Maria Curie neé Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in what is now known as Warsaw, Poland. The youngest of five, she excelled in school, and eventually went to seek out secondary education. Maria’s parents were both educators.
Unable to attend the mens only University of Warsaw, Sklodowska attended Warsaw’s infamous ‘floating’ or ‘flying’ classes – underground lessons put on by nationalist interest groups in order to educate outside the government. The classes would be held in various locations around the city, which gave them their nickname. Maria would attend for a while with her sister Bronisława (Bronya).
Due to finances, both Sklodowskas couldn’t continue to attend the floating university. After settling a deal with her sister, Maria worked as a governess and tutor for 5 years in Poland. Bronisława in the mean time attended physician’s classes in Paris, France. Once Bronisława was finished, she would cover for Maria while she took her classes. During her time as a tutor, Sklowdowska would work for the Żorwaski family in Poland, and would fall in love with their son Kazimirez. This would come to fruition in a small scandal, and would be a small contributing factor to Maria’s departure to France to join her sister.
In 1891, Sklodowska was able to travel and attend the Sorbonne in Paris. It is often reported that she would stay up into the early hours of the morning working; and she would normally dine on just bread, butter, and tea. It was reported that her health did suffer during this time. It was during this time that she would start to refer to herself as ‘Marie’, the French take on her given name. She would go on to complete her studies in a quick fashion.
Marie Sklodowska completed her licentiate degree in physics in 1893,and went on to earn another in mathematics in 1894 from the Sorbonne Université.
Just before graduation, Sklodowska would be commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to observe and report relationships between various chemical compositions and magnetic properties. Needing lab space, Marie looked around. A colleague of Marie’s, with no particular intention only than to gain lab space for her, would ask Pierre Curie if he would have an empty bench in his lab.
In the spring of 1894, Sklodowska would meet the latter part of her last name. Curie was a professor in the School of Physics at the Sorbonne – the couple would proceed to marry in 1895. The Curies would be known for their partnership in life and in research.
Thanks to the scientific breakthroughs of Roetgen and Becquerel, Marie’s post graduate research focused on uranium rays. She used an electrometer built by Pierre and his brother years before to measure the effects of passing low-energy currents through air charged with uranium rays.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie found that the rays emitted by uranium were inherent of the element itself, and must derive from its atomic structure. She coined this phenomenon as “radioactivity”.
In 1897, Pierre and Marie would welcome their first daughter, Iréne, into the world. Iréne would prove to be a prominent scientist in her lifetime as well. The Radium Institute would provide the lab space necessary for Irene and Frederic Joliot to conduct their experiments later in life.
In 1898, the Curies successfully isolated and identified a new element on the table named for Marie’s beloved homeland: polonium. The same substance that the Curies detected polonium from, pitchblende, would also yield traces of another unknown radioactive element, what they would name radium. By 1902, the Curies had isolated a fair mass of radium, proving it’s unique existence as an element.
The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 was awarded to Marie and Pierre Curie along with Henri Becquerel for their collective work on radioactivity.
In 1904, the Curies’ second daughter, Evé was born.
Pierre Curie died unexpectedly in 1906 in an automobile accident. Still in grieving, Marie Sklowdowska-Curie would take over his position in the Physics department in at Sarbonne in May. She was the first woman to instruct at the University.
Life After Pierre
In the years proceeding Pierre’s death, Curie would experience much heartache and triumph. In the summer of 1906, Curie would isolate radium from radium compounds with the help of colleague Andre Debierne.
In 1909, the University of Paris and Pasteur University jointly funded the creation of the Institut du Radium. The program was split into two separate laboratories, the Curie Lab, headed by Marie, and the Pasteur Lab, headed by Claudius Regaud. It should be noted that now the Institut du Radium is referred to as the Institut du Curie – the Curie Institute.
In 1910, Marie Curie’s father in law died. A close figure after Pierre’s death, Marie was now left with her two daughters. This would prove to be a difficult time for Curie. Being one of the few well-known physicists of her time along with being a woman invited scandal and public scrutiny.
Antisemitism, Belgium, Radium, and Pandemonium (1910-1918)
In 1911, Curie would run for the single open chair for physicists in the French Academy of Sciences. Curie was publicly smeared as not french, catholic, or male enough to fill the seat despite her position at the Sorbonne and a Nobel prize under her belt by that time. The seat went to Édouard Branly, a notably more french, catholic, and male physicist who had made contributions to wireless telegraphy and more. Many in french society felt that Branly had been snubbed in the 1909 Nobel Prize awarded to Marconi.
An affair with a former student turned colleague in 1911 would lead Curie down another rabbit hole of unwanted publicity. Paul Langevin, who would also lead a full life of scientific and political contributions, was a married man with four children. Suspicions came to a peak during a convention in Belgium in the fall of 1911 when journalists would obtain letters between Curie and Langevin. At this time, Madame Langevin started arrangements for separation from Paul.
In Paris, anti-french, antisemitic rhetoric against Curie re-surged. When she would return after the conference in Belgium to the Radium Institute, the public eye would continue to follow her.
In 1911 Curie would receive an unexpected second Nobel prize nomination in chemistry for her work with polonium and radium in 1898. The Nobel Committee nominated Curie for, “…for her services in the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”
Needing a break, Curie traveled to England in July of 1912 to join colleague Hertha Ayrton, another physicist. Curie needed to separate herself from the scrutiny and drama back home. She went back to Paris in the fall of 1912; in December, Curie made her first entry into her lab notebook in almost fourteen months.
Curie and Langevin never formerly established themselves as a couple – even though Langevin was officially separated from Mdme. Langevin at the time. Curie would focus most of her efforts in establishing the Radium Institution, an endeavor focused on researching the chemical and therapeutic aspects of radioactive matter. Built in the Latin Quarter on the recently renamed Rue Pierre-Curie, Marie considered the Institute a dedication to both Pierre’s memory and to humanity.
World War I
On August 3rd, 1914, Germany would declare war on France in what would prove to be the deadliest conflict the globe had seen at the time. In early September 1914, German forces would bomb Paris.
At this time the Radium Institute had completed it’s construction, but Marie had not moved her lab fully there due to the whole global war thing. The institute held Frances’ only stock of radioactive materials, a small amount in Curie’s holding. She would have to transport it out of the city in a lead box to Bordeaux. Once she had seen the small vial of radium to safety, Curie returned to a conflict ridden Paris. While France was at war, the Radium Institute would have to work quietly until the war effort ceased.
Curie knew that she would be able to use her knowledge in other areas to aid the war effort. She knew that X-rays were valuable to a doctor for saving a patients’ life. Curie convinced the French government to expand on this and allow her to head the project. Director of the Red Cross’ Radiology Service, Curie would go on to create a fleet of X-ray vans operated by French enlisted men to help wounded in the field; the vans would soon pick up the nickname petite Curie – little Curies.
Marie Curie would make sure she would be able to operate a petite Curie just in case. She took crash courses in anatomy, x-ray utilization, and driving. Accompanied by a field doctor and seventeen year old Irene, the three of them headed out for their first petite Curie excursion in the fall of 1914. Irene would prove to be a quick, grounded, and smart assistant. After the war she would be awarded a military medal for her efforts. The same did not come to Marie.
But the two Curie’s couldn’t be the sole operators of petite Curies. In 1916, Marie was offering courses in operating and using a petite Curie at the Radium Institute to women who wanted to learn. This would build up the fleet of X-ray vans and aid the French war effort
Marie traveled and returned to Paris with the radium that was stored in Bordeaux. With no threat of German incendiaries or invasion, Curie was able to continue her work on the small amount.
By extracting radon gas from radium, Curie could isolate it in small gas tubes and transport it to hospitals. There, doctors could use the isolated radon gas and inject it into diseased areas in patients.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918. Curie would continue her war related work at the Radium Institute well past armistice. She would lecture soldiers waiting to return home as well as author Radiology on War, a summary of her work during WWI. By the end of 1919, the Radium Institute was ready to spring into action with a fully settled laboratory and enough faculty and staff to employ. Curie would dedicate the rest of her life to establishing her legacy in the Radium Institute.
The Radium Institute: Curie’s Legacy Manifested
In 1920, Curie would give an interview with Mrs. William Brown Maloney, an editor of a U.S. women’s magazine. In this, Curie would emphasize the stocks the U.S. had compared to her small gram. This would spark the “Marie Curie Radium Campaign”, an effort in which wealthy American women and scientists would gather radium in the U.S. for Curie to use. Maloney would also arrange an autobiography deal with Curie and an American publisher to attract royalties and attention to Curies’ efforts.
Curie would go on an American tour with Maloney and her two daughters to bring attention to her book and the Radium Institute. Curie found this physically taxing, and sometimes Irene would stand in for her to accept honorary degrees and accommodations.
When Marie learned that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson wanted to present her the donation of radium personally, French diplomats scrambled to make up for lost time thanks to the Langevin scandal. Offering the Legion of Honor and a benefit for the Radium Institute at the Paris Opera, Curie accepted only the latter before her trip to the U.S.
At the tail end of 1920, Marie and colleagues would establish the Curie Institute. It would come to be a global leader in radioactive therapies involving cancers in the next few decades.
Curie would notice her sight beginning to fade in one eye in 1920. It’s now known that this can be caused by long exposure to radioactive materials. It would take four surgeries to get Curie to a place to operate vehicles and work in a lab setting, but she wouldn’t have fully recovered vision.
Needing more political and social support, Curie would work with colleagues to lobby and petition for government parties that supported government funded research. Now a properly elderly woman, Curie had never really gotten over her shyness. Despite this, she would go door to door to work for what she thought would be a more progressive future for France.
She would persist in researching radioactive compounds and elements at the Radium Institute. During the sixteen years she would work there, Marie would write 31 books and papers on isolating polonium and actinium.
The Institute was designed around collaborative research teams working in one bull-pen style laboratory setting. Each team had its own research question(s), but all were about radioactivity. Often Curie would visit and sit down with individual researchers to discuss current progress or lack thereof.
Curie’s lab would be a scientific safe space for immigrants and women in science. Here, they could train as students or work as researchers to progress humanity’s knowledge of radioactivity. Curie made it a note to bring in Polish researchers, an homage to her home country.
It was here at the Radium Institute that Irene and Frederic Joliot would support their theory of artificial radioactivity in 1934. Marie would not live to see the couple receive their Nobel Prize in 1935, but did witness the initial discovery.
Marie Curie also found time in the last twelve years of her life, somewhere, to serve on a commission from the Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations to collect and sort an international standard bibliography, establish scholarship standards, and improve protections for intellectual properties of researchers.
The Grand Finale
Like many researchers of her day, Curie did not know the full effects of radioactivity on the human body. From 1920 on, Curie would notice her body starting to break down due to radioactive exposure and old age. Researchers at the Radium Institute were required to take regular blood screens to check their vitals, and were encourage to lead a healthy lifestyle (some things never change).
On the days that she was too sick to go to work, Curie would stay home and work on a transcript of Radioactivity, which would go on to be published posthumously in 1935.
In May of 1934, Curie would go home early from the lab at the Radium institute. She would not return. Several physicians advised a stay in Switzerland, citing tuberculosis as the cause for her decline in health. Curie would travel to a sanatorium in Geneva and live out the rest of her days there until July 4, 1934. The sanatorium director reported that she died from a disease that was an …”aplastic pernicious anemia of rapid, feverish development”. This was most likely, everyone thought, due to prolonged exposure to radiation.
Marie was buried on July 6, 1934 in the same cemetery as Pierre and her in-laws in Sceaux, France. 60 years later, Marie and Pierre’s remains were relocated to the Pantheon in Paris, the national mausoleum. She would be the first woman to lay there.
References (in no particular order or format):
American Institute for Physics. Marie Curie and The Science of Radioactivity. 2000. Online exhibit https://history.aip.org/history/exhibits/curie/
Pasachoff, Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Marie Curie. Encyclopedia Britannica. 30 June 2018. Website https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Curie
Science History Institute. Marie Sklodowska Curie. 4 Dec 2017. Website https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/marie-sklodowska-curie
Nobel Prize Foundation. Marie Curie – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1911/marie-curie/facts/
Nobel Prize Foundation. Marie Curie – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1911/marie-curie/biographical/>
Musee Edouard Branly. Musee Edouard Branly in Paris. Website: http://www.eutouring.com/musee_edouard_branly.html
Oudar, Natalie. Our History. Institut Curie. 30 May 2017. Website: https://institut-curie.org/page/our-history
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Author’s Note: This page was built largely by the contributions of the American Institute for Physics and its phenomenal online exhibit exploring Marie Sklodowska Curie. Please go check it out (Reference #1) because it’s truly a wonderful piece of interactive science history.