Marie Curie is one of the most famous scientists in the world. True, she didn't invent the X-ray but she figured out a way to make those systems portable so they could be used in battlefield hospitals.

By the same token, she did not discover radiation - that credit goes to William Herschel. However, her painstaking research methods and attention to detail revealed that specific chemical elements gave off radiation or, in the parlance, exhibited radioactivity - a term she coined.

Marie Curie was tiny in size but with a towering intellect and a single-minded focus on her work. Neither love nor parenthood, or being away from her homeland could stay her from scientific discovery.

Indeed, she ultimately gave her life for science and gave her science to the world - much as Alexander Fleming did with his discovery of penicillin.

Oddly enough, Mme Curie is often linked to her work with radiation, done jointly with her husband and her mentor. Her discovery of two additional elements is almost treated as incidental, kind of like 'well, of course, she discovered polonium! She was a great scientist, after all!'.

Those discoveries are anything but incidental. In fact, it's high time that they are given the same attention as  the one she earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for.

Today, your Superprof strives to do so.

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A Brief Biography of Maria's Early Life

Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw. Today, that magnificent city is the capital of Poland but, back then, it was a part of the Russian empire. She was the youngest of five children; both of her parents were educators. Her father taught maths and physics and her mother ran a distinguished boarding school for girls until Maria was born.

  The family would suffer great financial and political losses.

Maria as a young girl with father and sisters
Wladyslaw Sklodowski with daughters Maria (left), Bronia and Helena. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Helena Szalay

Fighting to restore Poland to a sovereign state, the family's property and any money they had were confiscated in retaliation. Wladyslaw still brought in money from his teaching job but, for a while, theirs was a hardscrabble life.

Wladyslaw believed that education was fundamental to success so he took an active part in teaching his children. When Polish schools were ordered to stop conducting laboratory experiments, he was well-positioned to grab as much lab equipment he could carry. What he brought home, he put to good use, conducting experiments with his children present, so that they too could study chemistry.

So far, except for the money angle, their family life sounds idyllic but, all too soon, it became marred by tragedy.

Forced to take in boarders to make ends meet, the family was exposed to typhus - from which Maria's oldest sister died. She was only seven years old then, and barely three years later, her mother died of tuberculosis.

These devastating early losses led little Maria to turn away from the Catholic religion, which her family devoutly observed.

Like the Sklodowska family, English chemist Rosalind Franklin's clan taught her early to stand up for what is right.

Living and Working in Paris

Maria was an excellent student, even through all of the losses the family suffered. She graduated with honours from secondary school - the most competitive type, when she was just 16. Perhaps because there was nothing left for her to focus on - she was not allowed to enrol at university, she suffered a breakdown after graduation.

That collapse could have been a delayed reaction to so much grief in her early childhood. Whatever the cause, she spent about a year and a half away from Warsaw and, upon her return, she took on students to tutor.

Turns out, Maria's family were not the only ones working towards Polish independence from Russia; there were all sorts of organisations operating clandestinely. One of them was nicknamed the Flying University.

Women were not allowed higher education in Russian-controlled Poland at that time, meaning that Maria was barred from studying. However, this 'flying' university welcomed female students and, better yet, they were allowed to study any subject they had a mind to, even those censored by the government.

Maria and her older sister struck a deal: if Maria would help cover the cost of Bronia's medical studies in Paris, Bronia would return the favour after she graduated. Thus, in 1891, only 24 years old, Maria moved to France.

Now called Marie - the French version of her name, she enrolled in the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry and mathematics almost as soon as she landed. Within a few years, she was well-entrenched into her studies and the Paris Polish community.

Having received her physics degree, she had wasted no time finding a job but she needed someplace to work. She consulted with a Polish physicist about a larger lab to work in.

Pierre and Marie were joined through a love of science
Pierre and Marie Curie were united by a love of science. Source: Wikipedia

This physicist knew of a French scientist, Pierre, who had a decent lab. Maybe she could work there?

Pierre Curie and Marie, drawn together by their love of science, formed a partnership that would transform their lives and the world, and produce generations of scientists.

Did you know that French chemist Louis Pasteur is often considered on par with Marie Curie? They both lived and worked in Paris, they both made significant contributions to science and they both have institutes named after them - indeed, the Pasteur Institute helped start the Curie research facility.

Discovering Radium and Polonium

Pierre had established an unusual research technique using a modified electrometer he and his brother developed. Marie used this technique to examine uranium samples. Among her many discoveries was one that disproved that atoms cannot be split. However, her work with pitchblende and chalcolite would have far greater-reaching consequences.

For one, she found that pitchblende's activity was four times greater than uranium's and chalcolite was found to be twice as active, leading her to conclude that there must be other elements present within them that make them more active. Pierre, now completely invested in his wife's research, abandoned his projects to join her on the search for those elusive elements.

In 1898, Pierre and Marie published a paper announcing the new element they discovered. Polonium, similar in structure to thallium, was named in honour of Marie's native country. Five months after that July publication, they published again, this time announcing their discovery of radium.

Discovering them proved to be the easy part; isolating them would be much more difficult. Initially working with a 100-gram sample of pitchblende, they soon discovered just how scant the traces of their new elements were. Ultimately, they would process tonnes of pitchblende ore.

Despite her best efforts, Marie Curie was never able to isolate polonium.

With her no-nonsense approach to science and lack of religious belief, Marie Curie would have likely given Joseph Priestley short shrift.

Marie is the lone woman at this science conference
A photo that speaks of the times: Marie was the only woman Conference of 1911 Source: Wikipedia Credit: Benjamin Couprie

Marie Curie: End Credits

Marie's work was hampered by two major obstacles. The first was publishing; specifically publishing findings before anyone else did.

Her mentor, Henri Becquerel narrowly missed being beaten to the punch for his discovery of radioactivity. If he had not presented his paper at the Academy of Sciences the day after he made the discovery, credit for it would have gone to English physicist Silvanus Thompson.

The insurmountable obstacle in her path was the fact that she was a woman.

  • She could hypothesise and do the work to prove her theories but nobody believed such ideas or work could be done by a woman.
  • She could write papers on her findings but was not allowed to present them.
  • The Nobel committee intended to only honour Becquerel and Pierre Curie for their work in radiation but Pierre, alerted by a committee member that his wife would be overlooked, launched a complaint and petitioned for her inclusion.
    • Marie Curie became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Now joint recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physics, universities in Geneva and Paris competed to add Pierre to their staff - only Pierre, not Marie.

In April 1906, a mere two years after their second daughter was born, Pierre Curie was struck by a horse-drawn carriage and died instantly.

Marie, no stranger to grief and loss, was utterly undone by the loss of her husband and lab partner. She threw herself into her work and clung to her children as a way to cope.

The University of Paris, which had created a position for Pierre, finally extended their invitation to Marie. She became the first woman professor at that school but her educational ambitions didn't stop there. She later became the director of what is now known as the Curie Institute, a facility built for her jointly by the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris.

Marie spent her entire life as a scientist, earning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium. She is the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes and, until Linus Pauling, the only person to have earned prizes in separate disciplines.

Marie Curie died on July 4th 1934 of aplastic anaemia caused by long-term exposure to radiation. Initially, she was buried alongside her husband but, belatedly, both were accorded a place in the Paris Pantheon, a site reserved for those who made extraordinary contributions to the country.

Their caskets and all of their notes remain encased in lead because they are so radioactive they cannot be handled without protective equipment.

Where do Pierre and Marie Curie fit on your list of most famous chemists? And more importantly: do you separate Pierre's accomplishment's from Marie's?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.