Marie Curie born Maria Salomea Skłodowska 7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934), was a Polish and naturalized–French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity.
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Although Marie Curie’s life was mainly focussed on science, she often faced discrimination during her lifetime. She always argued against it, despite the fact that women in her time had little eloquence.
She is a great role model for what women can achieve, in her time and nowadays.
She was known for her honesty and moderate lifestyle. She gave much of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates. She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than to her.
Albert Einstein reportedly remarked that she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame.
As part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
She was born in Warsaw. She studied at Warsaw’s clandestine Flying University and began her practical scientific training in Warsaw. In 1891, aged 24, she followed her elder sister 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 physicist Henri Becquerel, for their pioneering work developing the theory of «radioactivity» (a term she coined). Using techniques she invented for isolating radioactive isotopes, she won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 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.
Marie Curie died in 1934, aged 66, at a sanatorium in France, of aplastic anaemia from exposure to radiation in the course of her scientific research and in the course of her radiological work at field hospitals during World War I. In 1995, she became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.
Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, on 7 November 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronisława, and Władysław Skłodowski. The family had lost their property and fortunes through patriotic involvements in Polish national uprisings aimed at restoring Poland’s independence. This condemned the family to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life.
Maria she attended a gymnasium for girls, from which she graduated on 12 June 1883 with a gold medal. Unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher education because she was a woman, she and her sister became involved with the clandestine Flying University, a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women students.
In late 1891, she left for Paris where she studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris. She 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. 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.
Maria Skłodowska met Pierre Curie who was an instructor at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution. Their mutual passion for science brought them increasingly closer, On 26 July 1895, they were married.
Marie did research on uranium and discovered that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity. Using this technique, her first result was the finding that the activity of the uranium compounds depended only on the quantity of uranium present. She hypothesized that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself. This hypothesis was an important step in disproving the assumption that atoms were indivisible.
In 1897, her daughter Irène was born.
To support her family, Curie began teaching at the École Normale Supérieure. The Curies did not have a dedicated laboratory; most of their research was carried out in a converted shed, poorly ventilated and not even waterproof. They were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation exposure attendant on their continued unprotected work with radioactive substances. She received subsidies from metallurgical and mining companies and from various organizations and governments.
Marie Curie began a systematic search for additional substances that emit radiation, and by 1898 she discovered that the element thorium was also radioactive. Pierre Curie was increasingly intrigued by her work. By mid-1898 he decided to drop his work on crystals and to join her.
The research idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity. It is likely that already at this early stage of her career she realized that… many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved.
In 1898, Marie Curie and her husband published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element they named «radium». ]In the course of their research, they also coined the word «radioactivity».
Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumour-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.
In 1900, Curie became the first woman faculty member at the École Normale Supérieure.
In June 1903, Marie Curie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris. That month the couple were invited to the Royal Institution in London to give a speech on radioactivity; being a woman, she was prevented from speaking, and Pierre Curie alone was allowed to. ]Meanwhile, a new industry began developing, based on radium. The Curies did not patent their discovery and benefited little from this increasingly profitable business.
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 had intended to honour only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, but a committee member and advocate for women scientists, Swedish mathematician alerted Pierre to the situation, and after his complaint, Marie’s name was added to the nomination. Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Curie and her husband declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize in person; they were too busy with their work, and Pierre Curie, who disliked public ceremonies, was feeling increasingly ill. As Nobel laureates were required to deliver a lecture, the Curies finally undertook the trip in 1905. The award money allowed the Curies to hire their first laboratory assistant. Following the award of the Nobel Prize, and galvanized by an offer from the University of Geneva, which offered Pierre Curie a position, the University of Paris gave him a professorship and the chair of physics.
In December 1904, Curie gave birth to their second daughter, Ève.
On 19 April 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a road accident. Marie Curie was devastated by her husband’s death. On 13 May 1906 the physics department of the University of Paris decided to retain the chair that had been created for her late husband and offer it to Marie. She accepted it, hoping to create a world-class laboratory as a tribute to her husband Pierre.She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
Curie’s quest to create a new laboratory did not end with the University of Paris, however. In her later years, she headed the Radium Institute (Institut du radium, now Curie Institute, Institut Curie), a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris.
International recognition for her work had been growing to new heights, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, honoured her a second time, with the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This award was «in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.» She was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes.
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. She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology centre, operational by late 1914. Curie directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war.
In 1915, Curie produced hollow needles containing «radium emanation», a colourless, radioactive gas given off by radium, to be used for sterilizing infected tissue. She provided the radium from her own one-gram supply. It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units. Busy with this work, she carried out very little scientific research during that period. In spite of all her humanitarian contributions to the French war effort, Curie never received any formal recognition of it from the French government.
In 1920, for the 25th anniversary of the discovery of radium, the French government established a stipend for her. In 1921, she was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium.
In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding received her at the White House to present her with the 1 gram of radium collected in the United States, and the First Lady praised her as an example of a professional achiever who was also a supportive wife. Before the meeting, recognising her growing fame abroad, and embarrassed by the fact that she had no French official distinctions to wear in public, the French government offered her a Legion of Honour award, but she refused. In 1922 she became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine. She also travelled to other countries, appearing publicly and giving lectures in Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and Czechoslovakia.
Led by Curie, the Institute produced four more Nobel Prize winners, including her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot-Curie. Eventually it became one of the world’s four major radioactivity-research laboratories.
In August 1922 Marie Curie became a member of the League of Nations’ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. She sat on the Committee until 1934 and contributed to League of Nations’ scientific coordination with other prominent researchers such as Albert Einstein. In 1923 she wrote a biography of her late husband, titled Pierre Curie. In 1925 she visited Poland to participate in a ceremony laying the foundations for Warsaw’s Radium Institute. Her second American tour, in 1929, succeeded in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute with radium; the Institute opened in 1932, with her sister Bronisława its director. These distractions from her scientific labours, and the attendant publicity, caused her much discomfort but provided resources for her work. In 1930 she was elected to the International Atomic Weights Committee, on which she served until her death. In 1931, Curie was awarded the Cameron Prize for Therapeutics of the University of Edinburgh.
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 anaemia 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. 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 and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure.
She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honour of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. Their remains were sealed in a lead lining because of the radioactivity. She became the first woman to be honoured with interment in the Panthéon on her own merits.
Because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes. In her last year, she worked on a book, Radioactivity, which was published posthumously in 1935.
The physical and societal aspects of the Curies’ work contributed to shaping the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Cornell University professor L. Pearce Williams observes:
If Curie’s work helped overturn established ideas in physics and chemistry, it has had an equally profound effect in the societal sphere. To attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers, in both her native and her adoptive country, that were placed in her way because she was a woman. This aspect of her life and career is highlighted in Françoise Giroud’s book: Marie Curie: A Life, which emphasizes Curie’s role as a feminist precursor.
As one of the most famous scientists, Marie Curie has become an icon in the scientific world and has received tributes from across the globe. In a 2009 poll carried out by New Scientist, she was voted the «most inspirational woman in science».
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. Awards that she received include:
- Nobel Prize in Physics (1903, with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel)
- Davy Medal (1903, with Pierre)
- Matteucci Medal (1904, with Pierre)
- Actonian Prize (1907)
- Elliott Cresson Medal (1909)
- Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911)
- Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society (1921)
Marie Curie’s 1898 publication with her husband and their collaborator Gustave Bémont of their discovery of radium and polonium was honoured by a Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Award from the Division of History of Chemistry of the American Chemical Society presented to the ESPCI Paris in 2015.
In 1995, she became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon, Paris. She received numerous honorary degrees from universities across the world. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions fellowship program of the European Union for young scientists wishing to work in a foreign country is named after her. In Poland, she had received honorary doctorates from 4 universities.
In 1920 she became the first female member of The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. In 1921, in the U.S., she was awarded membership in the Iota Sigma Pi women scientists’ society. In 1924, she became an Honorary Member of the Polish Chemical Society.
Numerous locations around the world are named after her. In 2007, a metro station in Paris was renamed to honour both of the Curies. Polish nuclear research reactor Maria is named after her.
Several institutions and Universities bear her name, starting with the two Curie institutes in Warsaw and the Institut Curie in Paris.
Two museums are devoted to Marie Curie. In 1967, the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum was established in Warsaw. Her Paris laboratory is preserved as the Musée Curie, open since 1992.
Several works of art bear her likeness. In 1935, Michalina Mościcka, wife of Polish President Ignacy Mościcki, unveiled a statue of Marie Curie before Warsaw’s Radium Institute. During the 1944 Second World War Warsaw Uprising against the Nazi German occupation, the monument was damaged by gunfire; after the war it was decided to leave the bullet marks on the statue and its pedestal. In 1955 Jozef Mazur created a stained glass panel of her, the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Medallion, featured in the University at Buffalo Polish Room.
A number of biographies are devoted to her. In 1938 her daughter, Ève Curie, published Madame Curie. In 1987 Françoise Giroud wrote Marie Curie: A Life. In 2005 Barbara Goldsmith wrote Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. In 2011 Lauren Redniss published Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout.
Marie Curie has been the subject of several biographical films:
- Oscar-nominated film, Madame Curie, based on her life in 1943.
- In 1997, a French film about Pierre and Marie Curie was released, Les Palmes de M. Schutz.
- Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge was produced internationally in Europe and released in 2016.
- Radioactive was released in 2019.
Curie’s likeness also has appeared on banknotes, stamps and coins around the world: in Poland, France, Mali, Togo? Zambia and Guinea.
Also in 2011, a new Warsaw bridge over the Vistula River was named in her honour.
In January 2020, Satellogic, a high-resolution Earth observation imaging and analytics company, launched a type micro-satellite named in honour of Marie Curie.
La científica polaca que con sus descubrimientos sobre la radiación se convirtió en la primera mujer en ganar dos Premios Nobel y en cambiar el curso de la investigación fisicoquímica del siglo XX. Hija de un profesor de física y matemática, y una maestra de piano, Maria Salomea Sklodowska nació el 7 de noviembre de 1867 en Varsovia, que, en ese entonces, todavía pertenecía al imperio ruso zarista. Durante sus primeros años, si bien no provenía de una familia demasiado acomodada, sí tuvo un gran incentivo y motivación por la educación y la vida académica. Luego del fallecimiento de su madre y una de sus hermanas, las dificultades familiares y económicas no le quitaron nunca el deseo de estudiar. Al terminar la educación básica, por el solo hecho de ser mujer, no tenía permitido acceder a los estudios superiores. No obstante, eso no amedentró su pasión: viajó a París para ingresar a la Universidad de la Sorbona y consiguió una vacante para estudiar física y matemática como su padre. Mientras, trabajaba como institutriz para mantenerse. Finalmente en 1893, Marie, quien ya se había afrancesado el nombre, se licenció en Física con calificaciones sobresalientes. Un año más tarde, conoció a su futuro marido, el también físico y científico Pierre Curie, de quien tomó el apellido y tuvieron dos hijas. Marie fue más allá y continuó con un doctorado. “Las investigaciones sobre la radiación del uranio del físico Henri Becquerel y el descubrimiento de los rayos X por Wilhelm Röntgen ayudaron a Curie a elegir el tema de su tesis: investigaciones sobre sustancias radioactivas. Fascinado por los avances de la investigación de su mujer, Pierre decidió aparcar sus estudios sobre magnetismo para poder ayudarla”, comentaron algunos historiadores que reflexionaron sobre su vida y obra, para el sitio canal historia.es. Y agregaron: “Cómplices en lo personal y en lo profesional, Marie y Pierre Curie trabajaron codo con codo en condiciones nada fáciles. En 1898 anunciaron el descubrimiento de nuevos elementos: el radio y el polonio, ambos más radioactivos que el uranio. Sin embargo, no fue hasta cuatro años después cuando pudieron demostrar su hallazgo”. 1903 fue el año del reconocimiento a sus investigaciones. Marie Curie no solo consiguió su doctorado, sino también recibió el Premio Nobel de Física, junto con su marido y Becquerel, por sus investigaciones sobre la radioactividad. A pesar de su importancia, la Universidad de París solo nombró a su marido, en 1904, como catedrático académico y, dos años después, logró ser miembro de la Academia Francesa. Más tarde, y por un accidente de caballos en el que Pierre Curie perdió su vida, Marie ocupó la cátedra de Física de su marido en la Sorbona. De esta manera, no solo llegó a ser la primera mujer en ganar un Premio Nobel, sino también un puesto como catedrática en aquella casa de estudios. Luego de la muerte de su marido, decidió continuar con sus investigaciones. Muy pronto descubrió que la radioterapia podría ser un tratamiento contra las enfermedades cancerígenas. Esto hizo que los experimentos de Marie ganaran adeptos y se popularizaron enormemente. Gracias a estas investigaciones, Marie Curie ganó su segundo Premio Nobel. Esta vez, en la categoría de Química, en 1911. Curie no solo fue una científica pionera, también tuvo un papel muy importante durante la Primera Guerra Mundial. En aquel periodo bélico, adquirió diversos automóviles y máquinas de rayos X portátiles para crear “ambulancias radiológicas”. Gracias a ello, logró salvar la vida de muchísimos soldados. Así, Marie se convirtió en la directora del Servicio de Radiología de la Cruz Roja francesa.