Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jan 1, 2001
10 min read
Marie Curie: A colourised black and white photo (Dana Keller/The Maryland Science Centre)

Marie Curie was not only the first woman in Europe to gain a doctorate in science, but the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes. An undisputed scientific giant of her time, it was Curie’s very research that ended her life.

By Wilson da Silva

IT WAS AN AILING François Mitterrand, in the final weeks of his last term as French president, who made amends for centuries of Gallic sexism. At an April 1995 ceremony in the Panthéon, the great monument to French national heroes, he enshrined the ashes of Marie Curie – the first woman to be so honoured for her achievements.

The ceremony at the domed monument draped with a huge French flag was symbolic in many ways: Marie Curie was not only a woman, she had been an immigrant and had, more than any other scientist of the early 20th century, enhanced the prestige of France in the scientific world. And ironically, Mitterrand himself was dying of cancer – the affliction that had eventually taken Marie Curie’s life. 

Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on 7 November 1867. She was the fifth and youngest child of Bronsilawa Boguska, a pianist, singer and teacher, and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Her childhood was difficult: the family had little money, and the premature death of one of her sisters and, later, her mother affected her deeply.

From an early age she nurtured the dream of a career in science, a concept almost unimaginable for a woman at the time. Working for years as a private tutor and a governess, she made financial sacrifices so that her sister Bronia could study medicine in Paris – a favour she hoped might one day be returned. And it was.

In 1891, the shy but ambitious and self-taught young woman arrived in Paris. Surviving on scant meals of bread and butter with tea, she topped her graduation class in physics at the Sorbonne University in 1893, and came second in mathematics. It was in the spring of the following year that a Polish friend introduced her to Pierre Curie.

The son of a Parisian physician and the introverted young head of the laboratory at the School of Physics at Sorbonne, Curie was known for his work in crystallography and magnetism. And like the 26-year-old Marya Sklodowska, he was passionate about science and the good it could bring to humanity.

They were married in the summer of 1895; she adopted her husband’s surname and converted her first name into its French equivalent. So began a partnership that not only brought them great joy, but would help found a new branch of science: nuclear physics.

In 1897 she began her doctorate in physics, studying under Henri Becquerel who was at the time researching X-rays, a phenomenon only recognised two years earlier. Along the way, Becquerel had found by chance that uranium salts left a strange impression on photographic plates – even when covered in a protective envelope. What ‘rays’ might be emanating from the uranium?

This became the subject of Marie’s doctorate, and the study developed into such an exciting challenge that Pierre soon joined her. They handled tonnes of minerals, discovering that another substance, thorium, was also ‘radioactive’ – a term she herself coined. 

Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory

Together, the couple discovered and demonstrated that radioactivity was not a chemical reaction but an inherent property of an element’s structure – it was part of its atomic composition. Marie then studied pitchblende, a uranium-based mineral in which she detected more intense radiation than could be found in uranium alone. She correctly deduced that substances other than uranium were present, and that these were even more highly radioactive. This led to her discovery of polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium, both in 1898. Radium was found to be 900 times more radioactive than uranium. 

While Marie made her discoveries, Pierre studied the properties of radiation. They were excited and determined, but worked in difficult conditions; their laboratory was a draughty warehouse where the temperature would drop to near freezing in winter. Still, Marie would write of the joy she felt entering the lab in the dark of night to see beakers glowing with the soft light of radiation. The danger that this presented was not known: few even understood the real nature of radiation at the time.

Despite their hardship, the couple refused to patent their discoveries, a move that would have made them financially secure. They believed scientific discoveries should be used by all, regardless of nationality or specialty, and at no cost. They also managed to find the time to nurture a family: their daughter Irène was born in 1897.

Marie was appointed lecturer in physics at the École Normale Supérieure for girls in 1900. It was around this time that Pierre, working at the lab in the Sorbonne, tested radium on himself, applying it to his skin: it caused a burn and later a wound. The couple immediately saw an application in treating tumours, and chemotherapy (then called curietherapy) was born. 

By 1903, Marie obtained her doctorate and, the same year, the Curies shared with Becquerel the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on radioactivity. Financially strained, the couple were unable to attend the ceremony in Stockholm. Nevertheless, their important work had been internationally recognised. Another daughter, Eve, was born in 1904, and Pierre – thanks to the Nobel prize – finally landed the position of professor at the Sorbonne. Marie was appointed chief assistant in the lab her husband directed, and the future was looking bright. 

Their happiness was short-lived: less than two years later, a radiation-weakened and overworked Pierre was run over by a car. Marie was left with two children to raise and a laboratory to run. A month later, in what was considered a brave step, the Sorbonne offered Marie Curie her husband’s job, and in 1908 she became the first woman professor at the prestigious university. Marie devoted herself to the research she and Pierre had pioneered, and in 1910 published a fundamental treatise on radioactivity. 

The prejudices of her day nevertheless persisted; disdain for foreigners and difficulty acknowledging female scientific achievement stopped her entering France’s Academy of Science when she was nominated in 1911. Despite this, the same year she received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for determining the atomic weight of radium – the first person to be awarded two such accolades, and in different fields.

When war broke out in 1914, Marie and Irène – who had followed her mother into science – foresaw the value of X-rays by locating shrapnel and bullets in wounds, so making surgery quicker and more efficient. The two developed X-ray radiography and, understanding that it was important not to move the wounded unnecessarily, created mobile X-ray vans. They helped provide X-ray equipment for hospitals, and trained 150 female manipulators to use it. By 1918, Marie had founded the Radium Institute, which soon became a universal centre for nuclear physics and chemistry.

Marie Curie working in her laboratory at the University of Paris in 1925

Marie Curie, now at the height of her fame, was invited to join France’s Academy of Medicine in 1922. She travelled with her two daughters to the United States and gave lectures in Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and Czechoslovakia. The League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) appointed her to the International Commission on Intellectual Co-operation. The Curie Foundation was established in Paris and, later, the Radium Institute was founded in Warsaw, her home town, of which her sister Bronia became the first director. 

On July 4, 1934, exhausted and almost blinded, her fingers burnt and stigmatised by radium, Marie Curie died of leukemia. It had been caused by prolonged exposure to the radium that had made her famous. During her lifetime, she had been exposed to incredible levels of radiation.

That same year Irène, who had been working in the same laboratory and with the same relentless determination as her mother, discovered artificial radioactivity and – in 1935, together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot – she too was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. 

If only her mother had been around to see this, Irène wrote. And in the end, Irène too was to succumb to radiation. Like her parents, she had worked tirelessly for the good of humanity until she was able to work no longer. Irène refused to benefit financially from her work.

Hers was the same modesty and selfless dedication that had gained Marie the respect and admiration of many, and which prompted Albert Einstein to say of her: “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted.”