Curie, Marie (1867-1934), Polish-born French chemist who, with her husband Pierre Curie, was an early investigator of radioactivity. Radioactivity is the spontaneous decay of certain elements into other elements and energy. The Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel for fundamental research on radioactivity. Marie Curie went on to study the chemistry and medical applications of radium. She was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry in recognition of her work in discovering radium and polonium and in isolating radium.
MARIE’S EARLY LIFE
Marie Curie’s maiden name was Maria Sklodowska, and her nickname while growing up was Manya. She was born in Warsaw at a time when Poland was under Russian domination after the unsuccessful revolt of 1863. Her parents were teachers, but soon after Manya (their fifth child) was born, they lost their teaching posts and had to take in boarders. Their young daughter worked long hours helping with the meals, but she nevertheless won a medal for excellence at the local high school, where the examinations and some classes were held in Russian. No higher education was available to women in Poland at that time, so Manya took a job as a governess. She sent part of her earnings to Paris to help pay for her older sister’s medical studies. Her sister qualified as a doctor and married a fellow doctor in 1891. Manya went to join them in Paris, changing her name to Marie. She entered the Sorbonne (now the Universities of Paris) and studied physics and mathematics, graduating at the top of her class. In 1894 she met the French chemist Pierre Curie, and they were married the following year.
From 1896 the Curies worked together on radioactivity, building on the results of German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen (who had discovered X rays) and Henri Becquerel (who had discovered that uranium salts emit similar radiation). Marie Curie discovered that the metallic element thorium also emits radiation and found that the mineral pitchblende emitted even more radiation than its uranium and thorium content could cause. The Curies then carried out an exhaustive search for the substance that could be producing the radioactivity. They processed an enormous amount of pitchblende, separating it into its chemical components. In July 1898 the Curies announced the discovery of the element polonium, followed in December of that year with the discovery of the element radium. They eventually prepared 1 g (0.04 oz) of pure radium chloride from 8 metric tons of waste pitchblende from Austria. They also established that beta rays (now known to consist of electrons) are negatively charged particles.
In 1906 Marie took over Pierre Curie’s post at the Sorbonne when he was run down and killed by a horse-drawn carriage. She became the first woman to teach there, and she concentrated all her energies into research and caring for her daughters. The Curies’ older daughter, Irene, later married Frédéric Joliot and became a famous scientist and Nobel laureate herself. In 1910 Marie worked with French chemist André Debierne to isolate pure radium metal. In 1914 the University of Paris built the Institut du Radium (now the Institut Curie) to provide laboratory space for research on radioactive materials.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Marie Curie helped to equip ambulances with X-ray equipment, which she drove to the front lines. The International Red Cross made her head of its Radiological Service. She and her colleagues at the Institut du Radium held courses for medical orderlies and doctors, teaching them how to use the new technique. By the late 1920s her health began to deteriorate: Continued exposure to high-energy radiation had given her leukemia. She entered a sanatorium at Haute Savoie and died there on July 4, 1934, a few months after her daughter and son-in-law, the Joliot-Curies, announced the discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Throughout much of her life Marie Curie was poor, and she and her fellow scientists carried out much of their work extracting radium under primitive conditions. The Curies refused to patent any of their discoveries, wanting them to benefit everyone freely. The Nobel Prize money and other financial rewards were used to finance further research. One of the outstanding applications of their work has been the use of radiation to treat cancer, one form of which cost Marie Curie her life.
Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and also the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice. Curie coined the term “radioactive” to describe the uranium emissions she observed in early experiments. With her husband, she later discovered the elements polonium and radium. A dedicated and respected physicist, her brilliant work with radioactivity eventually cost her her life; she died from overexposure to radiation.
Marie Curie’s Notebooks
French physicist Marie Curie and her husband made many discoveries about radioactive elements that affected the fields of physics and chemistry for years. In 1898 they deduced that radioactivity is a phenomenon associated with atoms, independent of their physical or chemical state. They also discovered that radioactivity was a more concentrated source of energy than had been known before. Shown here are some of Marie Curie’s notebooks detailing her theories.