Born: 7 November, 1867 – warsaw, poland
Died: 4 july, 1934 – Passy, france
Known as: a pioneer into radioactivity and chemical research
In her early childhood, Marie – or, as she was then known, Manya Sklodowska – was, despite the Russian occupation, fascinated with learning. Under the guidance of her parents (both teachers), Marie became quite the prodigy in literature and mathematics. It was while studying as a teenager at the “Floating University” – a secret school whose location frequently changed so as to evade the Russians – Marie discovered physics and biology. Her father, a science teacher, championed Marie’s learning; however, she eventually wanted to learn far, far more than the schoolroom would allow. She would need to go to Paris. She had no funds. But she was determined.
Marie worked as a governess until she could afford the train ticket to Paris and begin her studies at the Sorbonne, aged 24. She met some of the world’s most famous scientists – Jean Perrin and Charles Maurain among them – and existed on a pauper’s diet of bread, butter and tea. But, more importantly, Marie threw herself into learning: she earned her degree in physics in 1893, and a degree in mathematics in 1894, while earning her keep cleaning the university laboratories by night.
Later in 1894, Marie met the man she would eventually marry – Pierre Curie. Pierre was also a scientist, and it was this mutual fascination which drew the couple together. After their marriage, the couple lived in a simple apartment only a short walk from their experiments, and Marie studied so that she could teach girls.
Two daughters later, Marie’s fascination for science had not dimmed. She spent hours poring over scientific journals (something her colleagues, whose wives whiled the hours away with their children, spoke of with some disdain). It was in these journals that Marie discovered Becquerel’s observations surrounding uranium salt emissions, and from here that Marie built her studies. She was the first to theorise the idea of uranium rays – something radical in those days, which would challenge the very foundations of chemical science.
Further study would lead Marie to discover two elements: polonium, named for her home country, and radium. She would be the first person to describe elements as radioactive, coining the phrase for these very elements. Painstaking work in difficult conditions – “a dilapidated shed with broken windows and poor ventilation,” says one source – proved difficult, but Marie persevered. The radiation burned Marie and Pierre, causing innumerable illnesses, but they remained steadfast in their explorations.
In 1903, Marie received both her PhD, and the Nobel Prize, in physics. Her thesis was described as the greatest contribution to science, and the Nobel was the first to be awarded to a woman. The award, it seems, was begrudgingly given; most contemporaries dismissed Marie as little more than a secretary, aiding her husband in science’s most daring discoveries. Yet Pierre continued to find opportunities for Marie to study and conduct experiments while he taught at the Sorbonne until his accidental death in 1906.
After Pierre died, Marie chose to take Pierre’s position at the Sorbonne, and became the first woman to teach there. Hundreds gathered for her first lecture on physics research. In 1911, she was recognised again: this time, she received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering polonium and radium. Her speech honoured her husband, but made no mistake in asserting her work as a prominent scientist in her own right, outlining her discoveries and contributions to scientific research made after his death. During World War I, Marie developed 200 permanent X-ray posts, and 18 portable X-ray posts, which she helped operate and repair so as to treat wounded soldiers on the front. In 1921, the US President awarded her with one gram of radium – worth an exorbitant sum – in honour of her service to science. She received numerous awards, honorary memberships, and global recognition for her efforts, and paved the way for scientific discoveries which we now use today.
Marie worked in her laboratory until her death, which was, most agree, caused by her devotion to radiation discoveries. She was complex, driven, passionate – and a driving force in scientific discovery during the 20th Century.