Marie Curie, a Polish-born French physicist, is renowned for her groundbreaking work on radioactivity. She became the first woman to earn a doctorate in science in France, to be awarded a Nobel Prize, to lecture at the Sorbonne, and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. Notably, she was also the first Nobel Laureate to have a child who went on to win the esteemed award. Together with her husband Pierre Curie, she discovered the elements polonium and radium and played a vital role in advancing the use of X-rays.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867, Maria Sklodowska, who would later be globally recognized as Marie Curie, was the youngest of five children. At the time, Warsaw was still reeling from the aftermath of the January uprising of 1864, which had been brutally suppressed, and the city was under severe occupation by Imperial Russia. Tragedies touched her family directly with one of her mother’s brothers exiled to Siberia and another wounded in battle twice before fleeing to France. The Sklodowski family’s life was deeply marked by the harsh political repression, leaving a lasting impact on Maria’s life.
Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.
Demonstrating brilliance from a young age, she possessed a remarkable talent for languages and an extraordinary memory. Though Curie excelled as a top student in her school, the universities in Poland, which did not admit female students, were closed to her. Undeterred, she pursued her education at Warsaw’s “floating university,” a covert and informal educational system where classes were conducted in secret.
Maria and her older sister Bronia devised a plan to overcome the educational restrictions they faced. They would pool their limited savings, allowing Bronia to travel to Paris and pursue medical studies. Meanwhile, Maria would secure the highest-paying governess position available, using her earnings to financially support Bronia’s education. Once Bronia completed medical school, she would reciprocate by supporting Maria’s studies in Paris.
Maria (left) and her sister Bronisława (right), c. 1886
At the age of 24, Curie finally achieved her goal of moving to Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne. Immersed in her studies, she devoted herself entirely to her education. However, this commitment came at a price. Living on a mere budget of 3 francs a day, she resided in the most affordable student accommodation, leading to a poor diet that occasionally impacted her health. Despite these challenges, Curie earned her master’s degree in physics at 26 and followed with another degree in mathematics the next year.
When Marie was 28, she crossed paths with Pierre Curie, a 35-year-old French physicist, renowned for his research on crystals and magnetism. Pierre, deeply impressed by Marie’s unique intelligence and determination, proposed marriage. He penned, “It would...be a beautiful thing to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”
Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory, c. 1904
Marie and Pierre formed an extraordinary scientific partnership, deeply committed to both their research and each other. Initially, they worked on individual projects. However, after Marie’s discovery of radioactivity, Pierre set aside his work to assist her.
Marie’s research was kindled by Henri Becquerel’s work on uranium’s radioactivity. Driven by curiosity to discover if other elements possessed this unique quality, she first identified radioactivity in thorium. She then made the groundbreaking realization that radioactivity stemmed from the atom’s core, rather than inter-element interactions or molecular arrangements. This innovative concept laid the foundation for the field of atomic physics, and it was Curie herself who introduced the term “radioactivity” to define the phenomenon.
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.
While experimenting with pitchblende and chalcocite, both of which are uranium ores, Marie and Pierre identified a previously unknown radioactive element. They named this element polonium, in honor of Curie’s homeland, Poland. A few months later, they isolated another radioactive substance, which they called radium.
In 1906, Marie faced a heartbreaking tragedy when Pierre tragically died in Paris after accidentally stepping in front of a horse-drawn wagon. Overwhelmed by grief yet resolute, she assumed his teaching position at the Sorbonne, marking her as the institution’s first female professor.
Marie Curie in a mobile X-ray vehicle, c. 1915
During the outbreak of World War I, Curie dedicated her skills and resources to the war effort. She advocated for the utilization of portable X-ray machines on the battlefield, and these medical vehicles soon became known as “Little Curies.” They played a critical role, with over 1 million injured soldiers receiving care guided by radiographic exams from these units. Through this initiative, as well as the expanding application of radium in cancer treatment, her name became synonymous with the medical applications of radiation.
Tragically, Curie’s dedication to her work led to her death on July 4, 1934, from aplastic anemia, a condition thought to be the result of her extended exposure to radiation.
Words of wisdom
“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” —Epictetus
“Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” —Kurt Vonnegut
“Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.” —René Descartes