Marie Curie (born 7 November 1867) was a Polish-French physicist and chemist who made great discoveries in the field of radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice!
Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. As women were not allowed to study in Polish universities at the time, she lived with her father, tutoring, studying, and obtaining scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw, run by a cousin. A year later she moved to Paris and lived briefly with her sister before finding a place of her own and studying chemistry, physics, and math at the Sorbonne, University in Paris. She then earned her Doctor of Science in 1903. Over a mutual interest in magnetism, she met Pierre Curie, a chemistry and physics instructor at a Parisian school. Marie married French physicist Pierre Curie in 1895, and the two worked jointly on projects as well as conducting their own research. Marie and Pierre had two daughters, Irene and Eve.
In 1896, while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts, physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity. He had demonstrated that radiation was powered by something within uranium, and not an external source of energy. Marie decided to do research on uranium rays for her doctoral thesis. Fortunately, fifteen years earlier her husband and his brother invented the electrometer, a device for measuring electrical charge. Using this instrument, Marie conducted what became the most important of all her scientific studies: that radiation came from atoms.
Because of the discoveries being made at the time she knew it was important to get her work published right away. She was, however, late by two months. Gerhard Schmidt had published his finding that thorium also gave off rays like uranium in Berlin. But no one took notice of an observation Marie had made in her published paper. Pierre Curie was so intrigued with his wife’s work that he temporarily stopped his own to help her with hers. They discovered an element they named “polonium” , and published it in a paper two months after her prior paper. Five months later, they published their discovery of another element – which they named “radium” for its radioactivity. The Curies worked on separating radium through a crystallization process.
Marie was awarded her Doctor of Science degree from the University of Paris in 1903. That same year she, Pierre, and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their joint work on radiation. They became very famous and Pierre was made a professor at the Sorbonne and allowed to establish his own laboratory, which Marie ran. When Pierre was killed in a horse-drawn buggy accident in 1906, the Sorbonne physics department decided to keep give Marie the lab and a professorship at the university and she became the first female professor.
In 1910 she isolated pure radium metal. In an altruistic and unusual move, for her time or any, she intentionally did not patent the process so that the scientific community could use it freely. In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry, making her the first person to share or earn two Nobel prizes, and the first of two people to win two Nobel prizes in different fields.
During World War I, Curie developed mobile x-ray units to help diagnose battlefield injuries. In 1922, she became a member of the venerated French Academy of Medicine. Her later career was largely dedicated to researching the medical uses of radiation, and she saw the creation of the Curie Institutes in Paris (1920) and in Warsaw (1932).
One inadvertent and tragic discovery of hers was the effects of radium. She had remarked on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark and kept test tubes in her pocket and desk drawer. In 1934 she died of aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation, at the age of 66. Because of their high levels of radioactivity, her papers are considered too dangerous to handle. They are kept in lead-lined boxes and anyone viewing them must wear protective clothing.
The year 2011, has been declared the “Year of Marie Curie” by both France and Poland. For women who are still fighting to be heard and equal in whatever fields they are pursuing, she is a most worthy role model and archetype for excellence despite all obstacles.