Double Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie was born on November 7 1867 in Warsaw. The youngest daughter of teachers Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowska was born into a Poland occupied by three different countries, Prussia, Austria and Czarist Russia. Warsaw was in the part of the country under the control of the Czar. In an effort to stamp out Polish nationalism, the Polish language was banned from schools and its people kept ignorant of its culture.
Bronislawa and Vladislav were Polish nationalists and despite the restrictions placed upon them tried to educate their charges with some knowledge of Poland and their Polish heritage. With the birth of Marie, or Manya as she was then known, Bronislawa gave up her position as head of a school and the family moved to the school at which Vladislav taught math and physics. His pro-Polish sentiments eventually got Vladislav removed from this teaching post.
With Vladislav Sklodowska having to take lower paid employment, the family took in boarders to help make ends meet. From one of these boarders the eldest child, a daughter called Zosia, caught typhus and died. Within three years, in 1878, Bronislawa also died of tuberculosis.
Vladislav Sklodowska cared and nurtured his surviving children. He regularly read classic literature with them. He even taught them physics using instruments taken from the school when the Russian administration banned laboratory based lessons from Polish schools. The only boy in the family, Joseph, went to medical school in Warsaw. At the time, this University did not admit females. To get further education Maria and her sister Bronya attended the so-called floating university. This was an unofficial system where students would attend classes at different locations. The floating university was also a hotbed of Polish Nationalism.
Bronya left Warsaw for Paris to study medicine. To help her sister financially, the seventeen-year-old Marie took a job as a governess.
In 1891, Marie left Poland to join Bronya in Paris and study at the Sorbonne. It was difficult time for the impoverished Polish student. Her garret room in the Latin Quarter was frequently un-heated, as she could not afford the coal. She even collapsed from hunger at one time.
Her previous education could not match that of her fellow students and she had to work extra hard particularly in mathematics. Marie Sklodowska made up for the deficit in her education and gained Licentiateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences.
In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, a man ten years her senior, who was the laboratory chief of the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. They married the following year and Marie Sklodowska became Marie Curie. Also in 1895, Pierre Curie obtained his doctorate and was given a professorship.
Marie Curie continued studying to get a certificate allowing her to teach science to women. At the same time, she was researching the magnetic properties of steel. She submitted the results of this research to the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry 1897. Later that year the Curies first daughter Irene was born.
In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered what he called uranium rays using photographic plates. It was on these rays that Marie Curie decided to base her thesis for her doctorate. She started work using a small storeroom in the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry as a laboratory.
Using uranium and an electrometer, developed by Pierre and his older brother Jacques, Marie made numerous measurements in a variety on conditions. Having confirmed Becquerel’s observations with accurate measurements, she proposed the hypothesis: “The emission of rays by uranium compounds could be an atomic property of the element uranium - something built into the very structure of its atoms.” This went against scientific theory. At the time, the atom was thought to be the elementary particle, even the word atom meant undivided or indivisible.
Marie Curie then went on to see if other elements could produce similar results. In 1898, she found thorium compounds produced similar rays. To describe these rays she invented the word radioactivity.
Pierre Curie joined her in the research when her results had shown that two uranium ores, pitchblende and chalcolite, emitted more radioactivity than could be accounted for by their uranium content.
Their work on pitchblende involved painstaking chemical separation steps combined with repeated measurements of the radioactivity in these fractions. In July 1898, they announced the discovery of a new radioactive element polonium named after Marie’s home country. This was followed in December 1898 with another newly discovered element, radium.
For the elements to be accepted by the scientific community they had to be purified. To do so they moved their work from the cramped storeroom to a larger but drafty shed. The Curies continued their studies using a ton of pitchblende donated by the Austrian government and funding from Central Chemical Products Company. After three years, they eventually isolated 0.1 gram of radium chloride. They did not manage to isolate polonium mainly because of its short half-life of 138 days.
At that time, the danger of radioactivity was not understood and the laboratory notebooks used by the Curies are so contaminated that they are considered too dangerous to handle today.
The use of radium in radiotherapy was started and the Central Chemical Products Company got a handsome profit for its investment in the Curie’s work.
In 1903, Marie Curie gained her doctorate. That same year the French Academy of Sciences nominated Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for the Nobel Prize. Marie was not included in the nomination. One of the members of the Noble Prize committee, Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler a Swedish mathematician, was an advocate of women in science and insisted on Marie’s inclusion in the prize. The Nobel Prize committee awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics jointly to Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie for their studies in spontaneous radiation.
In recognition of his achievement, Pierre Curie was appointed as Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne. He at first refused the appointment and only accepted when they agreed to provide him with laboratory facilities.
In 1904, the Curies had another child, a second daughter called Eve.
On April 19 1906 while hurrying through the rainy streets of Paris Pierre Curie was hit by a horse drawn wagon and killed instantly.
Marie returned to work the day after her husband’s funeral. A strong woman, she refused the offer from the French government of a pension to care for herself and her children insisting she would provide for her family. The Sorbonne made her the professor of Physics and she took her husband’s place at that institution.
In 1911, she received a second Noble Prize for her work on radioactivity. This time it was the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
During the First World War Marie Curie and her daughter Irene were instrumental in setting up mobile X-ray facilities for use in the battlefield hospitals and dressing stations.
After the war, she devoted her life to her work at the Radium Institute in Paris. With the help of a grant from the United States, she set up the Radium Institute in her native Warsaw in 1925.
Her health was affected by her exposure to radiation. In 1920, she temporarily lost her sight to cataracts but four operations were able to correct this. Later she developed the illness, which would claim her life, aplastic anemia caused by radiation damage to the bone marrow. She died on July 4 1934.
The following year her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic Joliot were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on artificial radioactivity.
Pierre and Marie Curie were buried twice. They were originally interred in a cemetery in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux. In 1995, their remains were removed to the Pantheon, which is the National Mausoleum of France.
Nobel Prize.org Nobel Lectures Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967