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Marie Curie

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Marie Curie

Marie Curie

Courtesy US Dept of Energy

About Marie Curie:

Known for:
• first famous woman scientist in the modern world
• "Mother of Modern Physics" -- pioneer in research about radioactivity, a word she coined
• First woman awarded a Ph.D. in research science in Europe, first woman professor at the Sorbonne
• Discovered and isolated polonium and radium, and established the nature of radiation and beta rays

Nobel Laureate: 1903 (Physics) and 1911 (Chemistry) -- first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, first person to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines

Dates: November 7, 1867 - July 4, 1934

Also Known As: Marie Sklodowska Curie, Mrs. Pierre Curie, Marie Sklodowska, Marja Sklodowska, Marja Sklodowska Curie

Marie Curie Biography:

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, the youngest of five children. Her father was a physics teacher, her mother, who died when Maria was 11, was also an educator.

After graduating with high honors in her early schooling, Marie Curie found herself without options in Poland for higher education. She spent some time as a governess, and in 1891 followed her sister, already a gynecologist, to Paris. In Paris, Marie Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne.

Marie Curie graduated in first place in physics (1893), then, on a scholarship, returned for a degree in mathematics in which she took second place (1894).

She had already begun to work as a researcher, and it was through her work that she met Pierre Curie in 1894 when he was 35 years of age. They were married on July 26, 1895.

Their first child, Irene, was born in 1897. Marie Curie continued work on her research and began work as a physics lecturer at a girls' school.

Marie Curie's Work with Radioactivity:

Inspired by work on radioactivity in uranium by Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie began research on other elements. First she discovered radioactivity in thorium, then demonstrated that the radioactivity is not a property of an interaction between elements but is an atomic property.

On April 12, 1898, she published her hypothesis of a still-unknown radioactive element, and worked with pitchblende and chalcolie, both uranium ores, to isolate this element. Pierre joined her in this research.

Marie Curie and Pierre Curie thus discovered first polonium (named for her native Poland) and then radium. On January 12, 1902, Marie Curie isolated pure radium, and her 1903 dissertation resulted in the first advanced scientific research degree to be awarded to a woman in France -- the first doctorate in science awarded to a woman in all of Europe.

In 1903, for their work, Marie Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henry Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

It was also in 1903 that Marie and Pierre lost a child, born prematurely. In 1904, Pierre was given a professorship at the Sorbonne for his work. The professorship established more financial security for the Curie family -- Pierre's father had moved in to help care for the children. That same year, the Curies established the use of radiation therapy for cancer and lupus, and their second daughter, Eve, was born. She was later to write a biography of her mother.

Marie Curie, Widow:

But security was short-lived, as Pierre was killed suddenly in 1906 when he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage on a Paris street. This left Marie Curie a widow with responsibility for raising her two young daughters.

Marie Curie was offered a national pension, but turned it down. A month after Pierre's death, she was offered his chair at the Sorbonne, and she accepted. Two years later she was elected a full professor -- the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne.

Marie Curie's Further Work:

Marie Curie spent the next years organizing her research, supervising the research of others, and raising funds. Her Treatise on Radioactivity was published in 1910.

Early in 1911, Marie Curie was denied election to the French Academy of Sciences by one vote. Emile Hilaire Amagat said of the vote, "Women cannot be part of the Institute of France." Marie Curie refused to have her name resubmitted for nomination and refused to allow the Academy to publish any of her work for ten years.

Marie Curie was appointed director of the Institute for Radioactivity in Warsaw that year, and she was awarded a second Nobel Prize.

Tempering her successes that year was a scandal: a newspaper editor alleged an affair between Marie Curie and a married scientist. He denied the charges, and the controversy ended when the editor and scientist arranged a duel, but neither fired. Years later, Marie and Pierre's granddaughter married the grandson of the scientist which whom she may have had the affair.

During World War I, Marie Curie found chose to support the French war effort actively. She put her prize winnings into war bonds and fitted ambulances with portable x-ray equipment for medical purposes, driving the vehicles to the front lines. She established two hundred permanent x-ray installations in France and Belgium.

After the war, her daughter Irene joined Marie Curie as an assistant at the laboratory. Curie Foundation was established in 1920 to work on medical applications for radium. Marie Curie took an important trip to the United States in 1921 to accept the generous gift of a gram of pure radium for research. In 1924, she published her biography of her husband.

Illness and Death

The work of Marie Curie, her husband, and colleagues with radioactivity was done in ignorance of its effect on human health. Marie Curie and her daughter Irene contracted leukemia, apparently induced by exposure to high levels of radioactivity. The notebooks of Marie Curie are still so radioactive that they cannot be handled. Marie Curie's health was declining seriously by the end of the 1920s. Cataracts contributed to failing vision. Marie Curie retired to a sanatorium, with her daughter Eve as her companion. Marie Curie died of pernicious anemia, also most likely an effect of the radioactivity in her work, in 1934.

Places: Warsaw, Poland; Paris, France

Religion: Marie Curie's family religion was Roman Catholic, but she became an anticlerical atheist on the death of her mother and older sister.

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