WiSW: Marie Curie

Marie Skłodowska Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, in the Kingdom of Poland, of the Russian Empire. She was a physicist and chemist whose studies concentrated on radioactivity. Marie is famous for being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, in two separate fields of science. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. 

Growing up, Marie’s father and mother both operated schools for boys and girls, teaching her physics and mathematics at home when Russian authorities forced them from their positions. Her eldest sister died of typhus when she was seven. When she was ten years old her mother died of tuberculosis. In 1983 Marie graduated from a gymnasium for girls with a gold medal. Soon after she suffered a collapse due to depression, and moved to the countryside to live with relatives. As a woman, Marie was unable to enroll in a formal university, so she studied at a secret underground university called the Flying University. The purpose of this clandestine enterprise was to provide traditional Polish educational opportunities and ideologies outside of government censorship, which collided with the Germanization and Russification of Prussian and Russian occupied Poland at the time. She became a governess to the children from different families while studying on her own, to help pay for her sister’s education in Paris, in an agreement that her sister would help pay for Marie’s education in Paris once she graduated. In 1890 she began working at a chemical laboratory in Warsaw. This was her first formal scientific training. 

In 1891 she moved to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris. She was living in poverty there, when she graduated with a degree in physics in 1893. Marie earned a second degree and found work in a laboratory, studying the magnetic properties of different types of steel. She began a romantic relationship and scientific partnership with Pierre Curie. They were married in 1895.

With her husbands crude electrometer, Marie discovered that uranium caused the air around it to conduct electricity. Her hypothesis was that radiation stemmed from atoms themselves, rather than from a special interaction of molecules. This discovery was important in proving atoms are divisible. 

In 1897 Marie’s daughter was born. Marie taught at the École Normale Supérieure to support her family, and conducted her scientific experiments in a converted shed. All the while, she and her husband experimented with uranium without any protective equipment, constantly being exposed to the harmful effects of radiation exposure. In 1898 Marie discovered that the element thorium is radioactive. 

Marie twice noted in her husband’s biography that her scientific ideas were her own. Her husband supported her scientific opinions without taking credit for helping her formulate them. She knew few scientists at the time would believe that a woman could make such original discoveries on her own. Even so, no one noticed when she published a scientific paper in 1989 announcing the discovery of elements much more active than uranium. In 1989 she and her husband published a paper announcing the discovery of the element radium, and one they named polonium, in honor of Poland. With these discoveries they also invented the word radioactivity. Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published thirty two scientific papers. In 1903 the couple were invited to give a lecture on radioactivity at the Royal Institute in London. Marie was prevented from speaking because she was a woman. Later in 1903 Marie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris. 

The Curies were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 alongside Henri Becquere, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” 

In 1904 Marie gave birth to her second child. Later that same year, her husband died after being run over by a horse drawn carriage in the rain. The University of Paris gave Marie her husbands chair on the department of physics. She became their first female professor. Marie Curie did not have her own research laboratory until 1909. In 1910 Marie succeeded in isolating radium. She finally began to find international fame in scientific communities. Marie was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 “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.” With two Nobel Prizes, Marie leveraged the French government into supporting her founding of the Radium Institute. Soon after accepting her Nobel Prize, Marie was hospitalized with a kidney ailment and depression. She returned to her laboratory after a break of 14 months. 

Marie Curie in one of her mobile radiology vehicles

During World War I, Marie developed mobile radiology units out of vehicles, auxiliary generators, and X-ray equipment, to deploy field radiology clinics in an effort to help battlefield surgeons save soldier’s limbs. Her mobile radiography units became known as petites curies. Marie became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and founded France’s first military radiology center. During the first year of the war, with the help of her daughter, Marie directed the construction of 20 mobile radiology vehicles and 200 radiology field units. Over one million soldiers were treated with these X-Ray units. Marie also invented hollow needles with radioactive radium gas to sterilize soldier’s infected tissue, from her own one gram supply of radium. Unbeknownst to Marie, her unshielded exposure to X-rays during the war had made her nearly blind with cataracts.

In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding and the first lady received Marie at the White House to gift her with one gram of radium collected in the United States. She was received with honors and distinctions in numerous countries, becoming a member of many international scientific enterprises. 

Marie Curie with President Warren Harding

In 1934 Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia due to her long term exposure to radiation. She was known to carry test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pocket and store them in desk drawers. She remarked on the faint light they gave off in the dark. She never acknowledged the health risks of handling radioactive materials. The medical concerns were largely unknown at the time. Marie’s notes and papers from the 1890s are still considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbooks are extremely radioactive. All of her papers are kept in lead lined boxes, and even to reference them one must wear protective clothing. 

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