Marie Curie was without a doubt one of the most eminent of the 20th century’s scientists and to this day the only person who has won two Nobel prizes in different fields. She not only massively advanced our understanding of radioactivity, but she also gave two new elements to science. But, as we shall see, she paid a hideously high personal price for her discoveries.
Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867 as Maria Salomea Sklodowska. She was the youngest of five children born to parents who were both respected teachers. Her family had not fared well due to the volatile political situation that prevailed in Poland at the time.
The country had been forcibly divided in the late 18th century between Austria, Prussia and Russia, and Polish patriots including Curie’s parents and grandparents had been rebelling against this ever since. But the price of rebellion was high, and the Sklodowska family had lost both wealth and position because of their activism.
This meant that Curie did not have the easiest start in life. And as she grew up, her gender also counted against her. After academic success at school, she wanted to continue her studies but could not join a formal learning institution simply because she was a woman. So, determined to pursue her studies, she enrolled in an underground college known as the Flying University, which was run by Polish patriots.
Curie worked as a governess for a time, partly to support herself but also to help her sister Bronislawa through her studies to be a doctor. Then in 1890 her sister invited her to Paris, where Bronislawa and her doctor husband Kazimierz Dluski had moved. Curie didn’t go immediately, as she was short of funds.
Curie now continued working as a governess, combining this with her Flying University studies and practical chemistry lessons at Warsaw’s Museum of Industry and Agriculture, where there was a laboratory. Then in 1891 she took up her sister’s invitation to Paris, a new chapter in her life began, and she changed from Maria to Marie.
Now Curie enrolled at the University of Paris, finding lodgings in a garret nearby in the Latin Quarter. Winters in her garret were often freezing, and it’s said that her existence was so frugal that hunger sometimes caused her to faint.
Despite these hardships, Curie industriously pursued her studies in math, chemistry and physics, supporting herself by teaching in the evenings. In 1893 her hard work paid off when she earned a physics degree and a job at a laboratory. A fellowship helped her to earn a second degree the next year.
Around this time she was introduced to the Frenchman Pierre Curie by the Polish physicist Józef Wierusz-Kowalski. Monsieur Curie was a teacher at the School of Physics and Chemistry. The two were equally fascinated by the natural sciences, and this shared passion was to be the basis of their relationship.
Pierre asked Marie for her hand in marriage. But at this stage in her life she still entertained thoughts of returning to Warsaw, and she turned him down. In the summer of 1894, Marie returned to Warsaw, but her application to study at Warsaw University was rejected. Shockingly, the university still would not accept women.
Disillusioned, but encouraged by Pierre’s suggestion that she come back to Paris to study for a doctorate, Marie returned to the French capital. The two were married in July 1895. Marie wore a blue dress for the ceremony, a garment she was to wear for many years as a working costume in the lab. As well as their shared love of science, it’s been said that their enthusiasm for cycling also drew them together.
Now one of the most productive partnerships in the history of science could get properly under way. Marie decided that an interesting avenue of research would be the study of X-rays, which had been discovered by the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. As yet, no one knew how the X-rays actually worked.
A year after Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays, French scientist Henri Becquerel found that the element uranium emitted X-rays. And uranium appeared to do this without any external power source. Fascinated by this phenomenon, Marie started her research. And she was to be helped in this by a piece of equipment devised years earlier by Pierre.
Pierre’s clever invention, built with the help of his brother, was an electrometer. This measured electrical charges, and Marie discovered that uranium gave off a charge. She believed that this charge must come from the uranium atoms, evidence that the long-held belief that atoms were indivisible was wrong. This was an important advance in the understanding of atomic physics.
In 1897 the Curie’s first child, a girl whom they called Irène, was born. Another daughter, Eve, followed in 1904. Always proud of her Polish heritage, Marie made sure that both girls were taught Polish, employing Polish governesses for the task, and took them on visits to her homeland.
And in 1898 the Curie’s research produced extraordinary results with the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium. Then in 1903 Marie jointly won the Nobel Prize, along with Pierre and Henri Becquerel. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences chose them for the prize in recognition of their groundbreaking work on radiation – the Curies had actually invented the very word “radioactivity.” Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel.
Then tragedy struck in 1906 when Pierre died in an accident in the street. Despite this tragedy Marie’s scientific research progressed in leaps and bounds. And indeed she now took on the chair at the University of Paris formerly occupied by Pierre. This made her the first woman to become a professor at the institution.
And a second Nobel Prize came in 1911, this time for her work in chemistry. But Marie’s scientific work was beginning to take its toll. In the early 20th century, no one had any idea about the dangers of radioactivity. Indeed, it was regarded as an entirely beneficial phenomenon. Radioactive products such as beverages and skin creams became freely available on the market.
Marie was in the habit of working with highly radioactive materials with no protection whatsoever. She would pop test tubes full of radioactive elements into her pocket and kept samples in her ordinary desk drawer. Her work as a radiologist operating mobile X-ray units during World War I exposed her even more to high doses of radioactivity. She almost went blind because of cataracts related to exposure to radiation.
Eventually, this exposure was to kill her. Perhaps it’s most amazing that she survived so long, dying in 1934 at the age of 66 of aplastic anemia. Today, the papers that she hand wrote more than a century ago, which are held at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, are so radioactive that they must be stored in lead-lined boxes. Even her cookbooks are too dangerous to handle without protective clothing. Marie Curie did so much for the advancement of science. In the end she paid for her discoveries with her life.