Marie Skłodowska Curie

Last revised by Joshua Yap on 28 Jul 2022

Marie Skłodowska Curie​ (1867-1934) was a Polish-born, French scientist known for her pioneering work in radioactivity. Much of her early work was in collaboration with her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906). Her work shaped medicine, warfare and scientific research for countless generations, earning her Nobel prizes in both physics and chemistry 1,3.

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland into a once noble Polish family under heavy Tsarist Russia oppression 1. Marie’s upbringing would focus heavily on the gift of education and the power of passing it onto others, a mantra to which Marie abided wholeheartedly 1,3. She excelled in both private and public education, considered gifted among her peers. Upon graduation, Marie and her sisters embarked on what is now known as a ‘gap year’ traveling to outskirts of the country visiting relatives and indulging in festivities.

Marie eventually sought further education at the ‘Flying University’, an illegal university based in Warsaw dedicated to the education of female scientists under Russian oppression 2.

Marie agreed to provide financial support to her sister, Bronisława, while she studied medicine in Paris. The agreement was that the favor would be repaid in turn. While working as a governess in Warsaw, Maria would work in secret with her cousin Jozef Boguski, studying chemistry and performing 'wet chemistry' experiments, the birth of her passion 2.

In 1891, at the age of 23, Marie enrolled to study at the Sorbonne, graduating in 1893 with a “Licence des Sciences” (≡ Masters degree), furthermore receiving a licence in mathematics in 1894. In that same year, she met her future husband, a fellow scientist named Pierre Curie, who she wed on 26 July 1895 1-4.

Pierre and Marie examined magnetism in their laboratories for years, though it was the 1895 discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen, and subsequent experiments on uranium by Henri Becquerel, that would change the direction of their research 1-4.

An experiment in which uranium rays, like x-rays, were observed to ‘electrify’ the air sparked Marie's interest so much that she decided this to be the basis of her doctoral research. Marie measured radioactivity using piezoelectric electrometers developed by her husband, Pierre. In 1898, a paper was presented to the Academy of Sciences titled "Rays emitted by uranium and thorium compounds", in which it was proposed that each element had unique ‘radioactivity’ and one could conclude the composition of a material based on its ‘radioactivity’.

Curie then proposed one could isolate a new element in the radioactive substance known as ‘pitchblende’ (now known as uraninite).

For years Marie and her husband worked on isolating, purifying and describing polonium and radium thanks to a sizable donation of 10 tonnes of pitchblende by the Austrian Government.

The Curies' shed was known to have beamed with luminescence from the radioactive materials, a fact today that would concern any occupational health and safety pundit. Consequently, the entire family would develop signs of ill health.

Marie succeeded in extracting radium and polonium, concluding her thesis in 1903 successfully obtaining a "Docteur des Sciences Physiques" (≡ PhD).

Marie went on to design ‘radiology cars’ to assist soldiers in the front line during the First World War. The cars were equipped with x-ray units and darkrooms, bringing these facilities to tents throughout the front lines​ 1. During this time Marie oversaw the training of 400 physicians as radiologists and over 1000 technologists to operate the machinery.

Marie and Pierre Curie had two children, Irene and Eve. Irene Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) and her husband Frederic Joliot were themselves awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their work into artificial radioactivity 5.

Curie passed away on 4 July 1934 in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from what is now believed to be aplastic anemia from long-term exposure to ionizing radiation from her long close work with radium 4.

  • Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903
  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911
  • fundamental research into radioactivity
  • discovery of polonium and radium
  • curium, the chemical element with atomic number 96, is named after her
  • the curie is a former unit of radioactive decay
  • her daughter Irene was to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frederic Joliot Curie for work on artificial radioactivity
  • the Marie Curie museum in Warsaw housed in her birthplace is the only museum in the world devoted to her life and remarkable career

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: Marie Curie
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