Marie Curie: Biography & Major Achievements

Marie Curie

Marie Curie – Biography and Achievements

Marie Curie, also known as Maria Salomea Sklodowska, was a great female physicist and chemist, whose work on radioactivity opened the minds of scientist to fathom the world of radiations. Curie’s famous work on the topic earned her the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. She was a pacesetter who showed the world the thinking power of the female brain. Determined to even climb higher scientific heights, Curie set an unbroken world record in 1911, when she solely claimed her second Nobel Prize.

What made her astounding was the fact that she received her second Nobel Prize in a different scientific field (Chemistry). That is not all, Marie Curie went down into science history as the first female winner of the Nobel Prize.  Well, you can’t just understand her enough; Curie was a jack of all trades and master of all. Her highly successful scientific career was enhanced by her marriage to fellow scientist, Pierre Curie.

Birth and Early Life

Marie Curie was born in Poland on 7th November 1867 to parents Bronisława (née Boguska) and Władysław Skłodowski. By adoption, she was also a French national. Curie’s intelligence showed up early during her childhood days. She finished high school with high scores and was given a gold medal. At that time, she was only 16.

Marie’s dad, Władysław Skłodowski, was himself a good mathematician and physicist teacher. Curie was forced to sign up for a teaching career because her father lost money in a bad business deal.  At 18-years-old, Curie was hired to teach students in their homes. This helped her to raise some income to support her sister (Bronislawa) to undertake a medicine program in Paris, France. The hope was that Bronislawa would later assist Curie to also advance her studies.

Education in Paris

While teaching students in their homes, Curie dedicated her spare time to reading science and math books. Even though she topped her high school graduating class, she lacked the economic resources to enroll for a degree program in the male-dominated University of Warsaw, Poland. She had to undertake informal university classes in different places.

Curie finally got admission to study in Sorbonne, France, in 1891. At Sorbonne, life was full of stress and hunger for Curie. But she did not give up. She burnt the midnight oil and gave academics her all. It is sorrowful to hear that Curie lived on tea and bread due to her weak financial background. She finally earned a master’s degree in the field of physics in 1893. One year later, she got her degree in mathematics.

Marriage to Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie

Marie’s scientific career kick-started at the University of Paris in France. She did an investigative study on the effects of magnetism on various metals such as steel. In Paris, she was tutored by Pierre Curie, a renowned chemistry and physics lecturer in the university. Due to their mutual passion for science, Marie took a liking for Pierre Curie. With assistance from Pierre and another professor, she secured a mini-laboratory and started to conduct scientific experiments.

As time went on, Pierre and Marie became bonded in love, while maintaining their mutual interest in science. Romance found its way to unite the two science enthusiasts. Pierre gathered courage and asked for Marie’s hand in marriage. Marie initially hesitated with her response because she still had intentions to travel back to Poland. Pierre couldn’t afford to lose Marie so he offered to join in Poland. Allegedly, Pierre did not even care if going to Poland meant he would become a French teacher there.

When Marie visited Poland in 1894, she suffered rejection after rejection, in gender-biased universities. Her former teacher and lover, Pierre, changed Marie’s mind and took her back to France to study for a PhD program.

Pierre’s scientific papers earned him a promotion to a professor position. When Marie arrived back in France, Pierre walked her to the altar on 25th July 1895. Their union marked the beginning of spectacular things and collaborations in many scientific research projects.

Marie Curie’s Scientific Discoveries and New Chemical Elements

A famous scientist known as Roentgen ‘accidentally’ discovered X-rays in 1895. At that time, Roentgen himself and other scientists couldn’t fully grasp the mechanisms which led to the production of the x-rays. A year later, Henri Becquerel realized that the rays produced by uranium salts had a similar penetrating power when compared with x-rays. Marie Curie’s mind was blown away by the discoveries and observations made by Roentgen and Becquerel. She decided to investigate the uranium phenomenon as her thesis work.

She used a charge-measuring device (electrometer) made by her husband to probe further into uranium. In her experiments, Marie Curie observed that the rays produced by uranium had the ability to electrify the surrounding air. Her findings led her to propose a theory that, the radiation produced by the uranium compounds had no relationship with the environment; they must be intrinsically emanating from the core of the atoms. This idea led scientists to rethink the “indivisibility of the atom”.

The Curies continued to operate in a small lab with little resources. Together with her husband, she delved further into uranium minerals, notably pitchblende and chalcolite (tobernite). Her later experiments showed that the amount of radiation emitted depended on the quantity of uranium used. Realizing that his wife was up to something big, Pierre Curie supported his wife to do more research work on radiation.

In 1898, when they began searching for new materials which could also emit radiation, they fished out thorium as an emitter of radiation. Curie sped up and struggled to beat the competition in publishing her work.  In July 1898, Pierre and Curie co-published a paper, announcing that they had discovered a new element, which they labeled polonium. The name of the new element was coined from her homeland, Poland.  Upon further works, the scientific couple discovered another new element- they named it radium. Thanks to their work, radioactivity was born.

Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903

Marie and her husband delved deep into their research work on radioactivity. In all, the duo published over 30 papers between 1898 and 1902.  By 1900, Marie had set a record as the first female faculty member of the University of Paris. She revisited Poland in 1902 when her dad passed away. The following year, Marie got her PhD.

When the couple received an invitation to give a lecture on radioactivity in London, Curie was sidelined from speaking due to her gender. It was only her husband who was permitted to speak. Curie and her husband failed to make financial gains from their research work and discoveries- they did not patent it.

In the long run, however,  their efforts paid off. Something big would happen in December 1903. The Swedish Nobel Prize Awarding committee honored the radioactivity works of Henri Becquerel and the two Curies by collectively awarding them the Nobel Prize in Physics for that year.

It has been alleged that Marie Curie’s name was initially omitted from the prize. It took the intervention of a feminist supporter before Marie Curie’s name was included in the nomination. By that, Marie Curie opened the gate as the first female Nobel Prize Laureate

Death of Marie Curie’s Husband, Pierre

The couple used part of the Nobel Prize money to develop their laboratory. Curie welcomed her second child (Eve) in 1904. Two years later (April 1906), Pierre Curie was run over by a horse-powered vehicle. The accident cracked his skull and killed him. Marie Curie wept bitterly at the loss of her husband and collaborator. Following her husband’s tragic death, the University of Paris made Marie Curie a professor. She was the first of her kind to occupy that position, which was initially created for her husband.

Isolation of Radium

Marie Curie recovered from her grief and went back to her laboratory table. By 1910, she had successfully isolated (separated) pure radium from a mixture. The S.I unit for radioactivity (the Curie, Ci) was named in honor of Marie Curie and her late husband. Even though Marie continued to rise high in science, she wasn’t made a member of the French Academy of Science.

Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911

Mrs. Curie faced a lot of xenophobic attacks while she worked in France.  She was often regarded as a foreigner. Despite the gender discrimination and relationships scandals thrown at her, she continued to carry out her scientific experiments.

Curie became a global science icon. In 1911, she got a second Nobel Prize for her contribution towards the advancement of the chemistry field of science; through her work two new elements (radium and polonium) were added to the periodic table. The award was also meant to recognize her success in isolating radium and broadening the understanding of its compounds. By this, Marie Curie set another record as the first and only scientist to win two Nobel Prizes in two diverse fields of science (in physics and in chemistry).

Marie Curie’s Role in World War I

When the First World War broke out, Madame Curie saw the need for wounded soldiers to be given immediate medical attention. She worked to establish radiological centers to assist surgeons to perform operations on wounded soldiers. She directed the radiological affairs of the Red Cross. With support from a doctor and her daughter Irene, Marie Curie installed radiological equipment on vehicles and in hospitals. More than one million soldiers benefited from X-ray treatment.

World Tour and Recognition

When the war died down in 1918, Curie toured the United States in 1920. Her visit was met with warm receptions; she raised funds to enhance further scientific work on radium. Former U.S president Warren G. gave her one gram of American radium. Her international reputation grew higher as she toured other countries.

Marie Curie’s research institute also churned out four Nobel Laureates including Irene (her own daughter). When she joined the League of Nations in 1922, Curie worked with other great scientists such as Albert Einstein.

Marie Curie’s Death

Curie went back to Poland at the beginning of 1934. Her longtime exposure to ionizing radiations began to weaken her system. Consequently, she passed away on 4th July 1934 at the age of 66 after suffering from a bone marrow related disease (aplastic anemia).

Unfortunately, the effects of unprotected exposure to ionizing radiation were not well understood at that time. Some of her old research papers are still radiation-infested.

Legacy and Honors

Marie’s scientific works reshaped the world of science and feminism. Physically and socially, her contribution continues to influence and shape the 21st century. Marie Curie brought light to the world when her ideas led to the redefinition of previous packets of knowledge in physics and chemistry. Looking at the number of stumbling blocks that were designed to hinder her progress, Marie Curie rose above all trials and tribulations to give the world of science a better knowledge in radioactivity and medicine.

Her woman-in-science success story is one that continues to inspire generations after generations. Numerous scholars have written books to emphasize her laudable achievements. As an honest and humble personality, Curie dedicated huge chunks of her earnings from the Nobel Prizes to students, researchers, as well as friends and family members.

She shocked the world when she intentionally refused to patent her scientific discoveries, which could have made her a good amount of money. It has been reasoned that Curie did not want to hinder scientific progress by limiting researchers’ access to her work. Her selflessness is very rare to find these days. Nowadays, scientists and technologies often sue each other in court over patent claims. Albert Einstein praised Marie Curie that she was perhaps the only human whose fame wasn’t soiled by love for money.

Aside from that, she won a lot of awards and honors for her remarkable scientific achievements. In a poll conducted in 2009, Marie Curie won the title as the most influential female scientist. To add more weight and appreciation to the collaborative efforts of Marie and Pierre Curie, the global scientific community named an element after them, Curium. A lot of universities conferred degrees on her as well.

Famous Quotes by Marie Curie

Marie Curie quotes

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