In the whole of human history, there can be few people who embody the word "genius" to quite the extent that Maire Curie did. Born in comparative poverty and banned from attending her local university (for being born female), she found a key ally and colaborator in her husband Pierre. Together, the Curies pioneered research into radioactivity, revolutionising our understanding of science, in the process. What is almost as remarkable is that they produced much of their early work in a glorified "storage shed", whilst teaching part-time to sustain themselves. Maire Curie is remembered for discovering two elements and for winning the Nobel Prize twice- even her friend, (the archetypal genius) Albert Einstein did not acheive that!
So, if you ever wondered about the Wonder-woman that was Marie Curie, Monica Iams and Susan Taylor have compiled her profile below-
The Greatest Minds Profile Number 2:
Born: 7th November 1867, Warsaw, Poland
Died: 4th July 1934, Passy, France
1.Pioneering studies into radioactivity,
2.Discovering the element Radium (with her husband, Pierre),
3.Discovering the element Polonium (with her husband, Pierre),
4.Being the only person ever to have received 2 Nobel prizes in the sciences,
5.Being the first woman ever to teach at The Sorbonne University in Paris (Professor from 1906 onwards),
6.Founding the Radium Institute in Paris,
7.Heading France’s military radiology centre during World War 1, developing mobile X-ray units and “thus becoming the world’s first medical physicist” (reference 1).
1.Nobel Prize for Physics 1903 (shared with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie),
2.Nobel Prize for Chemistry 1911,
Marie Curie was born Marie Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland in 1867, the youngest of five children. Her father, Wladyslaw, was a maths and physics professor, whilst her mother was a headmistress of a boarding school. Despite their professional status, her parents were relatively poor, having “lost most of their money supporting their homeland in its struggle for independence from [the] Russian, Austrian and Prussian regimes.” (reference 1). From a young age, Marie was engrossed by the physics equipment of her father and at the age of 16, she won gold medal at her completion of secondary education. Because their local university did not permit women to enrol, Marie Curie and her 3 sisters resorted to other methods to complete their education. Specifically, Marie and her sister Bronislawa obtained training from the secret “Flying University”: an organisation which had been founded for political reasons (to provide a pro-Polish education, in defiance of Russian government rules)1. Moreover, Bronislawa and Marie formed a pact, whereby Marie worked as a governess in order to support Bronislawa’s medical training, on the understanding that Bronislawa would later support Marie’s training. Thus, in 1891, after working for many years as a governess to support Bronislawa’s training, Marie was able to leave Poland and join her in France, to pursue her own studies.
Whilst studying in Paris, Marie met her future husband, Pierre, who was already an established scientist when they met. Marie performed her early research with her husband working side by side with her and they married in 1895. At that time, one of the most exciting new findings in science was the discovery of X-rays by German researcher Wilhelm Röntgen. At that point, no one understood the mechanism behind their production and there was a flurry of interest in this and related questions. In 1896, French scientist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that were not X-rays but behaved in a similar fashion. Scientists already knew that certain substances could be “energised” by shining light rays upon them and would release light (phosphorescence) for hours afterwards. Since radioactive materials glowed and emitted light, much like phosphorescent ones, scientists naturally wondered if the two phenomena were related. By storing glowing radioactive Uranium salts in the dark and showing that they continued to emit light, despite being deprived of any external source of energy, Becquerel demonstrated that radioactive materials glowed for a different reason. In other words, he showed that radioactivity and phosphorescence were separate processes. He published his work in an innovative paper, entitled "Sur les radiations émises par phosphorescence". (Published in Comptes Rendus, in March 1896, Volume 122, pages 420–421). When Marie Curie, then a young unknown student stumbled across this paper, it was to change her destiny forever. Inspired by Becquerel’s work, she began to research a closely allied question for her doctoral degree.
In 1897, Irène, the Curies’ first daughter, was born, followed, 7 years later by her sister, Ève. (Both daughters were to go on to have illustrious careers in their own right). Marie and Pierre Curie continued to work together, under very difficult laboratory conditions (much early work was conducted in a former storage shed at the École de Physique in rue Lhomond2). They both had to spend considerable amounts of their time teaching, in order to earn a livelihood. Their continued scientific efforts, however, were leading to ground breaking discoveries- they proved that the rays emitted from Uranium salts remain constant no matter what the form of uranium is and, little by little, pioneered the field of atomic physics. Marie even coined the word “radioactivity” for this subject. Working with the Uranium-rich mineral pitchblende, by July 1898, the Curies had discovered and isolated a new and even more radioactive element, Polonium, which Marie named after her homeland. Just five months later (see ref 5), she and Pierre discovered a second element, which they named Radium. In 1903 their work was rewarded when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel, for their pioneering research.
Tragedy struck in 1906, when Pierre Curie was killed by being hit by a horse and carriage as he crossed the road. Following the traumatic loss of her husband, Marie was appointed to succeed him as head of the laboratory and to take over his teaching duties. In 1911, Mme Curie was awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for her work isolating Radium in a metallic form. This same year, she also attended the first Solvay conference, where she met and was befriended by Albert Einstein.
During the First World War, Marie Curie assisted the French war effort by training young women to take X-rays of injured troops. Once peace returned, she was able to being work at her newly opened Radium Institute in Paris. Her death in 1934 was the result of chronic exposure to high levels of radioactivity and, to this day, her notebooks remain dangerously radioactive. In fact, the Curies were famously blissfully unaware of the potential risks to their health of radioactivity; Pierre even carried a sample of radioactive material around with him in his coat pocket, whilst Marie slept with a sample on her bedside table. By the time Pierre was killed at the age of 46, he was already suffering from bouts of ill health. Marie, therefore, ultimately paid a very high price for her work and her genius.
As the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, the first human ever to win two Nobel Prizes, “the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences”, there is no doubt that Marie Curie was one of the world’s great geniuses. Her work revolutionised both chemistry and physics, pioneering the field of radioactivity and atomic physics and forcing scientists to reconsider what they had thought the very foundations of physics itself. As a woman and an immigrant to (then very racist) France, she was subject to many hurdles which she overcame with sheer force of will and with the support of those who believed in her. In other words, Marie Curie was and is the very embodiment of a great mind.
“Sur une substance nouvelle radio-active, contenue dans la pechblende”, by Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodowska-Curie, published in Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences, Paris, Volume, 127 pages 175-178, (1898),
Husband= Pierre Curie (1859–1906) (also won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903);
Children= Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) (won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with Frédéric Joliot-Curie) &
Ève Curie Labouisse (1904–2007) (Writer, Pianist and Journalist);
Sons-in-Law=Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900- 1958) (won Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with Irène Joliot-Curie),
Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr. (1904-1987) (American Diplomat and Statesman, Director of UNRWA, accepted Nobel Peace
Prize on behalf of UNICEF 1965);
Grandchildren= Hélène Langevin-Joliot (born 1927, professor of nuclear physics at the Institute of Nuclear Physics at the University of Paris and a Director of Research at the CNRS) &
Pierre Joliot-Curie (born 1932, noted French biologist and researcher for the CNRS).
Ludwig Boltzmann, Ernest Rutherford, Henri Becquerel, Albert Einstein, Max Planck,
Henri Poincaré, Paul Langevin, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn.
“Madame Curie: A Biography” by Eve Curie, Re-Published: DaCapo Press 12 Mar. 2001, ISBN: 978-0306810381, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Madame-Curie-Biography-Capo-Science/dp/0306810387/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-5&keywords=marie+curie
“Marie Curie and her daughters- the private lives of Science’s First Family”, by Shelley Emling, Pub: Palgrave Macmillan; Reprint edition (8 Oct. 2013), ISBN: 978-1137278364, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marie-Curie-Her-Daughters-Sciences/dp/1137278366/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-9&keywords=marie+curie
“Marie Curie: A Life”, by Susan Quinn, Pub: DaCapo Press, 1996, ISBN: 978-0201887945, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marie-Curie-Life-Radcliffe-Biography/dp/0201887940/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-4&keywords=marie+curie
“Marie Curie (DK Biography (Paperback))”Pub: Dorling KinDersley, 2008, ISBN: 978-0756638313, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marie-Curie-DK-Biography-Paperback/dp/0756638313/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-11&keywords=marie+curie
Biographies for Young People & Schools:
“Who Was Marie Curie?” by Megan Stine, Pub: Grosset & Dunlap (3 Oct. 2014), ISBN: 978-0448478968, https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Who-Marie-Curie-Megan-Stine/044847896X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-1&keywords=marie+curie
“Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics”, by Janice Borzendowski, Pub: Sterling Juvenile, 2009, ISBN: 978-1402753183, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marie-Curie-Physics-Sterling-Biographies/dp/1402753187/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501608537&sr=1-3&keywords=marie+curie
More Information Online:
References/ Other Sources:
1.“Marie Curie- She Went her Own Way”, by Lacy Shiley, pp38-39 in “Discover” magazine, May 2017,
2.“Natural Radioactivity”, p133- 136 in “Great Scientific Discoveries”, by Gerald Messadié, Pub: W & R Chambers, 1991, ISBN: 0550 – 17002 – 2,
3.“ Polonium and Radium”, p157-159 in “Great Scientific Discoveries”, by Gerald Messadié, Pub: W & R Chambers, 1991, ISBN: 0550 – 17002 – 2,
4.“1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Science”, by James Trefil, Entry 587, p170, Pub: Cassell, 1992 & BCA, 1993 (ISBN: 978 – 0304 – 342976),
5.“Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Radium and Polonium” , by Nanny Frömann, (Translated Nancy Marshall-Lundén), Pub: Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/physics/curie/
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Marie Curie photographed around 1920. This is a public domain image due to its age. It was obtained from Wikipedia and run through an image filter by The GreatestMinds- we make no copyright claims on this image.
By Monica Iams & Susan Taylor