Marie Curie – A Brief Biography (1867-1934)

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Marie Curie was a Polish-born French physicist and chemist known for her pioneering research on radioactivity.

Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Novel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.

She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.

Early Life

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska, was born on 7th November 1867 in Warsaw, Congress Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. She was the fifth and youngest child of Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowska, both of whom were well-known teachers.

Wladyslaw taught physics and mathematics and was also the director of two secondary schools for boys in Warsaw. When Russian authorities forbid laboratory instruction from Polish schools, he took most of the equipment home and instructed his children in its use.

Bronislawa, on the other hand, ran a prestigious boarding school for girls in Warsaw but resigned from the position when Marie was born.

Falling on Hard Times

Marie’s father was eventually fired from his job by his Russian supervisors after being accused of pro-Polish sentiments. He was then compelled to take up lower-paying posts and the family began supplementing their income by lodging boys in the house. The family even lost some money on a bad investment.

In May 1878, when Marie Curie was 10 years old, her mother, who was an ardent catholic, died of tuberculosis. Barely three years earlier, her oldest sister, Zofia, had died of typhus. The death of her sister and mother made her lose faith in catholicism.


In 1877, Marie Curie, aged 10, began attending the boarding school of J. Sikorska. Later she enrolled at a gymnasium for girls.

In 1883, she graduated from the gymnasium with a gold medal. She spent the following year in the countryside with her father’s relatives. The next year, she moved back to Warsaw to spend time with her father.

Once in Warsaw, Curie tried looking for institutions for higher education but she was unable to enroll anywhere because she was a woman. She and her sister, Bronislawa, were left with no choice but to enroll at Flying University, which was an underground university, and the only institution in Warsaw that gave admission to women.

During this period, Curie also began working as a governess, initially as a home tutor and then later as a governess to the Zorawskis in the village of Szczuki, who were relatives of her father.

Curie promised to provide financial assistance to Bronislawa during the latter’s medical studies in Paris, in exchange for financial assistance two years later for her own studies.

In 1890, Curie began her practical scientific training in a chemical laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw. The academy was then run by her cousin Jozef Boguski.

While pursuing her studies, Curie religiously educated herself as well by reading books, being tutored, and exchanging letters, all the while working as a governess.

Moving to Paris

In late 1891, Marie Curie left for Paris. On arriving there, she briefly stayed with Bronislawa and her husband before renting a garret in the Latin Quarter, which was close to the University of Paris, where she would soon start studying physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

But life in Paris proved to be quite difficult for her. She studied during the day and tutored in the evenings to earn a meager income. She often wore all her clothes to protect herself from the Paris cold and sometimes even forgot to eat while focusing on her studies.

In 1893, Curie, aged 29, earned a degree in physics and began working in physicist and inventor Gabriel Lippman’s industrial laboratory. She continued to study at the university and was even granted a fellowship to complete a second degree in 1894.

Meeting Pierre Curie

Marie Curie began her scientific career in Pais with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels, which was commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.

During this period, Marie (then Maria Sklodowska), met French physicist Pierre Curie, who was an instructor at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI).

The two were introduced to each other by Polish physicist Jozef Wierusz-Kowalski, who got to know that Marie was looking for a larger laboratory space that he thought Pierre could provide. Even though Pierre did not have a large laboratory himself, he was able to find some space for Marie where she soon began working.

Marie and Pierre’s mutual interest in science drew them closer and they began to develop feelings for each other. Pierre soon proposed marriage but Marie refused at first, as she still planned to go back to Poland to work in her chosen field.

In the summer of 1894, Marie returned to Warsaw and tried in vain to get a job at Krakow University. She was denied a position due to her gender. She then returned to Paris to pursue a Ph.D. at Pierre’s insistence.

On 26th July 1895, Marie and Pierre were married in Sceaux, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris. They chose not to have a religious service and instead kept the ceremony simple and formal.

Marie had found the perfect partner and scientific collaborator in Pierre.

Scientific Research

In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the existence of x-rays. The following year, French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled x-rays in their penetrating power and demonstrated that radiation did not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself.

These discoveries greatly influenced Marie Curie, compelling her to look into uranium rays as a field of research for a thesis. She decided on an innovative technique to investigate samples, using Pierre’s electrometer (which he had developed with his brother 15 years earlier) to discover that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity.

With this technique, she found out that the activity of uranium compounds depended only on the quantity of uranium present. She also hypothesized that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself. Her hypothesis was an important step in disproving the assumption that atoms were indivisible.

Marie and Pierre conducted most of their research in a converted shed next to ESPCI as they did not have a dedicated laboratory. The shed was previously a medical school dissecting room without proper ventilation and was not even waterproofed. Worst of all, they were both unaware of the harmful and dangerous effects of being exposed to radiation due to their unprotected work with radioactive substances.

Although ESPCI did not sponsor their research, Marie received subsidies from mining and metallurgy companies, governments, and various other organizations.

Further Discoveries

By 1898, Pierre Curie had become so invested in Marie’s work that he dropped his own work on crystals and joined her in her research.

Marie Curie primarily researched two uranium minerals, torbernite, and pitchblende. Using the electrometer she found that torbernite was twice as active as uranium itself and pitchblende was four times as active. With the help of these findings, she concluded that if her earlier theory of relating the quantity of uranium to its activity were correct, then torbernite and pitchblende must contain small quantities of another far more active substance than uranium.

Further research led her to discover that the element Thorium was radioactive too.

Publishing Her Discoveries

After making these breakthrough discoveries, Marie Curie was eager to publish them in order to establish her priority. She immediately wrote a paper giving a brief and simple account of her work, which was then presented to the Academie des Sciences on 12th April 1898 by Gabriel Lippmann on her behalf.

However, no one in the world of physics had noticed Curie’s groundbreaking observation that torbernite and pitchblende were much more active than uranium.

Discovering Polonium and Radium

In July oh 1898, Marie and Pierre published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element they decided to name polonium in honor of Poland. In December of the same year, they announced the existence of another element which they named radium, derived from the Latin word ray.

During their research, they also coined the word radioactivity.

In order to prove their discoveries beyond any doubt, they tried to isolate radium and polonium in their pure form. Isolating radium turned out to be a difficult and arduous task for them. They managed to obtain traces of radium but they were all contaminated with barium. Radium in its pure form was still beyond their reach.

They then undertook the task of separating radium salt by differential crystallization and finally achieved some success in 1902, when they managed to separate one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride from a tonne of pitchblende. Finally, in 1910, they managed to isolate pure radium metal.

But, unfortunately, they were never able to isolate polonium in its pure form.

Gaining Recognition

In 1900, Marie Curie became the first woman faculty member at the Ecole Normale Superieure.

The research of the Curies proved that diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium.

In 1903, Marie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris. She and her husband were even invited to the Royal Institution in London to give a speech on radioactivity, but only Pierre made the speech as Marie was prevented from making one because she was a woman.

By the early 1900s, a new industry was developing around radium. But other than mere recognition, the Curies did not benefit much from the new profitable business as they did not bother to patent their discovery.

Nobel Prize in Physics

In 1903, Pierre and Marie Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel, in recognition of the extraordinary services they had rendered through their joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Becquerel.

Marie became the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, thereby making history. But she had almost been denied it because of her gender. The Nobel committee had initially decided to grant the prestigious award only to Pierre and Becquerel. Fortunately, Swedish mathematician Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, who was a member of the committee, warned Pierre about the situation, and Pierre immediately protested against it. The committee finally relented and included Marie in the nomination.

However, at first, Marie and Pierre declined to go to Stockholm to receive the prize, citing their busy work schedule as the reason. But since Nobel laureates were required to deliver a lecture, they finally decided to go to Stockholm in 1905.

The prize money they received allowed them to finally hire a lab assistant.

Death of Pierre

On 19th April 1906, Pierre Curie died in a road accident after being hit by a horse-drawn vehicle and coming under its wheels, thereby fracturing his skull and killing him on the spot.

Marie Curie was absolutely devasted by her husband’s death. A month after his death, the physics department of the University of Paris decided to retain Pierre’s chair and instead offered it to Marie. She accepted it with the hope of creating a world-class laboratory as a tribute to Pierre. By accepting the chair, Marie became the first woman to become a Professor at the University of Paris.

Attacked by the French Press

By 1910, Marie Curie had gained international fame as a scientist working for France. She was lauded and celebrated by the French press as a French heroine and icon when she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

However, during the elections of the French Academy of Sciences to elect Curie to membership in the Academy, she was brutally vilified and attacked by the press as a Jewish foreigner and atheist who did not deserve French honor.

The press again attacked her when in 1911, she was revealed to have been involved in a year-long affair with physicist Paul Langevin, who had been a former student of Pierre’s and married but estranged from his wife.

Curie was portrayed as a foreign Jewish home-wrecker in the newspapers and her academic opponents and rivals exploited the scandal. The affair caused such an uproar that when Curie returned from a conference in Belgium, she found an angry mob in front of her house waiting for her. She was then forced to take refuge along with her daughters in her friend’s home.

International Recognition and Second Nobel Prize

By 1911, Marie Curie had begun getting international attention and recognition for her pioneering work. She was highly respected and admired in the scientific community which was then dominated by men.

In the year 1911, despite the breakout of her affair with Langevin and all the uproar surrounding the scandal, she was awarded her second Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry through the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of its nature and compounds.

But being honored with the prize came with its own controversy. Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, then the chair of the Nobel committee, tried to prevent Curie from attending the official ceremony, questioning her moral standing due to the scandal. But Curie was not one to back down and said in response that she would attend the ceremony because the prize had been given to her for her work and that there was no relation between her scientific work and the facts of her personal life.

In this way, Curie became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, that too in two different fields.

Break from Public Life

Soon after accepting the Nobel Prize in 1911, Marie Curie was hospitalized with depression and a kidney ailment.

For most of the following year, she retreated from public life, instead choosing to spend time in England with her friend and fellow physicist Hertha Aryton. She would stay out of the public eye and her laboratory for almost 14 months.

The same year, she received an offer for the directorship of a new laboratory in Warsaw from the Warsaw Scientific Society, but she declined the offer. Instead, she decided to focus on building and developing the Radium Institute for which she had received the support of the French government the previous year.

The Institute was completed in August 1914 and was used for conducting research in physics, chemistry, and medicine. Curie was appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Institute.

Unfortunately, the onset of World War I interrupted the Institute’s development and operation as most researchers were drafted into the French Army.

World War I Years

At the start of the First World War, Marie Curie realized that wounded soldiers were best served if they were operated upon as soon as possible. Therefore, she saw the need for field radiologist centers near the front lines to help battlefield surgeons and to obviate amputations when limbs could actually be saved.

Curie did some quick research on anatomy, radiology, and automotive mechanics, procured x-ray equipment, auxiliary generators, and vehicles, and even developed mobile radiography units which were called Petites Curies, or Little Curies.

She established France’s first military radiology center and was even made the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service.

In the first year of the war itself, Curie directed the installation of radiological units at field hospitals and mobile radiological vehicles. She even began training other women as aides.

But Curie’s war efforts did not stop there. In 1915, she produced hollow needles containing radium emanation (a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon) to be used for sterilizing infected tissues. She provided it from her own one-gram supply. It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her x-ray units.

Curie even offered to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French National Bank toward the war effort, but the bank refused. She then went on to use her second Nobel Prize money to buy war bonds, knowing well that it would probably be lost.

Sadly, in spite of her great contributions to the French war effort, Curie never received any official recognition for it from the French government.

Post-War Years

After the end of the war, in 1921, Marie Curie went on a tour of the United States in order to raise funds for research on radium. She was received warmly and with excitement by the American public. A Marie Curie Radium Fund was organized by leading journalist Mrs. William B. Melony to raise money to buy radium for Curie.

The fund helped to publicize her trip, attracting more attention to it. Curie was invited to the White House by President Warren G. Harding, who presented her with the one gram of radium collected in the United States.

Curie began traveling more frequently now, visiting countries such as Spain, Brazil, Belgium, etc. to give lectures and attend public events.

In 1922, she became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine. The same year, she became a member of the League of Nations‘ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, where she contributed to the League of Nations’ scientific coordination with other prominent scientists and thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, Jagadish Chandra Bose, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

The Success of the Radium Institute

By the 1930s, the Radium Institute had become one of the world’s four major institutes for research on radioactivity and would eventually go on to produce four Nobel Prize winners, including Curie’s daughter, Irene, and her husband, Frederick Joliot.

Irene and Frederick were the second married couple after Marie and Pierre to win the Nobel Prize jointly.

In 1925, Marie Curie visited Warsaw to lay the foundations for Warsaw’s Radium Institute. Another tour of the United States followed, which allowed Curie to equip the Warsaw institute with radium.

The Warsaw Radium Institute finally opened in 1932 with Curie’s sister, Bronislawa, as its director.


On 4th July 1934, Marie Curie, aged 66, died at Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia (a disease in which the body fails to produce blood cells in sufficient numbers). The disease was said to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation that resulted in damage to her bone marrow.

While conducting her research, Curie was not at all aware of the harmful effects of being exposed to radiation. She had often carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and had even stored them in her desk drawer. She was also exposed to x-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist during the war.

Curie was initially interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside Pierre. But in 1995, sixty years after her death, Marie and Pierre’s remains were transformed into the Paris Pantheon and sealed in lead lining because of the radioactivity, to honor their achievements.


Marie Curie is now widely regarded as one of the most influential and significant physicists and chemists of the 20th century.

Her work was pioneering and groundbreaking and contributed greatly toward shaping the world of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Curie’s discovery of radium’s radioactivity shook, contradicted, and overturned the established ideas and principles in physics and chemistry. It contradicted the principle of the conservation of energy, thereby forcing a reconsideration of the foundations of physics.

It was because of her discovery of radium that other physicists such as Ernest Rutherford were able to probe the structure of the atom. Rutherford’s experiments with alpha radiation resulted in the nuclear atom first being postulated.

The discovery of the radioactivity of radium also revolutionized the medical field, finally offering a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked.

But Curie’s major achievement is something beyond her scientific work, something much more important. In order to achieve what she did achieve, she had to overcome several obstacles, difficulties, and prejudices because she was a woman. She was forced to deal with such prejudices throughout her life and career, thereby becoming a shining example and inspiration to countless women of subsequent generations.

Curie’s success and achievements in the world of science have greatly influenced future generations of women, including her very own daughter Irene, to strive for the same and to dare to dream.

Curie lived an honest and simple life, refusing several awards and gifts that were bestowed upon her. She instead asked for such monetary gifts and awards to be handed over to the institutions she was affiliated with, rather than to her personally.

Her scientific achievements have led her to be regarded as one of the most famous and influential scientists in history, an icon, and a luminary in the world of science. In a 2009 poll conducted by New Scientist Magazine, Curie was voted the Most Inspirational Woman in Science, and few would dare to disagree with the result.

One thing is for sure, the great Marie Curie has served, is serving, and shall continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us.