The Life of Madame Marie Curie - A Brief Biographical History of One of the World's Greatest Scientific Minds
I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.
Maria Sklodowska, the child who would grow up to become the internationally famous physicist and chemist Madame Marie Curie, was born on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw. Affectionately called Manya by family and friends, she was the youngest of five children, and received a general education in local schools and at home under the care of her parents, both of whom were educators. As a child, Manya also received some scientific training from her father, Ladislas Sklodowska, who was a secondary school professor of math and science.
Manya’s mother, Bronsitwa Sklodowska, died of tuberculosis when Manya was only 11 years old. Before that, she had already lost her eldest sister to Typhus. In spite of these tragedies, Manya continued to excel in school and graduated from high school with the highest honors at the age of 15. Soon after graduating, Maria was stricken by a condition which modern historians speculate may have been depression, and was sent to live with her cousins in the countryside for a year to recuperate.
Upon her return, Maria endeavored to continue her education, but at that time women were not allowed to study at the University of Warsaw. Instead, she and her sister, Bronya, studied at an underground “floating” university in which classes were held under the cover of darkness at different locations each night, in order to avoid detection by Russian police (at that time, Warsaw was a part of Russia). To escape this situation and ensure they received credit for obtaining truly professional secondary educations, Bronya and Maria made a pact. Maria would work as a governess (private tutor of children) and support Bronya as she went to medical school in Paris, and when Bronya completed her education and began earning money, she would support Maria while Maria obtained her own university education.
While she waited for Bronya to complete her education, Maria received illegal training as a chemist in Poland. Not only was it illegal for women to earn a secondary education in Russia at the time, it was also illegal for Poles to be instructed in chemistry.
At the age of 23, Maria finally left Poland for Paris to begin her formal secondary education. When she arrived at the Sorbonne University in Paris Maria registered for classes as Marie – the French version of her given name. Marie lived much of the three years it took her to earn her master’s degrees in physics and math on a bread and butter starvation diet, out of financial necessity.
Eventually these financial constraints were alleviated somewhat when Marie earned a scholarship in physics from the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry which paid her to explore the magnetic properties of various types of steel. For this work she would need a lab, and in 1894 Marie was introduced to her future husband, Pierre Curie, for the purpose of renting time in his lab. The two were married in July of 1895 and welcomed their first daughter, Irene, into the world in September of 1897.
Working off of the recent discovery of Henri Becquerel that uranium gave off x-ray like waves that could travel through wood and flesh, Maria came to the understanding that it was neither the physical form or chemical composition of a given specimen of uranium which dictated the intensity of the waves the specimen produced, but simply the amount of uranium the sample contained – of any form or composition – which determined the intensity of the waves. From this, Marie Curie proposed that it was the uranium’s atomic structure which gave off the waves, and introduced the term “radioactivity” to describe the occurrence of these waves.
Marie’s discovery received a lot of attention in the scientific community at the time, and Pierre began to assist her in her studies on radioactivity. In 1898 while studying uraninite, or pitchblende, the couple discovered the existence of two new radioactive elements, which they named “polonium” and “radium.” In 1903, the Curies, along with Henri Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on radioactivity. The Curies used the resulting prize money and international renown to continue their work, and in 1904 their second daughter, Eve, was born.
In 1906 tragedy struck the Curies when Pierre was trampled to death by a horse-drawn carriage. Marie was devastated, but continued her work. She became the first female professor at Sorbonne University when she took over Pierre’s former teaching position at the school.
In 1911 Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize again, this time in chemistry; making her the first scientist to ever win two Nobel Prizes. In that same year, the press discovered a romantic relationship between Curie and her husband’s former student – a married man named Paul Langevin. Curie was derided in the French press for breaking up Langevin’s marriage, which became a lesson for Curie that fame could have negative impacts on her life as well. Still, she remained a celebrated figure in the scientific community, and to this day remains the most famous female scientist ever.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Curie donated her time and effort to supporting France in the conflict, and was responsible for the introduction of portable x-ray machines in the medical tents on the field of battle, enabling surgeons to see bullets and shrapnel inside the bodies of their patients. These machines became known as “little Curie’s.”
Later Years and Death
After the war, Curie moved her offices to the newly established Radium Institute in Warsaw, which she founded. She spent the rest of her life raising funds for the transformation of her Radium Institute into a world-class scientific institution. She raised money from wealthy benefactors all over the world, including the United States, and transformed the institution into a world headquarters for the study of radioactivity. In 1934, Marie Curie fell ill and took refuge in a Sanatorium in Passy, France. She died shortly thereafter on July 4th of that year, from aplastic anemia, a disease which is often caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.
Curie won many posthumous awards, and in 1995 her remains were relocated along with her husband’s to the Pantheon in Paris, where France’s National heroes are laid to rest. She was the first and remains the only woman to be buried there. The year after Curie’s death, her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie would win the Nobel Prize along with her husband Frederic Joliot for their own work with radioactive elements.
Madame Curie’s legacy lives on, as she remains to this day the world’s most famous female scientist, and the practical applications of her discoveries are still used in state of the art healthcare around the world.