Marie Curie Biography (1867-1934)


The story of Marie Curie's rise to prominence is one of perseverance and triumph over tremendous obstacles. The legacy of scientific knowledge she left resulted from some of the most important research ever conducted, most before she was thirty-five years old--a tremendous accomplishment for any scientist,let alone a young woman at the turn of the century.

Curie was born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. Her mother was principal of a local girls' school, and her father a physics teacher. Curie showed early signs of following in her parents' footsteps, excelling in both primary and high schools. Unfortunately, Poland was under Russian rule, and thePolish intelligentsia was not favored by the Russian authorities. Although her record was outstanding, Curie was barred from her homeland's universities.After working for several years, during which time she subsidized her sister's education in Paris, Curie left Poland for France, where she enrolled at theSorbonne in 1891. Her meager savings barely covered tuition and rent for herone-room apartment; she often went for long periods without food and once fainted from hunger during class. Her enthusiasm for learning did not waver, however, and in 1893 she received a degree in physics, graduating first in herclass.

The next year, while pursuing a second degree, she met Pierre Curie at a colleague's house. He--who, with his brother, had made a name for himself by discovering piezoelectricity a few years earlier--was studying for his dissertation at the Sorbonne. They formed a friendship that quickly became love, and the two were married on July 26, 1895, soon after Pierre Curie earned his doctorate.

Marie Curie, too, was working toward her own dissertation, but had not decided on a subject. Their contemporary, Henri Becquerel, had just discovered thaturanium salts emitted energy (called, at that time, Becquerel rays). At Becquerel's suggestion, Marie Curie set out to find other substances that emittedsuch rays. It was known that the ore pitchblende possessed properties similar to those of uranium, and the Curies chose this ore as the starting point ofwhat would prove to be a long scientific journey.

Studying the pitchblende, the Curies detected the presence of a substance that was much more radioactive (a word Marie Curie had coined) than evenpure uranium. They extracted this new element in 1898 and named it polonium,after Marie Curie's homeland. However, it was evident that pitchblende contained another new element, one that was thousands of times more radioactive than uranium, but that existed in amounts so small as to be nearly undetectable.Another French chemist confirmed the presence of this element, which the Curies had named radium, by examining pitchblende's spectral lines. This did notconvince many scientists, nor did it satisfy the Curies, who were determinedto prove the existence of radium by extracting a measurable amount. This would be no small task, since, in order to produce even a gram of radium, several tons of pitchblende would have to be refined.

At this time, Pierre Curie abandoned his teaching position in order to assisthis wife's research. Though Marie Curie was the engine and mastermind of theproject, they worked as one; in fact, all of the notes in her dissertation refer to the experimenters as "we" neither she nor her husband are mentioned individually.

The Curies spent the bulk of their life savings to purchase waste ore from Czechoslovakian mines. They rented a leaky wooden shed in which they could refine the raw ore, and for the next four years they refined and purified the pitchblende, producing smaller and smaller samples that were more and more radioactive. The exhausting process, ordinarily performed by a team of several mine workers, took a dire physical toll upon the couple, and this, along with the arrival of their daughter, Irene, was nearly too much for them. Only Marie's intense determination held them together. By 1902 they had extracted one-tenth of a gram of radium, enough for Marie to base her dissertation upon (eight tons of pitchblende would eventually be required to extract one ounce of the new element).

The Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics for their contributions to the new science of radioactivity, but the couple did not attend the ceremony, for they were too ill to make the trip. Pierre Curie was alsooffered a professorial position in the Sorbonne's research laboratory, withhis wife as his lab superintendent. In 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a traffic accident, and his wife took over his position, continuing his lectures at the exact point at which they were interrupted. She was the first woman toteach at the Sorbonne.

In the years after her husband's death, Marie Curie conducted extensive workat the new Paris Institute of Radium; because of its mysterious properties, radium was used as a medicinal aid. Though it was often used indiscriminately,Curie's assistance proved that there were certain illnesses for which radiumwas an effective therapy. In particular, radium played an important role inthe treatment of cancer, and still does. Marie Curie also introduced the useof radium and x-ray technology in medicine. For the discovery of radium and polonium, she was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the only personto hold two Nobel laureates in the sciences.

Except for World War I, during which she drove an ambulance, Curie spent theremainder of her life studying the role of radium therapy. Though the processwas wildly successful for many years, she received no royalties from its use, since she and her husband had chosen not to besmirch the scientific purityof their discovery by patenting it. Instead, she lived--rather comfortably--on the Nobel Prize money, as well as on income from other accolades.

Late in her life, the dangerous nature of radioactivity became tragically evident: her long years of exposure to radium had resulted in leukemia, leadingto her death in 1934. She is historically recognized as an outstanding femalescientist, as well as one of the greatest researchers.

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