Marie Curie
Marie Curie by Tekniska museet, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Marie Sklodowska Curie was born on 7 November 1867 as Maria Salomea Sklodowska in the city of Warsaw, Poland. She was a chemist and physicist and from her modest laboratory in Paris Marie Curie made big contributions to science, most notably with her work surrounding radioactivity. It earned her 2 nobel prizes, making her the first woman in history winning a nobel prize and the first person ever to win 2 nobel prizes.

Paris and Pierre Curie

In 1891, being only 24 years of age, Marie move to Paris, France to study physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris. Life was tough as she studied during the day and in the evenings she tutored to earn some money.

Marie was awarded a degree in physics in 1893 and in 1894 she got a degree in mathematical science. In the meanwhile she also started working in the research laboratory of Gabriel Lippmann, one of her lecturers.

In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie. Professor Józef Wierusz-Kowalski heard that Marie could use a bigger laboratory to do her research, so he thought Pierre would be able to help her.

Pierre and Marie had a lot of mutual interests, especially in natural sciences. These mutual interests brought them closer together. They fell in love and eventually Pierre proposed to Marie. They married in 1895. The outfit Marie wore on her wedding day would serve her for years to come as a laboratory outfit.

Pierre Curie
Pierre Curie, Frontispiece by rosefirerising, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pierre and Marie had 2 children. Their first daughter Irène was born in 1897 and their second daughter Ève was born in 1904. Irène would follow in her parents footsteps and become a scientist herself, also winning a nobel prize later in her carreer. Ève choose a different path in life and became a writer and journalist.

On 19 April 1906, Pierre died in a tragic accident. He was struck by a horse-drawn vehicle and suffered a fatal skull fracture.

Discovery of Polonium & Radium

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays. Shortly after, in 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted rays similar to x-rays. Marie found these discoveries intriguing and decided to investigate them further.

She discovered that the more pure uranium you have, the more radiation is being emitted. Since it’s pure uranium, this means it’s not a reaction with some other element. So the radiation must come from the element itself.

For her studies, she used 2 kinds of uranium minerals: pitchblende and torbernite. Apparently, pitchblende emits 4 times more radiation than pure uranium and torbernite emits 2 as much radiation. This meant that there should at least 1 other element present in the ore which is more radioactive than uranium.

Marie was determined to find these elements. Pierre became so fascinated by the work his wife was doing, that he decided to drop his current research and join Marie in her research. Their hard work paid off in July 1898, when Marie and Pierre published a paper in which they announced the existence of an element far more radioactive than uranium they called Polonium. Polonium, named after Marie her home country, Poland.

In December 1898, they found another highly radioactive element, this one they called radium. The radiation emitted by this new element is about a million times greater than the radiation emitted by uranium.

Laboratory
Pierre Curie: Laboratory by rosefirerising, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nobel prizes

Marie Curie won the nobel prize 2 times. The first time she was awarded the nobel prize for physics together with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel in December 1903. They earned the reward for their research on the radiation phenomena, which was originally discovered by Henri Becquerel, but further researched by Marie and her husband Pierre. This made her the first female nobel prize winner.

The second time she won a nobel prize was in 1911. This time she won the prize in the category chemistry because she had been able to isolate the chemical element radium and study it in depth. This made Marie the first person to win 2 nobel prizes.

Death

Marie Curie died on 4 July 1934. Years and years of exposure to radiation ultimately proved her fatal. The harmful effects of radiation exposure were not yet known at the beginning of her research. Her remains, and those of her husband Pierre, found a final resting place in the Panthéon in Paris, a mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens.

Marie and Pierre final resting place
Pierre and Marie Curie’s tomb in the crypt of the Panthéon, Paris by fmpgoh, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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