Madame Curie was a remarkable woman who used her God-given talents, throughout her entire lifetime, to make valuable contributions to the world of science.
Marie Curie is best known for her pioneering work in the study of Radioactivity, which led to the discovery in 1898 of the elements Radium and Polonium. Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867, was the youngest of five children. Her parents, Wladyslaw and Bronislawa Sklodowski, were both distinguished educators.
Initially, Marie spent many impoverished years as a teacher and governess before she joined her sister Bronia in Paris in order to study mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne, earning degrees in both subjects in 1893 and 1894 respectively. In the spring of 1894, she met the physicist Pierre Curie. They married a year later, and Marie subsequently gave birth to two daughters, Irene (1897) and Eve (1904).
Since 1882, Pierre had headed the laboratory at the Ecole de Physique et de Chimie Industrielle in Paris, and it was there that both Marie and Pierre continued to work after their marriage. For her doctoral thesis, Madame Curie decided to study the mysterious radiation that had been discovered in 1896 by Henry Becquerel. With the aid of an electrometer built by Pierre and Jacques, Marie measured the strength of the radiation emitted from uranium compounds and found it proportional to the uranium content, constant over a long period of time, and uninfluenced by external conditions. She detected a similar immutable radiation in the compounds of thorium. While checking these results, she made the unexpected discovery that uranium pitchblende and the mineral chalcolite emitted about four times as much radiation as could be expected from their uranium content. In 1898 she therefore drew the revolutionary conclusion that pitchblende contains a small amount of an unknown radiating element.
Pierre Curie immediately understood the importance of this supposition and joined his wife’s work. In the course of their research over the next year, they discovered two new spontaneously radiating elements, which they named polonium (after Marie’s native country – Poland) and radium. A third element, actinium, was discovered by their colleague Andre Debierne. They now began the tedious and monumental task of isolating these elements so that their chemical properties could be determined.
In 1903, Marie Curie obtained her doctorate for a thesis on radioactive substances, and with her husband and Henry Becquerel won the Nobel Prize for physics for the joint discovery of radioactivity. The financial aspect of this prize finally relieved the Curies of material hardship. The following year Pierre was appointed professor at the Sorbonne, and Marie became his assistant. Two years later, in 1906, he died tragically, run down by a wagon on a Paris street. Griefstricken, Marie put all her energy into continuing the work they had begun together, becoming head of his laboratory at the Sorbonne and the first woman lecturer at the university. In 1908 she was appointed professor. For isolating pure radium, Marie Curie received a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for chemistry. Thus she became the first and only woman in history to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.
In 1911, by appointment of a commission of scientists, Madame Curie prepared the international standard of radium chloride, which is preserved in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.
During World War I, Madame Curie dedicated herself entirely to the development of the use of X rays in medicine. In 1918 she took upon herself the direction of the scientific department of the Radium Institute, which she had planned with her husband, and where her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie worked with her husband, Frederic Joliot. Irene and her husband shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
Marie’s research for the rest of her life was dedicated to the chemistry of radioactive materials and their medical applications. She frequently lectured abroad, and she labored to establish international scholarships for scientists. During her lifetime, she received over 125 degrees, medals and decorations from universities and organizations around the world.
Her death, on July 4, 1934, of leukemia was undoubtedly caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. In an effort to honor this internationally-renowned chemist and physicist, her remains were moved from their original resting place to be enshrined in the Pantheon, France’s memorial to the nation’s “great men”. That event took place on April 20, 1995, where noted men and women of science gathered for the ceremony.
The work of Marie and Pierre Curie, which by its nature dealt with changes in the atomic nucleus, led the way toward the modern understanding of the atom as an entity that can be split to release enormous energy.