Marie Curie French 7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934), born Maria Salomea Skłodowska was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

She was born in Warsaw, in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire. She studied at Warsaw’s clandestine Floating University and began her practical scientific training in Warsaw. In 1891, aged 24, she followed her older sister Bronisława to study in Paris, where she earned her higher degrees and conducted her subsequent scientific work. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and with physicist Henri Becquerel. She won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Her achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I, she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.

Biography

Early years

Birthplace on ulica Freta in Warsaw’s “New Town” – now home to the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, in the Russian partition of Poland, on 7 November 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronisława, née Boguska, and Władysław Skłodowski.The elder siblings of Maria (nickname: Mania) were Zofia (born 1862, nickname: Zosia), Józef (born 1863, nickname: Józio), Bronisława (born 1865, nickname: Bronia) and Helena (born 1866, nickname: Hela).
The father was eventually fired by his Russian supervisors for pro-Polish sentiments, and forced to take lower-paying posts; the family also lost money on a bad investment, and eventually chose to supplement their income by lodging boys in the house.Maria’s mother Bronisława operated a prestigious Warsaw boarding school for girls; she resigned from the position after Maria was born.She died of tuberculosis in May 1878, when Maria was ten years old.Less than three years earlier, Maria’s oldest sibling, Zofia, had died of typhus contracted from a boarder.Maria’s father was an atheist; her mother a devout Catholic.The deaths of Maria’s mother and sister caused her to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.

New life in Paris

In late 1891, she left Poland for France.In Paris, Maria (or Marie, as she would be known in France) briefly found shelter with her sister and brother-in-law before renting a garret closer to the university, in the Latin Quarter, and proceeding with her studies of physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris, where she enrolled in late 1891.She subsisted on her meager resources, suffering from cold winters and occasionally fainting from hunger.

Skłodowska studied during the day and tutored evenings, barely earning her keep. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann. Meanwhile, she continued studying at the University of Paris, and with the aid of a fellowship she was able to earn a second degree in 1894.

New elements

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the existence of X-rays, though the mechanism behind their production was not yet understood.In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power.He demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself. Influenced by these two important discoveries, Marie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis.

Nobel Prizes

In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”At first, the Committee intended to honour only Pierre and Becquerel, but one of the committee members and an advocate of women scientists, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, alerted Pierre to the situation, and after his complaint, Marie’s name was added to the nomination.Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

World War I

During World War I, Curie recognised that wounded soldiers were best served if operated upon as soon as possible.She saw a need for field radiological centres near the front lines to assist battlefield surgeons.After a quick study of radiology, anatomy, and automotive mechanics she procured X-ray equipment, vehicles, auxiliary generators, and developed mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies (“Little Curies”).She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology centre, operational by late 1914.Assisted at first by a military doctor and by her 17-year-old daughter Irène, Curie directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war.Later, she began training other women as aides.

Death

Curie visited Poland for the last time in early 1934.A few months later, on 4 July 1934, she died at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.

The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed.She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket, and she stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark.Curie was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near-blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.

Awards, honours, and tributes

As one of the most famous women scientists to date, Marie Curie has become an icon in the scientific world and has received tributes from across the globe, even in the realm of pop culture.In a 2009 poll carried out by New Scientist, she was voted the “most inspirational woman in science”. Curie received 25.1 per cent of all votes cast, nearly twice as many as second-place Rosalind Franklin (14.2 per cent).

Poland and France declared 2011 the Year of Marie Curie, and the United Nations declared that this would be the International Year of Chemistry.An artistic installation celebrating “Madame Curie” filled the Jacobs Gallery at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art.On 7 November, Google celebrated the anniversary of her birth with a special Google Doodle.On 10 December, the New York Academy of Sciences celebrated the centenary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel prize in the presence of Princess Madeleine of Sweden.