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Fascinating facts about Marie Curie who
pioneered the study of radioactivity in 1903. 

Marie Curie
AT A GLANCE:
Marie Curie is best known as the discoverer of the radioactive elements polonium and radium and as the first person to win two Nobel prizes. For scientists and the public, her radium was a key to a basic change in our understanding of matter and energy. Her work not only influenced the development of fundamental science but also ushered in a new era in medical research and treatment.
THE STORY
RELATED INFO
BOOKS
WEB SITES
DID YOU KNOW?
Inventor: Marie Curie (aka Marie Sklodowska)
Marie Curie photo courtesy Nobel Foundation
Criteria; First to patent. First practical.
Birth: November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland
Death: July 4, 1934 in Haute Savoie
Nationality: Polish
Invention: Study of radioactivity, discoverer of polonium and radium
International Radioactivity Symbol
Function: noun / Symbol Po and Ra
Definition: A rare, brilliant white, luminescent, highly radioactive metallic element found in very small amounts in uranium ores. It is used in cancer radiotherapy, as a neutron source for some research purposes, and as a constituent of luminescent paints.
  Polonium atomic number  84 and Radium atomic number 88
Milestones:
CAPS: Curie, Marie Curie, Marie Sklodowska, Marie Sklodowska Curie,
Pierre Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie, Marcel Brillouin, Paul Painlevé, Gabriel Lippmann, and Paul Appell, ARY, radioactivity, polonium, radium, SIP, history, biography, inventor
The Story:
Madame Marie Curie was the world’s most famous woman scientist--and so she remains today. With her husband, Pierre Curie, and the French physicist Henri Becquerel, and later on her own, Curie pioneered the study of radioactivity (a word she coined).

Marie Sklodowska, as she was called before marriage, was born in Warsaw in 1867. Both her parents were teachers who believed deeply in the importance of education. Marie had her first lessons in physics and chemistry from her father. She had a brilliant aptitude for study and a great thirst for knowledge; however, advanced study was not possible for women in Poland. Marie dreamed of being able to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, but this was beyond the means of her family. To solve the problem, Marie and her elder sister, Bronya, came to an arrangement: Marie should go to work as a governess and help her sister with the money she managed to save so that Bronya could study medicine at the Sorbonne. When Bronya had taken her degree she, in her turn, would contribute to the cost of Marie's studies.

So it was not until she was 24 that Marie came to Paris to study mathematics and physics. Bronya was now married to a doctor of Polish origin, and it was at Bronya's urgent invitation to come and live with them that Marie took the step of leaving for Paris. By then she had been away from her studies for six years, nor had she had any training in understanding rapidly spoken French. But her keen interest in studying and her joy at being at the Sorbonne with all its opportunities helped her surmount all difficulties. To save herself a two-hours' journey, she rented a little attic in the Quartier Latin. There the cold was so intense that at night she had to pile on everything she had in the way of clothing so as to be able to sleep.

But as compensation for all her privations she had total freedom to be able to devote herself wholly to her studies. "It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty", she writes. And it was France's leading mathematicians and physicists whom she was able to go to hear, people with names we now encounter in the history of science: Marcel Brillouin, Paul Painlevé, Gabriel Lippmann, and Paul Appell. After two years, when she took her degree in physics in 1893, she headed the list of candidates and, in the following year, she came second in a degree in mathematics. After three years she had brilliantly passed examinations in physics and mathematics. Her goal was to take a teacher's diploma and then to return to Poland.

She met Pierre Curie in 1894, and they married in 1895. Marie Curie was interested in the recent discoveries of radiation. Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen had discovered X rays in 1895, and in 1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel had discovered that the element uranium gives off similar invisible radiations. Curie thus began studying uranium radiations, and, using piezoelectric techniques devised by her husband, carefully measured the radiations in pitchblende, an ore containing uranium. When she found that the radiations from the ore were more intense than those from uranium itself, she realized that unknown elements, even more radioactive than uranium, must be present. Marie Curie was the first to use the term radioactive to describe elements that give off radiations as their nuclei break down.Pierre Curie ended his own work on magnetism to join his wife's research, and in 1898 the Curies announced their discovery of two new elements: radium and polonium (named by Marie in honor of Poland).

During the next four years the Curies, working in a leaky wooden shed, processed a ton of pitchblende, laboriously isolating from it a fraction of a gram of radium. They shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel for the discovery of radioactive elements. Marie Curie was the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize, i
t was the first time a woman had ever won a Nobel. In 1911, Curie became the first and only woman to win a second Nobel Prize. She earned, on her own, the award in chemistry for isolating pure radium.

Pierre's life ended on April 19, 1906, when he was run over by a horse-drawn cart. His wife took over his classes and continued her own research. In 1911 she received an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her work on radium and radium compounds. She became head of the Paris Institute of Radium in 1914 and helped found the Curie Institute. Marie Curie's final illness was diagnosed as pernicious anemia, caused by overexposure to radiation. She died in Haute Savoie on July 4, 1934.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Nobel Prize Inventors   from The Great Idea Finder
Women Inventors, A Class Act   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Madame Curie: A Biography
by Eve, Curie, Vincent Sheean (Translator) / Paperback: 448 pages / DaCapo Press; (March 6, 2001)
By a woman writer who is also the daughter of Madam Curie. It is an excellent account of a great woman who made a mark on history when (supposedly) women had little freedom or power.
Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity
by Naomi E. Pasachoff / Hardcover Reissue edition (August 1996) / Oxford Univ Press
Marie Curie discovered radium and went on to lead the scientific community in studying the theory and uses of radioactivity. She was a physicist and also a wife and mother and a groundbreaking professional woman ahead of her time.
Marie Curie: A Life
by Susan Quinn / Paperback (May 1996) / Perseus Pr
A brilliant, often surprising portrait--based on new information--that is sure to be the definitive work on one of history's greatest women. Quinn shows in this richly textured work, a well-rounded, in-depth view of Curie as a scientist, a woman, a wife and a lover.
Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries
by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne / Paperback: 451 pages / Joseph Henry Press; (February 2001)
Explores the reason for the disparity in the number of male and female Nobel Prize recipients by examining the lives and achievements of 15 women scientists who either won a Nobel Prize or played a crucial role in a Nobel Prize-winning project.


ON THE WEB:

Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium
This lecture by Nanny Fröman at the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1996, is presented by the Nobel Foundation.
(URL: www.nobel.se/physics/articles/curie/)
Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity
Presented by the  American Institute of Physics and Naomi Pasachoff and is based on the book Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity.
(URL: www.aip.org/history/curie/contents.htm)

Women Of the Modern Era
From University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR0 at the University of Michigan.
(URL: www.windows.ucar.edu/cgi-bin/tour_def/people/modern_era/curie.html)
Marie Curie Fellowship Association
The MCFA is an Association of scientists who have been awarded a mobility research training grant by the European Community.
(URL: www.mariecurie.org/)
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903
Awarded in recognition of the extraordinary services the Currie's rendered by their discovery of spontaneous radioactivity.
(URL: www.nobel.se/physics/laureates/1903/index.html)
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1911
Awarded 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.
(URL: www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/1911/index.html)

DID YOU KNOW?:

  • The Curies had two daughters, one of whom was also a Nobel Prize winner. Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, received the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.
  • Curie’s work was not only a leaping-off point for the modern field of nuclear medicine, but it helped lay the groundwork for the most important development in 20th-century science--the discovery of the structure of the atom.
  • Marie Curie was the first to use the term radioactive to describe elements that give off radiations as their nuclei break down.
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Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised June 16, 2006.
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