Perhaps the most famous of all women scientists, Maria Sklodowska-Curie is notable for her many firsts:
- She was the first to use the term radioactivity for this phenomenon.
- She was the first woman in Europe to receive her doctorate of science.
- In 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics. The award, jointly awarded to Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henri Becquerel, was for the discovery of radioactivity.
- She was also the first female lecturer, professor and head of Laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1906).
- In 1911, she won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize (this time in chemistry) for her discovery and isolation of pure radium and radium components. She was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes.
- She was the first mother-Nobel Prize Laureate of daughter-Nobel Prize Laureate. Her oldest daughter Irene Joliot-Curie also won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1935).
- She is the first woman, which has been laid to rest under the famous dome of the Pantheon in Paris for her own merits.
She received 15 gold medals, 19 degrees, and other honours.
Table of Contents
1. Childhood and education.
2. She met Pierre Curie.
4. Pierre’s death.
5. The French Academy of Science
6. The Langevin affair.
7. War duty.
8. The Radium Institute.
9. The End.
12. Word list
1.Childhood and education.
Marie Sklodowska, as she was called before marriage, was born in Warsaw 7. November 1867. Both her parents were teachers who believed deeply in the importance of education (1). As a child, Manya, as she was called, was the star pupil in her class at school. Her personal losses, like her mothers’ death in 1878, did not impede her academic success, but the pleasure of being awarded a gold medal at her high school graduation in 1883 was blunted because it meant shaking the hand of the grandmaster of education in Russian Poland. After graduating at 15, Manya suffered a collapse that doctors’ thought was due to fatigue or "nervous" problems -- today it might be diagnosed as depression. At her father’s urging Manya spent a year with cousins in the country. A merry round of dances and other festivities, it would be the only carefree year of her life (2).
Marie dreamed of being able to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, but this was beyond the means of her family. To solve the problem, Marie and her elder sister, Bronya, came to an arrangement: Marie should go to work as a governess and help her sister with the money she managed to save so that Bronya could study medicine at the Sorbonne. When Bronya had taken her degree she, in her turn, would contribute to the cost of Marie’s studies (1).
So it was not until she was 24 that Marie came to Paris to study mathematics and physics. Bronya was now married to a doctor of Polish origin, and it was at Bronya’s urgent invitation to come and live with them that Marie took the step of leaving for Paris. By then she had been away from her studies for six years, nor had she had any training in understanding rapidly spoken French. But her keen interest in studying and her joy at being at the Sorbonne with all its opportunities helped her surmount all difficulties. To save herself a two-hours’ journey, she rented a little attic in the Quartier Latin. There the cold was so intense that at night she had to pile on everything she had in the way of clothing so as to be able to sleep. But as compensation for all her privations she had total freedom to be able to devote herself wholly to her studies. ’It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty’, she writes. And it was France’s leading mathematicians and physicists whom she was able to go to hear, people with names we now encounter in the history of science: Marcel Brillouin, Paul Painlevé, Gabriel Lippmann, and Paul Appell. After two years, when she took her degree in physics in 1893, she headed the list of candidates and, in the following year, she came second in a degree in mathematics. After three years she had brilliantly passed examinations in physics and mathematics. Her goal was to take a teacher’s diploma and then to return to Poland(1).
2. She met Pierre Curie.
The search for lab space led to a fateful introduction. In the spring of 1894, Marie Sklodowska mentioned her need for a lab to a Polish physicist of her acquaintance. It occurred to him that his colleague Pierre Curie might be able to assist her. (2) Pierre was eight years older then Marie.(1) Curie, who had done pioneering research on magnetism, was laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Unaware of how inadequate Pierre’s own lab facilities were the professor suggested that perhaps Pierre could find room there for Marie to work. The meeting between Curie and Sklodowska would change not only their individual lives but also the course of science.
Marie would eventually find rudimentary lab space at the Municipal School. Meanwhile her relationship with Curie was growing from mutual respect to love. Her senior by about a decade, Pierre had all but given up on love after the death of a close woman companion some 15 years earlier. The women he had met since had shown no interest in science, his life’s passion. In Marie, however, he found an equal with a comparable devotion to science.
Poland still beckoned her back. After her success in her math exam in the summer of 1894, Marie returned there for a vacation, uncertain whether she would return to France. Pierre’s heartfelt letters helped convince her to pursue her doctorate in Paris. Marie was determined not only to get her own doctorate but to see to it that Pierre received one as well. Although Pierre had done important scientific research in more than one field over the past 15 years, he had never completed a doctorate (in France the process consumed even more time than it did in the U.S. or U.K.). Marie insisted now that he writes up his research on magnetism. In March 1895 he was awarded the degree. At the Municipal School Pierre was promoted to a professorship.
The honour and the higher salary were offset by increased teaching duties without any improvement in lab space (2).
In a simple civil ceremony in July 1895, they became husband and wife. Neither wanted a religious service. Marie had lost her faith when her devout Roman Catholic mother died young, and Pierre was the son of non-practising Protestants. Nor did they exchange rings. Instead of a bridal gown Marie wore a dark blue outfit, which for years after was a serviceable lab garment (2).
They were given money as a wedding present, which they used to buy a bicycle for each of them, and long, sometimes adventurous, cycle rides came to become their way of relaxing. Their life was otherwise quietly monotonous, a life filled with work and study (1).
The birth of her two daughters, Irene and Eve, in 1897 and 1904 did not interrupt Marie’s intensive scientific work (3).
In her pioneering way, Marie decided, in 1897, to take a physics doctorate. Henri Becquerel, who was studying X-rays, had recently observed that uranium salt left an impression on a photographic plate in spite of its prospective envelope. What better subject could there have been for Marie than to try to understand the effect, the energy of their uranic rays? Pierre consented. And so his frail wife set about her work, handling tons of minerals; she noted that another substance, thorium, was “radioactive”, a term she herself had coined. Together, they demonstrated in a major discovery that radioactivity was not the result of a chemical reaction but a property of the element or, more specifically, of the atom. She deduced that there were other substances beside uranium that were very radioactive, such as polonium and radium, witch she discovered in 1898. (4)
Marie combined an active career in research with motherhood. To Marie, an important part of motherhood was orchestrating the education of her daughters. From her earliest childhood, it was clear that Irene was very intelligent and had exceptional talent in mathematics. She entered school at six (5).
In January 1934, together with her husband, Frederic Joliot, Irene, who had been working in the same laboratory and with the same relentless determination as her mother, discovered artificial radioactivity, for which she, too, was awarded the Nobel Prize (4).
Marie also got awarded with Nobel Prizes. One in 1903 for discovering natural radioactivity, and one in 1911 for determining the atomic weight of radium.
4. Pierre’s death.
On 19 April 1906, Pierre Curie was run over by a horse-drawn wagon near the Pont Neuf in Paris and killed. The news of Pierre Curie’s death was carried in newspapers around the world, and letters and telegrams inundated Marie.
But now Marie was left alone with two daughters, Irène aged 9 and Ève aged 2. Shock broke her down totally to begin with. But even now she could draw on the toughness and perseverance that were fundamental aspects of her character. When she was offered a pension, she refused it: I am 38 and able to support myself, was her answer. She was appointed to succeed Pierre as the head of the laboratory, being undoubtedly most suitable, and to be responsible for his teaching duties. She thus became the first woman ever appointed to teach at the Sorbonne. After some months, in November 1906, she gave her first lecture. The large amphitheatre was packed. As well as students, her audience included people from far and near, journalists and photographers were in attendance. Many people had expected something unusual to occur. Perhaps some manifestation of the historic occasion. When Marie entered, thin, pale and tense, she was met by an ovation. However the expectations of something other than a clear and factual lecture on physics were not fulfilled. But Marie’s personality, her aura of simplicity and competence made a great impression.
5. The French Academy of Science
In November 1910 Marie Curie offered herself as a candidate for the single vacant seat for a physicist in the French Academy of Sciences. Her main rival for the seat was 66-year-old Edouard Branly, whose scientific reputation was based on his contribution to wireless telegraphy. When Italian Gugliemo Marconi was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in that field, many French patriots felt stung by Branly’s exclusion. Branly’s claim to the Academy chair was also championed by many French Catholics, who knew that he had been singled out for honour by the Pope. For generations French politics had been bitterly divided between conservative Catholics and liberal freethinkers like Marie and her friends, and the split ran through every public action. Among the false rumours the right-wing press spread about Curie was that she was Jewish, not truly French, and thus undeserving of a seat in the French Academy. Although the liberal press came to her defence, the accusations did the intended damage. Branly won the election on January 23, 1911, by two votes. Curie responded to the snub characteristically, by throwing herself into her work, which gave her the second Nobel Prize, this one for Chemistry.
6. The Langevin affair.
An even juicier scandal was to erupt before the end of 1911. That a woman who was left a widow at 38 should become romantically attached again is not surprising. But when Curie’s relationship with fellow physicist Paul Langevin moved beyond friendly collegiality to mutual love, she could not foresee where it would lead. Langevin, a brilliant former pupil of Pierre’s, was unhappily married to a woman who came from a similar working-class background but lacked his educational attainments. With four children to raise, Madame Langevin complained that Paul placed his commitment to science above the needs of his family.
The widow had tarnished the good name of her deceased husband! This was only one of the accusations hurled at Curie during her absence in Belgium. Resurrecting the lie that she was Jewish, some anti-Semitic newspapers decried the devastation wrought on a good Frenchwoman by a foreign Jewish home wrecker. Other reporters spread false hints that Curie’s affair with Langevin had begun while Pierre was still alive, driving him to commit suicide in despair. On her return to France, Curie discovered an angry mob congregated in front of her home in Sceaux, terrorising 14-year-old Irène and 7-year-old Eve. Curie and her daughters had to take refuge in the home of friends in Paris. Meanwhile Langevin and a journalist who had reviled Marie held a duel--an emotional but bloodless “affair of honour.”
7. War duty.
Three German bombs fell on Paris on September 2, 1914, about a month after Germany declared war on France. By that time construction of the Radium Institute was complete, although Curie had not yet moved her lab there. Curie’s researchers had been drafted, like all other able-bodied Frenchmen.
The Radium Institute’s work would have to wait for peacetime. But surely there were ways in which Curie could use her scientific knowledge to advance the war effort. As the German army swept toward Paris, the government decided to move to Bordeaux. France’s entire stock of radium for research was the single gram in Curie’s lab. At the government’s behest, Curie took a Bordeaux-bound train along with government staff, carrying the precious element in a heavy lead box. Unlike many, however, Curie felt her place was in Paris. Once the radium was in a Bordeaux safe-deposit box, she returned to Paris on a military train. X-rays could save soldiers’ lives; she realised, by helping doctors see bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. She convinced the government to empower her to set up France’s first military radiology centers. Newly named Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, she wheedled money and cars out of wealthy acquaintances. She convinced body shops to transform the cars into vans, and begged manufacturers to do their part for their country by donating equipment. By late October 1914, the first of 20 radiology vehicles she would equip was ready. French enlisted men would soon dub these mobile radiology installations, which transported X-ray apparatus to the wounded at the battlefront, petites Curies (little Curies).
Although Curie had lectured about X-rays at the Sorbonne, she had no personal experience working with them. Intending to operate the petite Curie herself if necessary, she learned how to drive a car and gave herself cram courses in anatomy, in the use of X-ray equipment, and in auto mechanics. As her first radiological assistant she chose her daughter Irène, a very mature and scientifically well versed 17-year-old. Accompanied by a military doctor, mother and daughter made their first trip to the battle front in autumn 1914. Would the sight of the soldiers’ horrific wounds traumatise Irène? To guard against a bad reaction, Curie was careful to display no emotion herself as she carefully recorded data about each patient. Irène followed her mother’s example. Heedless of the dangers of over-exposure to X-rays, mother and daughter were inadequately shielded from the radiation that helped save countless soldiers’ lives. After the war the French government recognised Irène’s hospital work by awarding her a military medal. No such official recognition came to Curie. Perhaps her role in the Langevin affair was not yet forgiven.
8. The Radium Institute.
She never overcame stage fright as a professor, though she taught for nearly 30 years. Yet in order to turn the Radium Institute into a world-class institution, Curie shamelessly out sought assistance, just as she had done during the war years to create the radiological service. Throughout her career Curie had benefited from the subsidies of wealthy French benefactors. Now, thanks to the interest of an American woman, U.S. citizens also became involved in filling the needs of the Radium Institute. Despite her distrust of journalists, in May 1920 Curie agreed to give an interview to Mrs. William Brown Meloney, editor of an American woman’s magazine. In the interview Curie emphasised the needs of her institution, where research was just resuming following the devastating war.
Thanks to her alliance with industry, few labs in the world if any were better equipped with radium than Curie’s. But Curie succeeded in shocking Meloney by emphasising the fact that research and therapy centers in the United States together had about 50 times as much radium as the single gram she--the scientist who had discovered the element--had in her laboratory. When Meloney learned that Curie’s most fervent wish was for a second gram for her laboratory, the editor organised a “Marie Curie Radium Campaign”
Led by a committee of wealthy American women and distinguished American scientists, the campaign succeeded by soliciting contributions in the United States. Meloney also arranged for Curie to write an autobiographical work for an American publisher. The book would provide royalty income over the years. Equally important, it would capture in simple and moving prose the romantic and heroic image of science that was so helpful for public support and fund-raising
The Langevin affair could not be mentioned in print. On this condition Curie agreed to travel to the United States to drum up support for her institute. Meloney wrested from editors across the country a promise to suppress the old story. When word got out that the President of the United States himself would present Curie with the gift of radium, French officials looked for a way to make up for past oversights. Curie refused the Legion of Honour award (as Pierre had refused it nearly two decades earlier). But she agreed to attend a benefit for the Radium Institute at the Paris Opera shortly before setting sail.
Her right hand was in a sling before she had been in the United States many days. So many people wanted to shake hands with the woman who had given humanity the gift of radium. Curie was grateful that her daughters were willing to pinch-hit for her when she felt she could not bear another public function. Irène, for example, accepted some of the many honorary degrees granted to her mother by universities and colleges.
In 1920 Curie and a number of her colleagues created the Curie Foundation, whose mission was to provide both the scientific and the medical divisions of the Radium Institute with adequate resources. Over the next two decades the Curie Foundation became a major international force in the treatment of cancer (2).
9. The end.
In the last ten years of her life, Marie had the joy of seeing her daughter Irène and her son-in-law Frédéric Joliot do successful research in the laboratory. She lived to see their discovery of artificial radioactivity, but not to hear that they had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it in 1935. Marie Curie died of leukaemia on 4 July 1934 (1).