Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. Her early years were sorrowful. As a child, she suffered the deaths of her sister and, four years later, her mother. She received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. She was notable for her diligent work ethic, neglecting even food and sleep to study. After graduating from high school, she suffered a mental breakdown for a year. Due to her gender, she was not allowed admission into any Russian or Polish universities so she worked as a governess for several years.

Sklodowska eventually left Warsaw, then in the part of Poland dominated by Russia, for Cracow, which at that time was under Austrian rule. In 1891, with the monetary assistance of her elder sister, she moved to Paris and studied chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne, where she became the first woman to teach, after obtaining her Licenciateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences. There she met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics, in 1894, and in the following year they were married.

Together, the Curies studied radioactive materials, particularly the uranium ore pitchblende, which had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. By 1898, they deduced a logical explanation: the pitchblende contained traces of some unknown radioactive component that was far more radioactive than uranium. Thus, on December 26 of that year, Marie Curie announced the existence of this new substance. In 1902, the pair isolated the chloride salts and then two new chemical elements; the first they named polonium after Marie's native country, and the second was named radium from its intense radioactivity.

Together with her husband and Henri Becquerel, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Following the tragic death of Pierre Curie, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1906, Marie carried on their research and took his place as Professor of General Physics at the Sorbonne, the first time a woman had held this position. She was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris. In 1911, Marie won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for isolating pure radium.

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 of leukemia, believed to have been brought on by her extensive exposure to the high levels of radiation involved in her studies. In 1995, her remains were transferred to the French National Mausoleum; she was the first woman accorded that honor on her own merit. Element 96 was named curium (Cm) in the honor of Pierre and Marie Curie.