The Mother of Modern Physics

Maria Salomea Skłodowska entered our orb in Warsaw, then part of the Russian empire, now the capital of Poland, on 7 November 1867. Her parents were both teachers, whose families had histories of involvement in Polish independence movements, and probably envisioned an erudite future for their youngest child.

My guess, though, is they did not foresee their daughter to discover two elements. Or to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Or to become the first human to win two Nobel Prizes. Or to become the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields.

But that’s exactly what became of their daughter Maria, known to most of us more familiarly as Marie Curie.

Young photo of Marie Curie

After graduating from a secondary school for girls, Maria wanted to continue her education, but it was the late 1800s and women were forbidden from doing so. Instead, she enrolled in an underground institution called Flying University, which was a Polish patriotic school that permitted women. Her older sister managed to move to Paris to study medicine and, through a slew of trials and roadblocks, Maria eventually joined her in Paris.

There she studied at the University of Paris and people started changing the “a” in her name to an “e.” Marie was off and running, though that run was far from easy. She subsisted on extremely meager resources. In winter, she could not afford to heat her abode, so she simply wore all the clothing she owned. Studying during the day and tutoring during the night kept her above water, barely. Eventually, she earned a degree in physics.

Marie began to work in the sciences, studying the magnetic properties of steel. Here entered a monumental influence in her life: Pierre Curie. Marie and Pierre were thrust together by a colleague and gravitated (magnetized?) toward each other due to their mutual interests in natural sciences. The pair developed intense feelings for each other. Pierre proposed marriage. Marie declined because she harbored dreams of returning to Poland. Pierre countered that he was willing to give up his scientific life to move with her to Poland, even if it meant only teaching French there.

Sounds like true love to me.

Marie and Pierre's wedding photo

In the photo above, you can see that Marie did not wear a bridal gown. The dark blue outfit was actually her laboratory getup! She used it for years after the ceremony. The two of them shared a passion for bicycling, so they spent their honeymoon pedaling around France. The Curies became a tour de force in the world of science. They intensely championed each other and fought for the dreams of their partner.

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered uranium salts emitted something that resembled X-rays. He also demonstrated that this radiation did not require an external source of energy, instead seemingly arising from the uranium itself. Marie was fascinated with this discovery and dived into the subject. She noticed that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity. Further, she uncovered that this activity depended on the quantity of uranium present. Marie hypothesized the radiation was not the result of an interaction of molecules but instead emanated from the atom itself. Previously, the atom was thought to be indivisible.

At this point, Pierre became enthralled with his wife’s revelations. As a duo, they threw themselves into this area of research. Examining a uranium mineral called pitchblende, they found it to be four times more active than uranium itself. Was there more to this mineral than met the X-Ray-Eye? As it turns out, absolutely. In 1898, the Curies discovered the existence of two new elements: polonium and radium. The former’s name is a reference to the nation of Poland, which was still under Russian occupation; radium comes from the Latin word for “ray.” During this period, they also coined the term “radioactivity.”

1903 Nobel Prize diploma

In 1903, the Nobel Prize committee intended to honor Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel with their prize in physics for their research on radiation. When alerted to the situation, Pierre Curie gave a giant “NOPE!” to the committee, refusing to accept without his wife added to the prize. Large portions of the theoretical and experimental portions of the research were her purview. The committee relented and she became the first woman to receive the prize.

Life was grand for a while, but tragedy arrived in April 1906. Pierre was struck by a horse-drawn carriage and killed. Marie was devastated. One of her coping mechanisms seemed to be to dive deeper into research. She took over Pierre’s professorship, becoming the first woman professor at the University of Paris. She managed to isolate radium, an arduous task based on the raw amount of mineral needed to make enough of the element to isolate.

In 1911, her work and notoriety had increased to such an extent that the Nobel committee awarded her a second prize, this time in chemistry and this time all by herself. What a difference eight years can make!

Marie in a mobile X-Ray unit during World War I

When World War I hit, Marie, who had years ago noticed the medical implications to radiation, headed to the front lines to help wounded soldiers. She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, setting up X-ray equipment and radiography units. Some estimates place the number of soldiers aided with her X-ray stations at over 1 million. 

After the war, she continued pushing for more research into radioactivity. She worked with the League of Nations on the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, a unit that included Albert Einstein.

Unfortunately, the medical effects of radiation weren’t exclusively positive. Marie worked without safety precautions. She carried test tubes of radioactive materials in her pockets. She stored them in desks, marveling at the glow they emitted in the dark. She spent countless hours with X-Rays without modern gear. In 1934, she succumbed to aplastic anemia, most likely a side effect of radiation poisoning.

To this day, her papers from the 1890s are still too radioactive to handle without special equipment. Her remains, which were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris, are in a lead-lined coffin.

Since her death, Marie Curie’s reputation has only intensified. Her humility and integrity were as well known as her scientific exploits. The Curies refused to patent anything related to radium so the scientific community and world could benefit. She donated monetary awards to scientific institutions. Albert Einstein reportedly said she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame.

The element curium and the official unit of radioactivity, the curie (Ci), are named for her and Pierre.

Additionally, she was a powerhouse for advancing women in science. In 2009, she was voted the “most inspirational woman in science” of all time in New Scientist, doubling the second-place finisher’s votes.

I’ve only briefly touched the scientific aspects of her work, in an attempt to keep the article under novel-length. If you’re interested in learning more about this titan, I urge you to visit some of the links below and continue the search on your own. She lived a remarkable life!

Further Reading and Exploration

Madame Curie: A Biography – by Eve Curie

The Genius of Marie Curie – TED video by Shohini Ghose

Works of Marie Curie – Project Gutenberg

Mme. Curie is Dead; Martyr to Science – New York Times Obituary

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