Marie Curie: Winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911
Accomplishments of the First Woman to Win the Nobel Prize
- In 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, in which she won alongside her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity.
- She discovered polonium and radium.
- In 1911, she became the first person, male or female, to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. As of 2018, she remains the only person to be awarded a Nobel Prize in two different sciences.
- She worked alongside Albert Einstein and many others at the first Solvay Congress in Physics to discuss the groundbreaking discoveries.
- She created petite Curies to be used during World War I, which were portable x-ray machines.
What Was Madame Curie's Childhood Like?
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, when she and her husband Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity. Later, she became the first person, male or female, to have been awarded a Nobel Prize twice; this time in Chemistry.
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, which is now Poland. She was the youngest of five; Zosia, Józef, Bronya, and Hela. Wladyslaw, her father, was a math and physics instructor; she inherited his interests. When she was only ten years old, her mother Bronislawa, who was also a teacher, died of tuberculosis.
Marie was the top student in her secondary school. Despite excelling in education, she was unable to attend University of Warsaw, because it was a men's only school. Instead, she attended a set of underground, informal classes that were held in secret known as Warsaw's "floating university."
She and her sister Bronya wanted to go abroad to earn an official degree, but their family could not afford to do so; therefore, her sister and her made an agreement to help each other through college. First Bronya would attend while Marie worked as a tutor and governess to pay for Bronya's college. Then they would trade responsibilities.
Working as a tutor and governess did not stop her education, because she continued to study physics, math, and chemistry throughout this time as well. Then, in 1891, it was Marie's turn to go to college. She attended Sorbonne in Paris. Due to the cost, she only ate buttered bread and tea, and unfortunately her health suffered as a result. By 1893, she completed her master's degree in physics and earned a second degree in mathematics the following year.
Two years after she graduated, on July 26th, she married Pierre Curie, a French physicist. When they first married, they often worked on separate projects. Pierre decided to assist Marie with her research when she discovered radioactivity.
Together, they had two daughters, Irène (1897) and Ève (1904). Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her parents' footsteps when her and her husband Frédéric Joliot earned their own Nobel Prize in Chemistry on their work on the synthesis of new radioactive elements in 1935.
Unfortunately, in 1906, shortly after their second daughter was born, Pierre was killed by a horse-drawn wagon, when he accidentally walked in front of it while in Paris. She took over her husband's post at the Sorbonne where he taught, and became the institutions first female professor. In 1911, it was rumored that she began a relationship with a former student of her husband's, Paul Langevin that resulted in the ending of his marriage.
What Did She Discover?
Marie was inspired by the French physicist Henri Becquerel who discovered that uranium casts off rays that are weaker than x-rays. She learned that uranium gives off a constant ray no matter what form or condition it is in. Her theory was that this constant ray came from its atomic structure, which created the field of atomic physics. She then coined the phrase radioactivity.
It was at that point that Pierre joined her in her research, and together they discovered the elements polonium and radium. Polonium was discovered in 1898, when she was researching radioactive elements and working with the mineral pitchblende. Pitchblende is the crystallized form of uranium oxide, and is about 70 percent uranium. She named polonium after her home country Poland.
During their experiments they detected another element. In 1902 they were able to isolate that element and that is when they discovered radium. A year later, Pierre and Marie would win a Nobel Prize in Physics for their earlier work on radioactivity. He died shortly after, and she was left to continue her work on polonium and radium alone.
In 1911, she became the first person, male or female, to win two Nobel Prizes. This time in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium. Although she was awarded it alone, she accepted it in honor of her late husband who had a strong hand in the discovery.
It was the discovery of these two elements and her work in radioactivity that led to more accurate and stronger x-rays. She made smaller versions of these machines that were portable and could be used by medics, specifically in World War I called petite Curies.
Women Who Won the Nobel Prize
Marie Curie, née Sklodowska (Physics)
Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner, née Countess Kinsky von Chinic und Tettau (Peace)
Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (Literature)
Marie Curie, née Sklodowska (Chemistry)
Grazia Deledda (Literature)
Sigrid Undset (Literature)
Jane Addams (Peace)
Irène Joliot-Curie (Chemistry)
Pearl Buck (Literature)
Gabriela Mistral (Literature)
Emily Greene Balch (Peace)
Gerty Theresa Cori, née Radnitz (Physiology or Medicine)
Maria Goeppert Mayer (Physics)
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (Chemistry)
Nelly Sachs (Literature)
Mairead Corrigan (Peace) Betty Williams (Peace)
Rosalyn Yalow (Physiolog or Medicine)
Mother Teresa (Peace)
Alva Myrdal (Peace)
Barbara McClintock (Physiology or Medicine)
Rita Levi-Montalcini (Physiology or Medicine)
Gertrude B. Elion (Physioogy or Medicine)
Nadine Gordimer (Literature) Aung San Suu Kyi (Peace)
Rigoberta Menchú Tum (Peace)
Toni Morrison (Literature)
Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (Physiology or Medicine)
Wislawa Szymborska (Literature)
Jody Williams (Peace)
Shirin Ebadi (Peace)
Wangari Muta Maathai (Peace) Linda B. Buck (Physiology or Medicine) Elfriede Jelinek (Literature)
Doris Lessing (Literature)
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Physiology or Medicine)
Ada E. Yonath (Chemistry) Elizabeth H. Blackburn (Physiology or Medicine) Carol W. Greider (Physiology or Medicine) Herta Müller (LIterature)
Tawakkol Karman (Peace) Leymah Gbowee (Peace) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Peace)
Alice Munro (Literature)
Malala Yousafzai (Peace) May-Britt Moser (Physiology or Medicine)
Svetlana Alexievich (Literature) Youyou Tu (Physiology or Medicine)
Petite Curies and World War I
On September 2, 1914, three German bombs were dropped on Paris, only a month after Germany declared war on France, which began World War I. Madame Curie had already established the Radium Institute although did not begin working in there. France then drafted many of Curie's researchers for the war, since they needed all able-bodied Frenchmen.
Since her research was stopped, she declared in a letter to Paul Langevin on January 1, 1915.
“I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country, since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native country just now...”
She recognized that x-rays could save many soldier's lives by detecting bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. It was then that she set up France's first military radiology centers. In order to better serve the men, she used her mini x-ray machines that became known as petite Curies and loaded them in vans. She had personally convinced body shops to not only convert cars into vans but donate them for this purpose.
Her oldest daughter Irene, who was 17 at the time, helped use these machines to help those wounded in battle. Marie needed to learn about human anatomy and how to drive a car in order to be able to assist, which she did very quickly. Her daughter Irene was recognized for her work with the men and was awarded a military medal. There is no record of Marie being awarded one.
How Did She Die?
In the 1920s, Curie's prolonged exposure to radiation began to take the toll on her body, and her health decreased rapidly. No one yet knew the dangers of radiation; therefore, she did not think anything of carrying test tubes of radium in the pockets of her lab coat. She ended up being diagnosed with leukemia and was sick for years.
On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away from aplastic anemia, which was believed to be a result of her excessive exposure to radiation.
Although she died, her research continued through many including her older daughter Irene who studied in her parents' Radium Institute. Like her mother and father, she was awarded the Nobel Prize alongside her husband in Chemistry for her work with artificial radioactivity. Marie, herself, earned other awards after her own death. The Curie Institute and UPMC (University of Pierre and Marie Curie) were both named in her honor. Then in 1995, her and her husband's remains were placed to rest in the Pantheon in Paris, which holds only the finest minds in France. Curie is only one of five women to have this honor.
Her other daughter Ève Curie wrote a biography in honor of her mother, entitled Madame Curie. It would later become a film.
- Caballero, Mary. "Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radioactivity." Stanford University. March 19, 2016. Accessed April 28, 2018. http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2016/ph241/caballero2/.
- "Marie Curie." Biography.com. February 27, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/marie-curie-9263538.
- "Marie Curie - War Duty (1914-1919)." The Discovery of Global Warming - A History. Accessed May 08, 2018. https://history.aip.org/exhibits/curie/war1.htm.
- "Nobel Prize Awarded Women." Nobelprize.org. Accessed April 28, 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Angela Michelle Schultz