Marie Curie: Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Science

Updated on November 15, 2018
Marie Curie c.1921
Marie Curie c.1921

Introduction

Marie Curie struggled against difficult circumstances in Russian controlled Poland to achieve her dreams of becoming a scientist. She was bright young woman and did well in school, but because she was a woman, she was not able to attend the university. Undeterred, she worked for six years as a governess to save money for her education and to help fund her older sister’s education in France. Finally, her time came to study in Paris where she would live on a pauper’s wage, sometimes fainting in class from hunger, while a physics student at Sorbonne University. Here she would graduate first in her class in physics and second in mathematics, passing by the young men and women of her day.

Continuing her education toward a doctorate in physics, she struggled, with only the help of her husband, Pierre, to process thousands of pounds of ore to obtain just one gram of the highly radioactive element radium. Processing the ore involved months and months of back breaking labor stirring pots with long iron rods full of a boiling brew of chemicals and ore. Her hard work and dedication paid off as she is the only women who has received two Nobel Prizes, though the years of exposure to radiation would eventually cause her death from cancer. Her story is truly inspirational, a classic battle against the odds to achieve greatness that will be remembered for countless generations to come.

Early Years

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. She received her early education and scientific training from her father, who was a physics teacher in a government controlled secondary school. Marie later wrote of her father, “I found…ready help [in mathematics and physics] from my father, who loved science and had to teach it to himself.” Marie was a very bright young lady and did very well in her studies. Poland at the time was under strict control of the Russian czar Alexander II, and the Sklodowska family suffered under the harsh hand of the Russians. Marie’s father lost his job as a teacher and they were forced to take in boarders to survive financially. Her mother, also a teacher, died of tuberculosis in Marie’s youth, which devastated the family.

Education for young women past high school was not possible in Poland at that time. The Tsarist policy insisted on higher education being conducted in the Russian language, with a tight control on the textbooks and curriculum. Lack of subservience to the policies was met with swift retribution from the Russian officials. Hungry for knowledge, 17-year-old Marie sought out higher education in the secret Polish Floating University. In this informal school, students were given instruction in biology and sociology in private homes, out of the watchful eye of the Russian overlords.

Her older brother and sister left for Paris in search of an education while Marie stayed behind working as a governess and helping with her ailing father. She taught herself as best she could with books and saved her money to join her siblings in Paris.

Pierre and Marie Curie
Pierre and Marie Curie

Paris

In 1891 she had enough money and moved to Paris to study physics at Sorbonne University. She lived very frugally during her time at the school and on occasion fainted in class from hunger. As much as possible, she did her school work in the public library where it was warm and well lit. After library hours, she returned to her small attic apartment in the Latin quarter. For much of the time she got by on buttered bread and tea, supplemented by a few eggs from a creamery. She graduated in 1893 at the top of her class in physics and continued her education to be awarded a Master’s degree in mathematics a year later.

Marie’s professor had found some work for her doing industrial research on the magnetic properties of various types of steel. She was given the name of a young chemistry teacher named Pierre Curie, who had done research on magnetism and might be of help. Pierre Curie had already made a name for himself with his discovery of piezoelectricity; that is, that an electric potential will appear across certain crystals when they are put under mechanical pressure. When the two met, Marie was a twenty-six-year-old graduate student and Pierre, eight years her senior, was an established physics and chemistry teacher who was starting to build a reputation as an international man of science. Pierre was a tall man who dressed in loose, unfashionable clothes, spoke softly, and possessed a brilliant mind and a lonely heart. He was fascinated by this young Polish woman who understood physics—something he found terribly exciting and quite unusual. He wasted no time in asking to see her again and the two became very close. They were married in a civil ceremony on July 26, 1895. This simple ceremony would begin a life-long personal and professional relationship that would launch a scientific dynasty.

Wilhelm Rontgen’s serendipitous discovery of X-rays rocked the scientific world. Rays emitted from a cathode tube that were able to see through solid objects was indeed something worthy of further investigation. Shortly after the discovery of X-rays, the French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered rays, much like X-rays, that emanated from uranium salts. When Becquerel made his discovery of the strange rays coming from uranium salts, the phenomenon was very much a mystery.

The Curies settled into a minimal three-room flat with few furnishings. Before long, Marie found herself pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Irène, in September of 1897. With a young baby under her arm, Marie began to search for a topic for her Ph.D. research. After learning of the discovery of the fellow Parisian, Marie decided to investigate further Becquerel’s new rays as a possible topic for a Ph.D. thesis. However, without funding or a place to work, it would be an uphill struggle. Pierre wanted to help his wife and was able to locate an unheated storeroom in which she could work near him at the School of Physics and Chemistry.

Pierre was very talented with construction of scientific instruments, and he devised a method of measuring the radioactivity of a material by the amount of ionization the material produced in the air. The more intense source of radiation caused a higher level of ionization in the air around the sample, which in turn increased the conductivity of the air, thus allowing the Curies’ instrument to measure the tiny amount of electrical current that flowed through the electrified air around the sample. They now had a way of quantitatively measuring radioactive material to determine its strength. By studying various uranium compounds using the instrument, she showed that a sample’s radioactivity was in proportion to the amount of uranium contained in the material. This pointed the way to proving that radioactivity was a property of the atom rather than that of a compound. She launched into a systematic investigation of other compounds that might have this strange new property and found that thorium also emitted rays of the same type as those of uranium. She rationalized that if this property belonged to two types of atoms, it might belong to many more and coined the term radioactivity.

The Hunt for Radium

Marie made an interesting discovery in connection with uranium minerals pitchblende and chalcolite as some samples seemed to be much more radioactive than could be explained by the amount of uranium present. She concluded that there must be an unknown element in the ore that was much more radioactive than uranium. Since all the known elements, with the exception of uranium, in the pitchblende ore were not radioactive, this led her to conclude that there was a small amount of a very intense radioactive material present—thus the search began for this mystery element. Professor Lippmann, who oversaw Marie’s work, communicated the observation to the Academy of Sciences. In April 1898, a note appeared in the Proceedings announcing Marie’s discovery of a new highly radioactive element probably present in pitchblende. Pierre, realizing the importance of the discovery of a new element, abandoned his own research to assist his wife, giving her as much of his free time as he could outside of his teaching duties.

By July of 1898 the couple had isolated enough of this new element from the pitchblende, which was hundreds of times more radioactive than uranium. They called the new element polonium after Marie’s homeland of Poland. Even the discovery of the radioactive polonium did not account for the still unknown element that produced so much radiation within the ore, however, so the search continued.

Late in 1898 they detected a sill more radioactive substance within the ore and named it radium. Unfortunately, the amount of the radium contained in the ore was extremely small. To prove that they had discovered a new element, the Curies had to provide enough of this new element so that it could be spectroscopically verified, and the physical and chemical properties could be determined. To produce enough radium to prove their discovery, tons of the ore would need to be refined just to obtain a small quantity, less than a gram, of the radium.

The Hard Work Begins

The mines at St. Joachimsthal in Bohemia had been mined for centuries for their silver and other precious ores. As a result of mining, there was tons of waste ore piled up in heaps that was rich in uranium. The mine owners were very happy to give the waste material to the Curies if they only paid the shipping cost, which they gladly did from their savings.

The couple set up a refining operation in an old wooden shed with a leaky roof, no floor, and very little heating. One chemist described their workshop as “it looks more like a stable or a potato cellar.” The physics school allowed them to use the shed for three years so they could process the ore. The couple worked tirelessly to purify the ore to extract the more intense radioactive material found in the ore. Processing the ore involved months and months of hard labor tending to simmering pots of ore and chemicals. Each pot contained forty pounds of radioactive mineral ore and chemicals used to reduce the ore. Marie and Pierre would spend many hours stirring the boiling pots with long iron rods. Over that period, Marie lost 15 pounds due to the hard manual labor.

Marie wrote about that time: “One of our pleasures was to enter our workshop at night; then, all around us, we would see the luminous silhouettes of the beakers and capsules that contained our products.” During this time, they also had to care for their daughter, Irène, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a great scientist. By 1902 they had succeeded in preparing a tenth of a gram of radium after processing several thousand pounds of ore. Eventually they would process eight tons of the pitchblende ore to obtain a full gram of radium salt. Despite the possibility of obtaining wealth from patenting the refining process, they gave the secret away as part of their dedication to science. During this time, they also made numerous discoveries regarding the properties of the new element. To finance their research, Pierre kept his job as a chemistry teacher and Marie taught part-time at a girl’s school.

Marie Curie Video Biography

Marie Curie with mobile X-ray unit in World War I.
Marie Curie with mobile X-ray unit in World War I.

World War I

As the First World War washed across Europe in 1914, Marie saw the need to put the technology of X-rays and radiation to work to save the lives of the wounded soldiers. The X-ray images would help locate shrapnel and bullets, assisting the surgeons greatly as they attempted to save lives. Just as she had put her determined spirit into the hunt for radium, she constructed a mobile radiography unit, which came to be known as petites Curies or “Little Curies.” Much of her work on the X-ray machines was accomplished at the Radium Institute. By the end of 1914, she had become the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology center. With the assistance of military doctors and 17-year-old Irène, she directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and 200 radiological units at field hospitals. Though her own research had to be put on hold during the war, it has been estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units, saving countless lives. After the war, she wrote about her war-time experiences in her 1919 book Radiology in War.

Throughout the war effort, Irène was Marie’s premier assistant in the frantic effort to bring the military doctors up to speed on the use of radiology. Irène took the work seriously by earning a nursing diploma. By the fall of September 1916, she was working with other nurses and training a radiological team. A woman of many talents like her mother, she managed during the war years to complete her studies at the Sorbonne with distinction in mathematics, physics, and chemistry—Irène was becoming her mother.

The Nobel Prize

1903 was a big year for the Curies, with Marie writing her doctoral dissertation and she and Pierre sharing the Nobel Prize in physics with Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity. They also visited London where they were hosted by the emanate scientist Lord Kelvin. While there, Pierre gave a lecture at the Royal Institution. While Marie was not allowed to give the presentation, she was the first woman to attend a session of the distinguished organization.

Tragedy struck the family in 1906 as Pierre was accidentally killed when he was run over by a heavy horse-drawn wagon during a rainstorm. Marie and, by now, her two daughters were overwhelmed by the death of Pierre. Marie wrote in her journal of the horrific scene as her husband’s body was brought from the accident into their home to be prepared for burial, “Pierre, my Pierre, there you are calm like a poor wounded one sleeping with his head wrapped up. And your face is still sweet and serene, it’s still you enclosed in a dream from which you cannot emerge.”

During the midst of her mourning, the Sorbonne appointed Marie to succeed her husband at the university, making her the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. She wrote in her journal, “They have offered that I should take your place, my Pierre…I accepted.” She knew Pierre would have wanted her to continue with the work they both loved.

Marie vigorously pursued additional research and was awarded a second Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911 for her work on radium and its compounds. In 1914 she was placed in charge of the radioactivity laboratory of the new Institute of Radium at the Sorbonne—a position she would hold until her final days.

Final Years and Legacy

After the end of the war, Marie returned to her unfinished business at the Radium Institute. Under Marie’s guidance the Radium Institute became a thriving research center. She picked the researchers herself and could be a tough taskmaster. One new assistant said that she told him, “You will be my slave for a year, then you will begin work on a thesis under my direction, unless I send you to specialize in a laboratory abroad.” Marie would do anything to advance the cause of the Institute, even submitting herself to two things she detested: travel and publicity.

By 1921, Marie was an international scientific celebrity whose name was only eclipsed by that of Albert Einstein. France now had their modern Joan of Arc and her name was Madame Curie. She undertook a trip to the United States to raise funds for her radium research and was received at the White House by President Warren Harding, who presented her with a gram of radium. This was no small gift as the value of the ultra-rare radium was around a $100,000. During her visit to the U.S., an editorial appearing in the magazine the Delineator greatly exaggerated Curie’s work, stating, “The foremost American scientists say that Madame Curie, provided with a single gram of radium, may advance science to the point where cancer to a very large extent may be eliminated.”

The years of exposure to radioactive materials and the radiation from X-rays during World War I had taken a toll on her body. Before her death, she was nearly blind from cataracts and was chronically ill. On July 4, 1934, at age sixty-six, she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia and was buried next to her husband. Her exposure to radiation was so extreme that even today, some of her books and clothes are too radioactive to be handled without safety equipment.

In 1995, in recognition of their many contributions, Marie and Pierre Curie’s ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris. Marie was the first woman to receive this honor for her own achievements. Her office and laboratory in the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute have been preserved as part of the Curie Museum.

Marie Curie’s work prepared the way for the discovery of the neutron by Sir James Chadwick, the unraveling of the structure of the atom by Ernest Rutherford, and the discovery of artificial radiation in 1934 by her daughter Irène and her husband Frederic Joliot. Madame Curie was a trailblazer for young women, encouraging them to enter the physical sciences as equals to their male peers. The knowledge brought to the world by the Curies, of the radioactive nature of atoms, would go on to provide an unlimited safe source of energy via nuclear power plants and provide invaluable diagnostic tools for medical doctors; however, there was a dark side to nature’s potent secret as it unleashed the most destructive force man has ever known, the atom bomb.

References

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Second Revised Edition. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1982.

Crowther, J.R. Six Great Scientists: Copernicus Galileo Newton Darwin Marie Curie Einstein. Barnes & Noble Books. 1995.

Brian, Denis. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005.

Cropper, William H. Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo o Hawking. Oxford University Press. 2001.

Questions & Answers

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      • Readmikenow profile image

        Readmikenow 

        3 weeks ago

        Absolutely fantastic article! I truly enjoyed reading it. Marie curie is an inspiration on many different levels. Very well written.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        3 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

        Mary:

        Marie Curie did overcome so many obstacles to accomplish so much. Makes my life looks simple.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        3 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        Yes, it was hard for a woman, a Polish woman to make her mark so it was honourable of Pierre not to accept the prize unless they give it to both of them. She is truly admirable.

      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        3 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

        Tim:

        Thanks. She gave the ultimate sacrifice for science. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, followed in her footsteps and also died of cancer due to the years of exposure to radiation she experienced during her research.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        3 weeks ago from U.S.A.

        Great article about an important scientific figure who sacrificed her life to discover so many interesting things for us today. I didn't know she had won two Nobel Peace Prizes, but Marie Curie was definitely unique and dedicated.

        Thanks, Doug for a great article which is inspiring and informative.

        Much respect,

        Tim

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