Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Researcher of Radioactivity

First Truly Famous Woman Scientist

Physicist Marie Curie in 1930
Physicist Marie Curie in 1930. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Marie Curie was the first truly famous woman scientist in the modern world.  She was known as the  "Mother of Modern Physics" for her pioneer work in research about radioactivity, a word she coined. She was the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in research science in Europe and the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She discovered and isolated polonium and radium, and established the nature of radiation and beta rays.

She won Nobel Prizes in 1903 (Physics) and 1911 (Chemistry) and was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines. She lived from November 7, 1867 to July 4, 1934.

See: Marie Curie in Photographs

Childhood

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, the youngest of five children. Her father was a physics teacher, her mother, who died when Maria was 11, was also an educator.

Education

After graduating with high honors in her early schooling, Marie Curie found herself, as a woman, without options in Poland for higher education. She spent some time as a governess, and in 1891 followed her sister, already a gynecologist, to Paris.

In Paris, Marie Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne. She graduated in first place in physics (1893), then, on a scholarship, returned for a degree in mathematics in which she took second place (1894). Her plan was to return to teach in Poland.

Research and Marriage

She began to work as a researcher in Paris. Through her work, she met a French scientist, Pierre Curie, in 1894 when he was 35. They were married on July 26, 1895, in a civil marriage.

Their first child, Irène, was born in 1897. Marie Curie continued work on her research and began work as a physics lecturer at a girls' school.

Radioactivity

Inspired by work on radioactivity in uranium by Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie began research on "Becquerel rays" to see if other elements also had this quality. First, she discovered radioactivity in thorium, then demonstrated that the radioactivity is not a property of an interaction between elements but is an atomic property, a property of the interior of the atom rather than how it is arranged in a molecule.

On April 12, 1898, she published her hypothesis of a still-unknown radioactive element, and worked with pitchblende and chalcocite, both uranium ores, to isolate this element. Pierre joined her in this research.

Marie Curie and Pierre Curie thus discovered first polonium (named for her native Poland) and then radium. They announced these elements in 1898. Polonium and radium were present in very small amounts in pitchblende, along with larger quantities of uranium. Isolating the very small amounts of the new elements took years of work.

On January 12, 1902, Marie Curie isolated pure radium, and her 1903 dissertation resulted in the first advanced scientific research degree to be awarded to a woman in France -- the first doctorate in science awarded to a woman in all of Europe.

In 1903, for their work, Marie Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henry Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. The Nobel Prize committee reportedly first considered giving the award to Pierre Curie and Henry Becquerel, and Pierre worked behind the scenes to ensure that Marie Curie won appropriate recognition by being included.

It was also in 1903 that Marie and Pierre lost a child, born prematurely.

Radiation poisoning from working with radioactive substances had begun to take a toll, though the Curies did not know it or were in denial of that. They were both too sickly to attend the 1903 Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.

In 1904, Pierre was given a professorship at the Sorbonne for his work. The professorship established more financial security for the Curie family -- Pierre's father had moved in to help care for the children.

Marie was given a small salary and a title as Chief of the Laboratory.

That same year, the Curies established the use of radiation therapy for cancer and lupus, and their second daughter, Ève, was born. Ève was later to write a biography of her mother.

In 1905, the Curies finally traveled to Stockholm, and Pierre gave the Nobel Lecture. Marie was annoyed by the attention to their romance rather than to their scientific work.

From Wife to Professor

But security was short-lived, as Pierre was killed suddenly in 1906 when he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage on a Paris street. This left Marie Curie a widow with responsibility for raising her two young daughters.

Marie Curie was offered a national pension, but turned it down. A month after Pierre's death, she was offered his chair at the Sorbonne, and she accepted. Two years later she was elected a full professor -- the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne.

Further Work

Marie Curie spent the next years organizing her research, supervising the research of others, and raising funds. Her Treatise on Radioactivity was published in 1910.

Early in 1911, Marie Curie was denied election to the French Academy of Sciences by one vote. Emile Hilaire Amagat said of the vote, "Women cannot be part of the Institute of France." Marie Curie refused to have her name resubmitted for nomination and refused to allow the Academy to publish any of her work for ten years.  The press attacked her for her candidacy.

Nevertheless, that same year Marie Curie was appointed director of the Marie Curie Laboratory, part of the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, and of the Institute for Radioactivity in Warsaw, and she was awarded a second Nobel Prize.

Tempering her successes that year was a scandal: a newspaper editor alleged an affair between Marie Curie and a married scientist. He denied the charges, and the controversy ended when the editor and scientist arranged a duel, but neither fired. Years later, Marie and Pierre's granddaughter married the grandson of the scientist which whom she may have had the affair.

During World War I, Marie Curie found chose to support the French war effort actively. She put her prize winnings into war bonds and fitted ambulances with portable x-ray equipment for medical purposes, driving the vehicles to the front lines. She established two hundred permanent x-ray installations in France and Belgium.

After the war, her daughter Irene joined Marie Curie as an assistant at the laboratory. Curie Foundation was established in 1920 to work on medical applications for radium. Marie Curie took an important trip to the United States in 1921 to accept the generous gift of a gram of pure radium for research. In 1924, she published her biography of her husband.

Illness and Death

The work of Marie Curie, her husband, and colleagues with radioactivity was done in ignorance of its effect on human health. Marie Curie and her daughter Irene contracted leukemia, apparently induced by exposure to high levels of radioactivity. The notebooks of Marie Curie are still so radioactive that they cannot be handled. Marie Curie's health was declining seriously by the end of the 1920s. Cataracts contributed to failing vision.

Marie Curie retired to a sanatorium, with her daughter Eve as her companion. Marie Curie died of pernicious anemia, also most likely an effect of the radioactivity in her work, in 1934.

Religion: Marie Curie's family religion was Roman Catholic, but she became an anticlerical atheist on the death of her mother and older sister.

Also Known As: Marie Sklodowska Curie, Mrs. Pierre Curie, Marie Sklodowska, Marja Sklodowska, Marja Sklodowska Curie

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Researcher of Radioactivity." ThoughtCo, Dec. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/marie-curie-biography-3529555. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, December 13). Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Researcher of Radioactivity. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/marie-curie-biography-3529555 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Marie Curie: Mother of Modern Physics, Researcher of Radioactivity." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/marie-curie-biography-3529555 (accessed December 17, 2017).