Marie Skladowska Curie pioneered and revolutionized the science of radioactivity. With her discoveries of the radioactive elements polonium and radium, Curie became the first person in history to win two Nobel prizes, one for Physics in 1903, and one for Chemistry in 1911. Her discovery of radium played a crucial role in shaping the way the public and scientists understood matter and energy. Curie’s work and achievements not only influenced the development of fundamental science, but also ushered in a new era in medical research and treatment.
Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. The youngest of five siblings, Curie grew up under the guidance of her mother, a pianist, teacher, and singer and her father, a professor of mathematics and physics. Known for a prodigious memory, Curie was a talented student and excelled throughout her secondary education and received numerous achievement awards. During this time, Curie became heavily involved in a variety of revolutionary organizations and found it necessary to leave Warsaw, which was under Austrian rule. In 1891, Curie went to Paris, where she studied mathematical sciences at the Sorbonne. She obtained Licenses in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences and met Pierre Curie, Professor of Physics; they were married in 1895, and raised two daughters, Irene and Eve, born in 1897 and 1904, respectively. Irene would later go on to become one of the most accomplished scientists working at the Radium Institute of Paris.
In the early years of their marriage, the Curies collaborated and researched together. Their researches and investigations were often performed under difficult conditions; laboratory arrangements were poor and both had to undertake much teaching in order to earn a livelihood. Curie’s success as a leader in education enabled her to succeed her husband as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne and gain her Doctor of Science degree in 1903. Following the tragic death of her husband (who died in a street accident in Paris in 1906,) she took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had ever held this position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.
In December 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the “X-ray,” a kind of ray that could travel through solid wood or flesh and yield photographs of living people’s bones.” In recognition of his discovery, Roentgen in 1901 became the first Nobel laureate in physics. In 1896, French physicist Henri Becquerel reported to the French Academy of Sciences that uranium compounds, even if they were kept in the dark, emitted rays that would fog a photographic plate. Despite Becquerel’s intriguing finding, the scientific community focused its attention primarily upon Roentgen’s X-rays, neglecting the much weaker uranium rays.
Curie became fascinated with these neglected rays and began conducting experiments which lead her to hypothesize that the emission of rays by uranium compounds could be an atomic property of the element uranium. She tested all the known elements in order to determine if other elements or minerals would make air conduct electricity better, or if uranium alone could do this. In April 1898 her research revealed that thorium compounds, like those of uranium, emit Becquerel rays. The emission appeared once again to be an atomic property. To describe the behavior of uranium and thorium, she coined the term “radioactivity.” Her final research had revealed that two uranium ores, pitchblende and chalcolite, were much more radioactive than pure uranium itself. Pierre Curie became so intrigued in his wife’s initial findings that he abandoned his work on crystals and began to collaborate with her on what would be her next discovery: polonium and radium.
Making repeated separations of the various substances in the pitchblende, Curie and her husband used the Curie electrometer to identify the most radioactive fractions. They discovered that two fractions, one containing mostly bismuth and the other containing barium, were strongly radioactive. In July of 1898, the Curies published their conclusion: the bismuth fraction contained a new element. They named this new radioactive element “polonium,” in honor of Marie Curie’s country of birth. A second publication came later that same year in December and detailed their discovery in the barium fraction of another new element, which they named “radium” from the Latin word for ray. The Curies were close to reaching one of the highest goals that a scientist of the time could hope to achieve–placing new elements in the Periodic Table.
Impact and Significance
A booming industry based on the “miracle” drug radium soon began. Curie’s husband’s work on the effects of radium on living organisms showed it could damage tissue, and this discovery was applied to combating cancer and other illnesses. In 1904, French industrialist Armet de Lisle, whose factory would later distribute radium to the medical profession, began to collaborate with the Curies. De Lisle benefitted from the Curies’ technical suggestions on the best treatments for pitchblende. At a time when few research posts were available in France, de Lisle also provided jobs in the new radium industry for many scientists who had trained with the Curies. During World War I, Curie championed for the use of mobile radiography units for the treatment of wounded soldiers and, along with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Irene, made her first trip to the battle front in the autumn of 1914. The use of X-rays contributed to the saving of many lives in battle. Curie later focused upon establishing a military radiotherapy service, delivering radon to military and civilian hospitals. During the spring of 1919, Curie offered radiology courses to a group of American soldiers who remained in France while awaiting passage home. That summer she wrote about her wartime experiences in a book titled Radiology in War. By the fall of 1919 her laboratory at the Radium Institute was complete, and Cure would devote herself entirely to this project for the rest of her life.
Curie, like other researchers and scientists of the time, was unclear about the health effects of exposure to radioactivity. Medical problems began to afflict Curie in 1920, when she had a double cataract. Her vision became so clouded that she had to write her lecture notes in large letters and rely upon her daughters to guide her around. A medical expert from Geneva diagnosed a blood disorder for which there was no cure. Curie had, indeed, been affected by the accumulation of exposure to radiations over the years. She died on July 4, 1934.
American Institute of Physics-Browse online exhibits and other resources on the history of physics, including topics such as lasers, radioactivity, cosmology, global warming, superconductivity, and more.
Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity-A comprehensive website dedicated entirely to the history of Marie Curie and the significance of her work, this resource includes a variety of images, photographs, and primary documents, such as essays and journal entries written by Marie Curie.
Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium- An essay written on the Curies’ discoveries and the impact these findings had upon the scientific community.
Marie Curie: Biography-A biography of Marie Curie from the official website of the Nobel Prize. Read more about the life of Marie Curie and her contributions which lead to her recognition and award.