Science: How Curie changed the world
An inspiration to women with a mind for discovery
Not only was she the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but when awarded the honour again she became the first person to achieve it for a second time… also becoming the only woman to win it in two different fields.
Known for her research into radioactivity and the discovery of polonium and radium, Marie Curie died on 4 July 1934, 86 years ago yesterday, at the age of 56… her life cut short by the ravages of her lifetime’s work.
Born in Warsaw on 7 November 1867, she was the youngest of teachers Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowska’s five children.
Despite graduating from school with distinction, Poland offered few higher education options for women and, after spending a short time as a governess, she left for Paris in 1891 to continue her studies at the Sorbonne, where she qualified in physics and mathematical sciences.
She began work as a researcher in Paris and met Pierre Curie, a professor in the School of Physics, in 1894.
Pierre was eight years older than her, but they married on 26 July 1895, with their first child, Irene, born two years later, although she continued to work on her research and began lecturing physics at a Paris girls’ school.
Her early research, with her husband, proved difficult, due to poor laboratory arrangements and the strain of also having to teach to earn a livelihood.
But the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies and ultimately led them to the isolation of polonium, named after Curie’s country of birth, and radium.
The couple announced these discoveries in 1898, although isolating the very small amounts of the new elements took many years of work.
On 12 January 1902, Curie isolated pure radium and her 1903 dissertation resulted in the first advanced scientific research degree to be awarded to a woman in France… the first doctorate in science awarded to a woman in all of Europe.
The same year Curie, her husband Pierre and Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, although the Nobel committee had reportedly first considered granting it to the men alone, Pierre working behind the scenes to ensure his wife also received the recognition her contribution deserved.
But despite becoming the first woman to be granted the honour, Marie and her husband were too ill to attend the 1903 Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, poisoning from working with the radioactive substances beginning to take its toll, although the couple were unaware or in denial of the dangers.
In 1904 Pierre was given a professorship at the Sorbonne and the pair soon established the use of radiation therapy for cancer and lupus, with their second daughter, Eve, also born that year. The professorship established more financial security for the family… Pierre's father living with them to help care for the children.
But the security was short-lived with Pierre tragically killed in 1906 after he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage on a Paris street. The calamity left Curie a widow, with responsibility for raising her two young daughters.
Despite being offered a national pension, she turned it down and a month after her husband’s death she accepted his chair at the Sorbonne, two years later being elected as a full professor… the first woman to hold such as position.
In 1911 she was appointed director of the Marie Curie Laboratory, a new branch of the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, and for developing the Institute for Radioactivity in Warsaw, but the highlight of the year was her second Nobel award, winning the prize for chemistry for the isolation of pure radium.
But it was not all positive news for Curie, as a newspaper editor had alleged she had become involved in an affair with a married scientist. The scientist denied the charges… the controversy ending when he faced the editor in a duel, although neither man fired.
During World War I Curie actively supported the French war effort and put her prize winnings into war bonds, fitting ambulances with portable x-ray equipment and driving the vehicles to the front lines. She also established 200 permanent x-ray installations in France and Belgium.
After the war, her daughter Irene joined Curie as an assistant at the laboratory, with the Curie Foundation established in 1920 to work on medical applications for radium.
Curie embarked on an important trip to the United States with her daughters in 1921 to accept a gram of pure radium for research from US President Warren G Harding, who received her at the White House, and to tour the US to raise funds for her research.
A year later she became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine and travelled the world, appearing publicly and giving lectures in Belgium, Brazil, Spain and Czechoslovakia.
In August 1922 she was made a member of the League of Nations’ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Co-operation, a body on which she sat until 1934, and contributed to League of Nations’ scientific co-ordination with other prominent researchers such as Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Bergson.
In 1923 she wrote a biography of her late husband, titled Pierre Curie, and in 1925 visited Poland to participate in a ceremony laying the foundations for Warsaw’s radium institute.
Her second American tour in 1929 helped equip the Warsaw institute with materials and it opened in 1932, with her sister Bronisława as director.
Although such distractions from her scientific labours, and the attendant publicity, caused her much concern it was vitally important to obtain research resources, ultimately leading to four further Nobel Prize winners from the Marie Curie Laboratory, including her daughter Irene and her son-in-law Frederic Joliot-Curie.
In 1930 Curie was elected to the International Atomic Weights Committee, on which she served until her death, and in early 1934 she visited Poland for the last time, dying a few months later at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy from anaemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.
The incredibly dangerous effects of ionising radiation were not really understood at the time Curie, her husband and colleagues worked on radioactivity. And, operating in ignorance of its true dangers to human health, Curie had carried out her work with few safety measures.
During the war she was exposed to x-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals and many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses, including near-blindness due to cataracts, with both her and Irene contracting leukaemia.
Curie was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre, but 60 years later, in 1995, their remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris in honour of their scientific achievements.
Their remains were sealed in a lead lining because of the radioactivity and to this day her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle due to radioactive contamination. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive, with her papers stored in lead-lined boxes and those wishing to consult them required to wear protective clothing.
Before her death she was working on a book, Radioactivity, which was published posthumously in 1935… one of her many legacies that have inspired women in science for the past eight decades.