As Marie Curie tops our poll, 100 Women Who Changed the World, we tell you everything you need to know about the scientist who paid the ultimate price for her discovery…
Born: 7 November 1867, Warsaw, Poland
Died: 4 July 1934, Passy, Haute-Savoie, France
Remembered for: Being the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1903 for her research into radioactivity. Curie later went on to win a second Nobel Prize, for chemistry, in 1911. She is still the only person to have won two Nobels in two different sciences.
Family: Marie was the youngest of five children. Both her parents, Władysław and Bronisława (née Boguska) Skłodowski, were prominent teachers in their local area. Her father taught physics and mathematics – subjects Marie would later pursue.
Marie’s family was hit hard by the Polish national uprisings that broke out during the 19th century with the aim of restoring Polish independence. Her father was fired by his Russian supervisors for his pro-Polish beliefs, and the family was forced to take in lodgers in order to survive financially.
Marie married Pierre Curie in 1895 and together they had two daughters – Irene, born in 1897, and Eve, born in 1904.
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Growing up in Warsaw in the 19th century, Marie displayed an interest in science from an early age. She excelled at boarding school and graduated with a gold medal from a gymnasium – a European form of grammar school – for girls in 1883. Despite not being allowed to attend the University of Warsaw owing to her sex, Marie continued her studies by attending classes at the ‘flying university’ – an underground education movement in Warsaw.
Marie became determined to further her education, and she worked as a governess and a tutor in order to save up the tuition fees. In 1891 Marie moved to Paris, where she studied mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. Despite having very little money and surviving on a poor diet, Marie completed a degree in physics in 1893. Just a year later, she received her degree in mathematics.
While undertaking her studies in 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie, a professor at the School of Physics and Chemistry. A year later, the couple were married.
c1899: Marie Curie and her husband, French chemist Pierre Curie hold hands with their daughter, Irene. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Inspired by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895, and Henri Becquerel’s research into rays produced by uranium salts in 1896, Marie began her research into the properties in uranium. She examined whether these properties were found in other forms of matter.
Sharing an interest in chemistry and physics, Marie and Pierre worked in collaboration to investigate radioactivity, and in 1898 they announced that they had discovered two new chemical elements: polonium and radium. In 1903, owing to the couple’s work into radioactivity with physicist Henri Becquerel, all three were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Marie was devastated when, in 1906, Pierre was killed after being knocked over by a horse and cart. Marie took over Pierre’s teaching post at Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to teach at the college. Affected by her husband’s death, Marie devoted herself to continuing the research that she and Pierre had worked on.
Polish born French physicist Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) in her laboratory. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In 1911, Marie was presented with her second Nobel Prize, this time in the field of chemistry for her work in isolating radium. To this day, Marie is the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in different sciences.
Soon after Marie received her second Nobel Prize, two laboratories were constructed at Sorbonne. In one of the laboratories, Marie led a team of researchers analysing radioactivity, while the other laboratory was used to explore possible cancer treatments.
Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Marie developed a mobile x-ray unit that could be transported near to the frontline and allow her to analyse soldiers’ injuries. With her 17-year-old daughter, Irene, Marie worked at one of the casualty clearing stations, where they x-rayed men to detect bullets and shrapnel in their wounds, and monitor fractures. In 1914 the International Red Cross made Marie the head of the radiological service, where she helped to train doctors and medical assistants in the latest techniques.
After the war ended in 1918, Marie returned to her work as the head of a laboratory and in 1919 published her personal account of the war in her book Radiology in War.
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Marie’s health began to deteriorate during the 1920s. After years of being exposed to radioactive materials and carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets, Marie died of aplastic anemia – a serious blood condition where the bone marrow does not create enough blood cells – on 4 July 1934 at the age of 66.
Marie’s eldest daughter, Irene, went on to become a scientist and, like her mother, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The prize was awarded in 1935 as a result of her work into artificial radioactivity.
Marie Curie’s legacy continues to this day. Numerous research institutions have been named after her, including the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. The Marie Curie charity was established in 1948 and continues to provide care for people with terminal illnesses.
Upon the request of the then French President François Mitterrand, Marie and her husband were in 1995 reburied in the Pantheon – the Parisian mausoleum for France’s most honoured dead.
This article was first published in the November 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine