UNICEF Greece’s ambassador. Thanks to her husband’s efforts and those of her, in 1965, UNICEF has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

For the tremendous scientific breakthroughs achieved by Marie and Pierre Curie, in 1995, President François Mitterrand transferred their remains from their family vault at Sceaux to the Pantheon in Paris. Lech Wałęsa, President of Poland, attended the ceremony. Her coffin is completely insulated with a layer of lead for visitors’ safety because her body still retains radioactivity traces.

Curie’s work still resonates today in our society. It represents the foundation on which Rutherford could probe the nuclear atom’s structure. At the same time, radium’s radioactivity proved to be essential in the fight against cancer.

Moreover, Marie Curie was a feminist precursor. She opened the door to many women in science, overcame barriers, and, at the Radium Institute, women from all over the world were welcomed.

The Curies were known for honesty and humility. They shared the awarded prizes with family and friends and built the Radium Institute in Paris and Warsaw. Both were so keen to live for science that they intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process to make it available for the scientific community.

Nowadays, many monuments and buildings remember both Pierre and Marie Curie. Where the Radium Institute was, in rue Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, it is still possible to visit the museum dedicated to her. The Radium Institute became the Institute Curie, a hospital and research center where thousands of discoveries shorten cancer treatment distance every year.

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