Marie Curie: the woman who shook up science (2023)

Marie Curie: the woman who shook up science (1)

Born as Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, in what was then the country of. Vistula, part of the Russian Empire, grew up in an intellectual but impoverished family. Her father was a physics teacher, a convinced atheist and a patriot who wanted an independent Poland. His views clashed with those of the authorities and meant he struggled to keep a job. Maria spent her early years at the boarding school run by her devout Catholic mother.

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But when her mother died of tuberculosis, 11-year-old Maria took refuge by helping her father in his laboratory. The calm, rational world of pipettes and problem-solving was a far cry from the political turmoil outside. But when Maria turned 18, financial reality pulled her away from that safe haven. She made a deal with her sister Bronya. While working as a governess for the daughters of a Russian nobleman, Maria saved her hard-earned money to support Bronya while her sister studiedmedicinein Paris. In return, once Bronya became a doctor, she would fund Maria to come to Paris to study.

But after just two years, her left-wing politics had caught the attention of Big Brother. So, at the age of 24, Maria moved to Paris and changed her name to Marie. It was supposed to be a temporary move; Her plan was to get her teacher's diploma and then return to Poland once the sharp-eyed government relaxed a bit. But Parisian labs and loves changed the course of her life forever.

science versus sex

Initially, Parisian life was a real challenge for a penniless student who had trouble conversing in French and rented a tiny, freezing cold attic room where she piled all her clothes on her bed to keep warm at night. Finding work was also a test for a young girl in the male-dominated world of science.

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Marie kept trying to find a job in a lab but was always turned down. Finally she got the chance to do some trivial tasks. But her technical prowess immediately drew attention and earned the respect of her peers. While working in these laboratories, she met a certain scientist named Pierre Curie.

(Video) Marie Curie: The Woman Who Changed Science

Both passionate about science, both left-wing and secular, the love soon blossomed. Pierre was already a big name in the scientific world; Early in his career he had discovered what he called 'piezoelectricity' with his brother Jacques and was currently head of a laboratory at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry, where talented engineers were trained.

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In Pierre, Marie found an intellectual and confidante, someone with whom she enjoyed contemplating scientific theories and sharing trips on their bikes. But Marie turned down Pierre's first marriage proposal - her goal had always been to return to her native Poland.

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Pierre in love has volunteered to steal his entire career and move to Poland with her. However, on a trip to her family in 1894, she applied for a place at Kraków University, but was not accepted as a woman. Thus, in 1895, the couple wed in a suburb of Paris, with the unconventional Marie wearing, instead of a wedding dress, a dark blue outfit that reportedly became one of her lab outfits. Two years later they welcomed their first daughter Irène, followed by Eve in 1904.

Marie Curie: the woman who shook up science (2)

Marie didn't allow itmaternityhowever, stand in the way of her work. Her superior, Antoine Henri Becquerel, had tasked her with investigating a bizarre phenomenon he had discovered. Intrigued by the recent discovery of X-rays and the way certain materials glowed when exposed to bright light, Becquerel had discovered by 1896 that uranium salts could affect photographic plates through black paper even when the sun was not shining.

Using a device Pierre invented, Marie set out to solve the mystery of these strange rays. Within days she discovered that the element thorium emits the same radiation as uranium and concluded that it is not the arrangement of atoms in a molecule that makes it radiate, but the interior of the atom itself. This discovery was downright revolutionary.

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Chemists around the world admired Marie's tenacity and the classical chemistry she practiced. Locking herself in what she called "the miserable old shed," she undertook the back-breaking labor of stirring huge barrels of pitchblende and dissolving them in acid to separate the various elements present.

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The hard hours have paid off. In June 1898, Marie and Pierre extracted a black powder 330 times more radioactive than uranium and named their discovery polonium. Marie was unashamedly forthcoming about the fact that her native Poland inspired the name. That was a pretty bold political statement back then — a bit like what you call a new discovery “Ukrainium” today. Six months later, the Curies announced that they had found another new chemical element, radium.

In 1903 Becquerel and the Curies received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of something called "radioactivity". That was groundbreaking. No woman had ever won a Nobel Prize before. And indeed, the award was not without controversy. The committee had voted for Becquerel to receive half the prize and Pierre the other half.

Marie Curie: the woman who shook up science (3)

But a committee member questioned why Marie shouldn't get recognition. So in the end, Pierre and Marie each got a quarter of the price.

The curies were a perfect match. While Pierre was a little dreamer, Marie was a great networker who was good at promoting her work. Nonetheless, Pierre was always the one who garnered greater recognition, such as when Vanity Fair ran a "Men of the Year" article that featured a picture of Pierre triumphantly holding up a stick of radium chloride while Marie demurely stood behind it.

But just as the Curies seemed to be flying high, Pierre had a tragic accident. In April 1906 he tripped under a horse and cart and died instantly from a fractured skull. Marie initially showed no outward signs of grief and reportedly kept repeating, "Pierre is dead." But behind the steely stance, she was devastated. Over time, she became introverted and lost in her work.

1911: When Einstein wrote to Marie - a devotional letter

Dear Mrs Curie,

(Video) The genius of Marie Curie - Shohini Ghose

Don't laugh at me for writing to you... But I am so angry at the mean way in which the public dares to deal with you these days that I really need to vent this feeling. However, I'm sure you consistently despise this rabble, whether they servilely lavish you with respect or try to satiate their thirst for sensation! I feel compelled to tell you how much I admire your intellect, your drive and your honesty and that I am fortunate to have met you personally in Brussels. Anyone who is not one of these reptiles is certainly still pleased that we have personalities like you and Langevin among us, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the mob continues to engage with you, then simply don't read this nonsense and leave it to the reptile for which it was fabricated.

Best regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, sincerely,

An Einstein

She moved the family to the outskirts of Paris, where Pierre's father played a huge role in raising his granddaughters. From conferences in far flung places around the world, Marie wrote heartbreaking letters to her daughters, saying she wished she could see them more often. Torn between family and science, Marie continued to throw herself into her work. After Pierre's death, she became the first woman to take his place as professor of general physics at the Faculty of Science. But in her private life, Marie was lonely.

In 1910, 43-year-old Marie sought solace in the arms of another—scientist Paul Langevin, a married man with four children. When his wife (whom he had split from) discovered the passionate affair, she reportedly leaked the details to a tabloid. Despite Langevin's alleged wish. In order to fight a duel against the journalist who published the story, Marie was so slandered by the press that she decided to end the affair. However, the label "House Destroyer" also influenced her professional life and almost caused her to miss out on her second Nobel Prize. The Swedish Academy of Sciences had tried to dissuade her from coming to Stockholm to accept the prize - this time for chemistry.

In response, Marie said, “The prize was awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life. I cannot accept ... that the appreciation of scientific work is influenced by defamation and defamation of private life."

A lethal dose

Marie's reputation remained tarnished until her heroic efforts to help wounded French soldiers during World War I. Unfortunately, Marie's hard work overwhelmed her in the end. Today, exposure to high doses of radioactive material is avoided at all costs, but the long hours she spent in her laboratory eventually led to her death. Marie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, a condition in which the bone marrow does not produce enough new blood cells. Her death was almost certainly the result of excessive exposure to radiation.

When first discovered, radium was like nothing seen before—it glowed in the dark and was warm to the touch. In the 1920s and 1930s, quackery was all the rage in everything from radioactive toothpaste to ointments, and radium was used in everything from clocks to nightlights. But this "magical" element also had an ominous side.

In 1901, Becquerel reported how his waistcoat pocket had been burned while carrying an active radium sample in it. Laboratory assistants suffered from aching limbs and sores on their fingers where they had handled radioactive material.

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Marie must have known that she was playing dice with death. So why did she continue to work with radioactive materials? Most likely because she was in denial since she was so obsessed with her work. Considering the extent to which she was exposed to radioactivity during her lifetime, she was quite lucky to make it to the age of 66.

Her life has been full of scientific endeavors, some scandals and sad moments, but also full of achievements. Few would argue against its place in the annals of science.

Eternal Holiness: The Legacy of Marie Curie

For a poor Polish migrant, Marie was incredibly successful in the male-dominated world of science. She left an impressive legacy - the unit of radioactivity (curie), the element curium and a worldwide charity are all named after her. Nobel prizes aside, perhaps it was her ability to balance a distinguished career with family life that was her greatest achievement. Marie had two daughters, Irène and Eva.

Eve became a journalist and writer while her older sister followed in her mother's footsteps. Just like Marie, Irène was smart but obsessive, eschewed vanity, and was sometimes socially awkward. Irène worked with her husband Frédéric Joliot on the atomic nucleus and together they received the coveted Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their work on the discovery of artificial radiation. But Irène also died in 1956 from a radiation-related illness – leukemiaFirst World War.

It was these X-ray machines and her heroic efforts during the war that turned Marie from a sinner into a saint. After her love affair with a married man hit the newspapers in 1910, her reputation was in tatters. But by developing the small, portable X-ray machines that could be used to diagnose injuries near the front lines, Marie turned attention away from her love life and back to her work. Not content with simply making the device, she then toured Paris raising funds in her role as Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service. By October 1914, the front-line units were operational, where Marie and Irène worked tirelessly, x-raying the wounded for bullets and fractures.


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This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine


What did Marie Curie discover answer? ›

Marie Curie is remembered for her discovery of radium and polonium, and her huge contribution to finding treatments for cancer.

What was Marie Curie's most famous quote? ›

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”

What were Marie Curie's last words? ›

“Radium,” she said. “Radium?” “Those were her last words— 'Was it done with radium or with mesothorium?

What lesson did Marie Curie teach us? ›

Never rest on your laurels. Marie Curie's love of all things science helped her appreciate the work of her peers that came before her. But she would have been the first to admit that science must keep moving forward, not rest on its laurels. This attitude led her to win not just one but two Nobel prizes.

What was Marie Curie trying to prove? ›

Marie tested all the known elements in order to determine if other elements or minerals would make air conduct electricity better, or if uranium alone could do this. In this task she was assisted by a number of chemists who donated a variety of mineral samples, including some containing very rare elements.

What did Albert Einstein say to Marie Curie? ›

Albert Einstein's letter to Marie Curie in November 1911 when he told her to ignore the haters: "Highly esteemed Mrs Curie, Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say.

What are 5 famous quotes? ›

Quotes by Famous People
  • The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. - ...
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. - ...
  • Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. ...
  • If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor. -
Jan 2, 2023

What word did Marie Curie invent? ›

In 1895 she married the French physicist Pierre Curie, and she shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with him and with the physicist Henri Becquerel for their pioneering work developing the theory of "radioactivity"—a term she coined.

How did Marie Curie react to her husband's death? ›

Marie was adamant in her refusal, insisting that she was perfectly capable of supporting herself and the children. “Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used to say, that even deprived of him, I ought to continue my work.”

What 5 languages did Marie Curie speak? ›

A Remarkable Woman. Born in Warsaw, in the Russian par on of Poland, on No-vember 7, 1867 to a school principal mother and teacher fa-ther, Maria Skłodowska was one of 5 children. She was an excellent student who loved physics, chemistry, math, biol-ogy and music. She spoke Polish, Russian, French and Eng-lish.

Why was Marie Curie almost ignored for the Nobel Prize? ›

Following Nobel's death, the first prize was awarded in 1901, but it was the Curies who made the prize famous. Marie was almost excluded from winning the award, simply because she was a woman.

What made Marie Curie inspirational? ›

It was Marie's research and discoveries that led to the radiotherapy treatment available to cancer patients today. Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize and the first person ever to receive two of them - the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911.

How does Marie Curie inspire you? ›

Marie Curie inspires me to not give up because if she could do it with little resources many years ago, so can any woman. With all the new technology and resources we have, anything is possible. She has inspired me to push myself; it is not about being perfect, it's about improving ourselves.

Why is Marie Curie important for kids? ›

Marie Curie is considered to be one of the most influential scientists of all time. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only person to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences: physics and chemistry. Marie Curie discovered radioactivity and changed the way scientists understood the atom.

What did Marie Curie denied? ›

Yes, you just read that last sentence correctly: One hundred and ten years ago today, Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie was formally rejected for membership by the French Academy of Sciences. How could this ever happen? Surely, it was not a matter of her accomplishments, her application studded with world class honors.

What are the 2 elements that Marie Curie discovered? ›

After Marie and Pierre Curie first discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium, Marie continued to investigate their properties. In 1910 she successfully produced radium as a pure metal, which proved the new element's existence beyond a doubt.

What was Marie Curie biggest discovery? ›

Radium and polonium

The Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Becquerel. And Skłodowska-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium and the isolation of radium, which provided science with a method for isolating and purifying radioactive isotopes.

What was Marie Curie's favorite food? ›

While earning her degree in Paris, Curie lived frugally and ate mostly buttered bread and tea—a diet that often caused her to faint from hunger. 3.

What was Marie Curie's IQ? ›

Marie Curie: IQ 180–200

Not only was Marie Curie the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but she was also the first person to win it twice. Most of her work focused on radioactivity—discoveries that contributed to the development of X-rays used during surgery.

What was Albert Einstein's IQ? ›

Smarter than Einstein? Albert Einstein likely never took an IQ test but is estimated to have a 160 IQ—but even that can't stand up to these masterminds.

Did Einstein and Curie meet? ›

Albert Einstein (back, second from right) and Marie Curie (front, second from right) met at the 1911 Solvay Conference on Physics.

What is a strong woman quote? ›

A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.

What is the most inspiring quote ever? ›

What is the most inspiring quote ever?
  • “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius.
  • “Magic is believing in yourself. ...
  • “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them” – Walt Disney.
  • “The real test is not whether you avoid this failure…
Aug 19, 2021

What is the most famous line of all time? ›

Famous Movie Quotes
  • “ May the Force be with you.” - Star Wars, 1977.
  • “ There's no place like home.” - The Wizard of Oz, 1939.
  • “ I'm the king of the world!” - ...
  • “ Carpe diem. ...
  • “ Elementary, my dear Watson.” - ...
  • “ It's alive! ...
  • “ My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. ...
  • “ I'll be back.” -
Sep 21, 2018

Why did Marie think the radium samples glowed? ›

She suggested that the powerful rays, or energy, the polonium and radium gave off were actually particles from tiny atoms that were disintegrating inside the elements. Marie's findings contradicted the widely held belief that atoms were solid and unchanging.

How many elements did Marie Curie discover? ›

Marie Curie

How did Marie Curie change our understanding of radioactivity? ›

Her theory created a new field of study, atomic physics, and Marie herself coined the phrase "radioactivity." She defined radioactivity at the time to be this activity of rays to be dependent on uranium's atomic structure, the number of atoms of uranium.

What misfortune did Marie face in 1906? ›

A short time after they discovered radium, Pierre was killed by a horse-drawn wagon in 1906. Marie was stunned by this horrible misfortune and endured heartbreaking anguish. Despondently she recalled their close relationship and the joy that they had shared in scientific research.

Why did Marie Curie become disgruntled? ›

At an early age, she displayed a brilliant mind and a blithe personality. Her great exuberance for learning prompted her to continue with her studies after high school. She became disgruntled, however, when she learned that the university in Warsaw was closed to women.

Why was Marie Curie buried twice? ›

Twice Buried. Our favorite two-time Nobel laureate was also buried twice! Madame Curie died of leukemia attributed to her radioactive work, and was buried alongside her husband Pierre in 1934. However, their remains would be re-interred at the Panthéon in 1995 with full honors.

Was Marie Curie French or Polish? ›

Marie Curie valued her Polish heritage, never ceasing to use her own surname (Skłodowska), teaching Polish to her two daughters and contributing to the advancement of science in Poland.

Was Madame Curie religious? ›

Marie was the first woman scientist of international distinction. She once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Neither of the Curies was a religious believer and their wedding was a secular one.

Did Marie Curie lose her fingers? ›

Marie herself had lost nearly 20 pounds while doing her thesis research, and both Curies did permanent damage to their fingertips from their unprotected exposure to highly radioactive materials.

Which scientist did not receive the Nobel Prize and why? ›

Saha was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1930 by Debendra Mohan Bose and Sisir Kumar Mitra. The Nobel Committee evaluated Saha's work. It was seen as a useful application but not a “discovery.” Thus he was not awarded the Nobel Prize.

What was ironical about the success accomplished by the Curies? ›

Answer: As per the story, the major irony that marked the curies was that Marie Curie died due to the same element she and discovered. Even after getting the fame, both were not able to fulfill their dream of having a personal laboratory or a professorship for Pierre at Sorbonne.

How many lives did Marie Curie save? ›

Although, quite ironically, she helped save a million lives (directly) by using radiation, which has developed drastically in recent times to have saved millions more!

What did Marie Curie discover kids? ›

In 1895, she married Pierre Curie. Together they discovered two new elements, or the smallest pieces of chemical substances: polonium (which she named after her home country) and radium.

What did Marie Curie discover first? ›

Work. After Marie and Pierre Curie first discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium, Marie continued to investigate their properties. In 1910 she successfully produced radium as a pure metal, which proved the new element's existence beyond a doubt.

What did Curie discover and when? ›

And Marie was proven right: in 1898 the Curies discovered two new radioactive elements: radium (named after the Latin word for ray) and polonium (named after Marie's home country, Poland).

What and when did Marie Curie discover? ›

Working with her husband, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium in 1898. In 1903 they won the Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering radioactivity. In 1911 she won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for isolating pure radium.

What did Marie Curie discover quizlet? ›

Have you ever heard of Marie Curie? She was the first person to win TWO nobel prizes and, with the help of her husband Pierre, discovered two elements on the periodic table; polonium and radium.

How did Marie Curie change science? ›

Radium and polonium

The Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Becquerel. And Skłodowska-Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium and the isolation of radium, which provided science with a method for isolating and purifying radioactive isotopes.

What is a summary of Marie Curie life? ›

Marie Curie was a physicist, chemist and pioneer in the study of radiation. She discovered the elements polonium and radium with her husband, Pierre. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, along with Henri Becquerel, and Marie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

How did Marie Curie make her discovery? ›

Marie Curie

When did Marie Curie contribute to the atomic theory? ›

Pierre and Marie Curie are best known for their pioneering work in the study of radioactivity, which led to their discovery in 1898 of the elements radium and polonium. Marie Curie, b. Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 7, 1867, d.


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