Marie Curie was a pioneer who devoted her entire career and life to science. After she and Pierre Curie discovered two new radioactive elements (1898) she went on to become: the first woman professor at the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne (1906), a member of the Physics Solvay Council (1911-1933) and tof the Academy of Medicine (1922), and a two time Nobel Prize winner (1903 and 1911)...
The story of her life and scientific work is a rediscovery of a major part of the history of the twentieth century.
Warsaw-Paris – Paris 1867>1895
Maria Sklodowska, the fifth child in a family of Polish teachers, was born in Warsaw, Poland, which at that time was annexed by Russia.
After her excellent school examination results, she had to stop her studies as girls were not admitted to universities in Poland. She decided to give private lessons to help support her family, particularly her sister Bronislawa who was a medical student in Paris.
She later joined her in Paris to pursue her higher education in 1891 at the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne.
Pierre Curie was a renowned physicist.
He was well known in the scientific community for his work on piezoelectricity, magnetism and symmetry, and was respected for his inventiveness and for his talents as an experimentalist.
He was professor in general physics at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry (Paris).
In 1894, Maria Sklodowska began a study on the magnetic properties of steels.
She met Pierre Curie, a specialist in magnetism.
On July 26th, 1895, they had a quiet wedding in Sceaux.
They went on to have two children: Irène in 1897 and Ève in 1904
“It would be a fine thing, in which I hardly dare believe, to pass our lives near each other, hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.”
A common work 1895>1905
Following the advice of Pierre Curie, Marie Curie decided to study the properties of radiation discovered by Henri Becquerel. She gave the name of “radioactivity” to the phenomenon she observed.
In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered two new radioactive chemical elements, found in very small amounts in uranium ores: polonium and radium.
In June 1903, Marie Curie defended her doctoral thesis on « the new radioactive substances ».
A few months later Pierre and Marie Curie came under the spotlight when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, with Henri Becquerel: their scientific work contributes to a new conception of the atom and matter.
This official recognition of years of joint research changed their lives forever.
“We therefore believe that the substance which we have isolated from pitchblende contains an unknown metal. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we propose to call it “Polonium”, from the name of the country of one of us.”
Despite the notoriety gained from the Nobel Prize, the couple kept working in hideous conditions, especially as the chemical separation of radium was long and delicate.
In 1904, Pierre Curie was appointed to the newly created chair of physics at the Sorbonne Faculty of Sciences, and set up a small laboratory in a university annex in Paris.
On April 19th 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a road accident, near the Academy of Sciences in Paris. He was forty-six.
He left Marie alone, with her two daughters, to continue to pursue their research.
While raising her two daughters, Marie Curie continued her research work, while also taking over her husband’s course at the Sorbonne in physics after his untimely death. Marie Curie was the first woman to be appointed professor in a French university.
This was a traumatic time for Marie Curie, but her determination and scientific rigor led to international recognition: in 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
“The chemical work which was aimed to isolate radium in a state of pure salt and characterized as a new element was made by me, but is intimately linked to the common world.”
Ordeals and successes 1906>1918
Marie Curie successfully created a large laboratory devoted to research into radiation and studies of its biological effects. The Radium Institute in Paris was inaugurated in 1914. Irène would meet her future husband Frédéric Joliot in the laboratory there.
During the 1914-18 war, Marie Curie helped organize the army’s radiology department.
She oversaw the fitting out of vehicles, called “little Curies”, with radiological equipment and trained teams to use them.
An international figure 1918>1934
Due to her status as a renowned scientist, Marie Curie took part in numerous scientific and medical congresses.
Her laboratory was an international model for the study of radioactive bodies and the use of radiation in the fight against cancer.
In 1920, she created the Curie Foundation with Dr. Regaud which rapidly became an international reference in the treatment of cancer by radiation.
Unfortunately, Radium was rare and precious, but necessary for her research.
In 1921, a large fundraising effort was organized among American women so that one gram of radium could be bought for Marie Curie. She traveled to the United States where she was received this with pride.
In 1922, Marie Curie was elected as a member of the Academy of Medicine. She was also a member of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.
“The undersigned members think that the Academy would be honored by electing Madame Curie as an associate member, in recognition of the part she has played in the discovery of a new treatment: curietherapy.”
The recognition was international. Marie Curie was brought to visit many countries to defend the scientific activities of her laboratories and meet her scientific counterparts.
Under the direction of Marie Curie, researches on radiation developed at the Radium Institute: in 1934, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie discovered artificial radioactivity.
She did not, however, see their work rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935: Marie Curie died July 4th 1934 in Haute-Savoie.
Through her life and work, Marie Curie came to personify devotion to science and the successful woman.
Marie Curie is one of the great scientific figures of the twentieth century.
Conception — Musée Curie, Paris
Iconographie — Musée Curie (coll. ACJC)