Marie Curie’s Relentless Curiosity and Perseverance

By Sheeva Azma and Nidhi Parekh

photo of marie curie in the laboratory
Marie Curie. Source: Wikipedia

Many people know of Marie Curie as the lady that discovered radioactivity along with her husband Pierre. However, what many people do not know about Marie Curie was that she was also an incredibly persistent woman with many different interests, though studying radioactivity was her main motivation in life. She studied radioactivity with her husband and her PhD advisor Henri Becquerel — winning the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Marie Curie is not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize — she is the first person ever to win two Science Nobel Prizes in different categories (both in Physics and in Chemistry).

Marie Curie and her husband worked on their Nobel Prize winning research in very difficult conditions.  Tragically, Pierre Curie perished in a carriage accident in 1906, which left Marie Curie to tackle the mysteries of radioactivity without him.  Her work discovering two radioactive elements (radium and polonium) earned her another Nobel Prize in 1911 — this time, in Chemistry. Marie Curie is not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize — she is the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes in Science in different categories.

Read on to learn more about the life of Marie Curie.

Who Is Marie Curie?

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland.  After completing general schooling and learning about science from her father, a teacher, she had hoped to study at the local University of Warsaw.  However, due to educational censorship, the university did not accept women, so she and her sister enrolled at the ‘Flying’ University.  In 1891, Marie enrolled at the Sorbonne (The University of Paris) in France to continue her studies.  That’s where she met her professor, Pierre Curie, a Physics professor at the Sorbonne, whom she married shortly thereafter.  

Marie Curie earned a Doctor of Science degree from the Sorbonne in 1903.  Her PhD thesis, “Research on Radioactive Substances,” helped her, her PhD advisor, and husband Pierre Curie win the Nobel Prize, the first time.  

Marie Curie took over her husband’s professorial duties as a professor after his untimely death in 1906 — making her the first female to hold a position as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences.  She won a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911.  In 1914, the Radium Institute at the University of Paris was launched, and Marie Curie was appointed its Director.  Her research helped better understand radioactivity and its use in cancer treatments.

What Was It Like for Marie and Pierre Curie to Study Radioactivity in the Early 1900s?

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, worked in difficult conditions to elucidate the nature of these elements.  Marie and Pierre moved into an old shed to work on isolating the two new elements they had discovered, because the laboratory was not large enough to accommodate this work.  The shed was not temperature-controlled and had a leaky roof, which made the research conditions difficult.  According to Mental Floss, when German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the shed, he found it “a cross between a stable and a potato shed … if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I [had] been played a practical joke.”

With her husband, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium, and studied these compounds and their properties.

How Was Radioactivity Discovered?

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen had just discovered x-rays, which another scientist named Henri Becquerel began to study as well.  Becquerel was interested in studying the luminescence, or light-emitting, properties of uranium salts.  Becquerel believed that the uranium salts absorbed energy from the sun, emitting it as x-rays; however, his experiments proved his hypothesis wrong.  He had actually discovered a new type of radiation that nobody had known about before.

Becquerel’s experiments involved placing uranium salts in sunlight and measuring the energy these salts emitted.  One day, in the course of his experiments, it was overcast so there was very little sunlight.  Becquerel decided to develop his photographic plates anyway, and noticed that the uranium salts had emitted radiation in the absence of the sun’s energy.

So, while Becquerel thought he was studying x-rays, he had actually serendipitously discovered that uranium salts had another type of radiation — what we now know as radioactivity.  

Becquerel worked with Marie and Pierre Curie to better understand this newly discovered type of radiation.  As a student at the Sorbonne, Marie Curie was looking for a topic to study for her doctoral thesis.  She began studying uranium, a compound which was foundational to Becquerel’s initial studies.  Marie Curie is credited for coining the term “radioactivity,” which refers to the phenomenon of radiation caused by atomic decay. 

What Nobel Prizes Did Marie Curie Win?

Marie Curie is the only female to win two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines in the history of the prestigious award.  She, and her husband, Pierre Curie, were collectively awarded half of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their work with Henri Bequerel studying spontaneous radiation.  Marie Curie was honored with a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time as the sole recipient of the prize in Chemistry, for her work and discoveries of radioactivity and radioactive substances.

Are There Other Repeat Nobel Prize Winners?

Since Marie Curie, three others have won the Nobel Prizes twice – Frederick Sanger, Linus Pauling, and John Bardeen.  A few organizations have also been repeat Nobel Prize winners.  The Red Cross has been a three-time recipient, and the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is a two-time recipient.

9 Facts You May Not Know about Marie Curie

  1. Marie Curie used to carry radium and polonium in her pockets everywhere she went.  This was before science revealed the cancer-causing effects of radiation.  Marie Curie’s autobiography (which is still radioactive), talks about storing the radioactive material without any specific shielding precautions:

    “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products … It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” 

    At the time, radioactivity a mysterious thing that was not well-understood — which meant that nobody knew about its harmful effects. Reportedly, Marie Curie also used to walk around with bottles of radioactive materials in her pockets, which exposed her to a lot of harmful radiation. Sadly, this lack of knowledge ultimately cost Marie Curie her life — she died of aplastic anemia, a type of leukemia caused by exposure to radiation.
  1. Marie Curie offered to donate her Nobel Prizes towards the World War I effort.  Mental Floss reports that Madame Curie offered to have her medals melted down in order to help France fund the war effort.  Bank officials declined the offer, so she donated her prize money to buy war bonds instead.

  2. The Curies have the most Nobel Prizes than any family. Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, and son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot, jointly received the Chemistry Nobel Prize in 1935 for discovering artificially-created radioactive atoms. 

  3. Marie Curie was friends with Albert Einstein.  After Pierre Curie’s death in 1906, Curie was working hard at figuring out radioactivity but was not getting the visibility she deserved.  As the only female participant at the Solvay Conference in Brussels, one of the pre-eminent physics conferences of the time, she encountered many obstacles due to sexism.  That’s where she met Albert Einstein.  Einstein later wrote her a letter encouraging her to persist in her research achievements and ignore the haters, so to speak.  As Einstein writes,

    “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels … If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash ….”

  4. Marie Curie Was Not Actually Nominated for Her First Nobel Prize.  Members of the French Academy of Sciences contacted the Swedish Academy to nominate the discoveries made by Bequerel and Marie and Pierre Curie.  The French Academy of Sciences mentioned Pierre Curie, but did not mention Marie Curie or her contributions at all.  A professor at Stockholm University College contacted Pierre Curie to inform him of this fact, and Pierre Curie wrote back, insisting that he and Marie Curie be considered together.
  1. Marie Curie Helped Develop the Use of Radiation as a Cancer Therapy.  During World War I, Marie Curie turned her attention to medical applications of radioactive substances, including the use of radium as a cancer therapy.  In 1918, Curie founded the Radium Institute at the University of Paris, which was a leader in chemistry and nuclear physics research. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, over the course of her research, Marie Curie gave away radium so that cancer patients could be treated.
  2. The United States Gifted Marie Curie a Gram of Radium.  Due to her philanthropic efforts providing radium for cancer patients, Marie Curie ran out of radium to continue her research, as she told American reporter Marie Meloney.  In 1921, a crowdfunding campaign spearheaded by Meloney raised money for Marie Curie to obtain a gram of radium.  President Warren G. Harding bestowed Marie Curie with the radium on a trip to the White House that year.  In 1929, Marie Curie returned for another visit, when she was honored by what is now the American Cancer Society, and received $500,000 from President Hoover.
  1. Marie Curie Invented a Mobile X-Ray to Treat World War I Soldiers.  According to Mental Floss, Marie Curie convinced her rich friends to back her idea for a traveling x-ray machine that would be able to treat soldiers on the battlefield.  She learned how to drive the mobile x-ray and, ignoring skeptical military doctors, treated the patients herself.

  2. Besides radium and polonium, two other periodic table elements — francium and curium — are associated with Marie Curie. Francium was discovered in 1939 at Marie Curie’s Radium Institute. Curium, named after Marie and Pierre Curie as a tribute to their original studies of radioactivity, was discovered in 1944.

Key Takeaways

Though 20th century Europe was not the ideal environment for women in science, Marie Curie outperformed her male colleagues, despite their derision, outperforming them by far as the first female Nobel Prize winner, and again as the first two-time Nobel Prize winner.

Science is an incremental enterprise that builds upon small discoveries to reveal larger insights. Without the contributions of Marie Curie, medical technologies such as imaging and chemotherapy would not exist. Additionally, though Marie Curie never worked on the Manhattan Project, her discoveries of radium and radiation were important for the development of nuclear weapons.

Sadly, the topic Marie Curie loved to learn so much about also cost her her life. The negative effects of radiation were not known back then, and so Marie Curie died due to radiation-induced leukemia.

Though 20th century Europe was not the ideal environment for women in science, Marie Curie outperformed her male colleagues, despite their derision, outperforming them by far.

We are grateful to Marie Curie for being a trailblazing woman in science and for making foundational discoveries important to the study of radioactivity.


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