Marie Curie – Mini Biography
“…Scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.” Marie Curie, excerpt from her speech, “The Scientific History of Radium is Beautiful,” Vassar College, New York, May 14, 1921
Born in Poland nearly 150 years ago, in her lifetime, Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes for her research in radiation and for discovering radium, which proved useful in hospitals. The first Nobel Prize she shared with her husband Pierre Curie and French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel. When Marie Curie died in 1934, Albert Einstein said, “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one who fame has not corrupted.”
Name: Marie Curie
Birth Date: November 7, 1867 – July 4, 1934
Job Functions: Research Scientist
Known For: Discovering the element Radium, and winning the Nobel Prize twice, 1903 and 1911.
Though Marie Curie was born in Poland (Marya Sklodowska), most of her scientific work took place in France where she lived from 1891. When Curie graduated from high school, at that time in Russian-dominated Poland, girls were not allowed to attend university. She worked as a tutor and later as a governess, a post she held for six years, to save money to attend university. Curie was also involved in an underground movement, the “Floating University,” where a group of young men and women gathered to satisfy their deep appetite for knowledge. While working to save money, Curie made time to study physics and mathematics on her own.
One of Curie’s sisters was already living in Paris and extended an invitation to her. Both sisters had made a deal that while Bronya was studying medicine, Marie would support her using earnings from her job as a governess. And when Bronya became a doctor, she would return the favour to Marie. Curie started at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1891 at the age of 24, and graduated top of her class with a Masters in Physics in 1893, and mathematics in 1894 – this was a phenomenal accomplishment since she had to master French. In 1894, Curie needed a laboratory to conduct her research projects and was referred to Pierre Curie at the School of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Paris. Pierre and Marie had a strong connection and were married the following year.
After their first daughter was born in 1897, Curie turned her attention to the work of Antoine Henri Becquerel who had discovered radiation from uranium. Curie surmised that radiation was an atomic property, and if that was indeed the case, then it had to be present in other elements as well. Her investigation allowed her to confirm what she believed – she discovered radiation from thorium and Curie coined the word radiation.
Along with her husband they searched for other sources of radioactivity. They decided to work with the mineral pitchblende, known for its uranium content. In 1898 they soon discovered that the radioactivity of pitchblende was much higher than the combined radioactivity of uranium and thorium. They presented their findings in two papers to the Academy of Sciences, first announcing the discovery of the radioactive element polonium, named after Poland where Marie Curie was born, and the second paper announced the discovery of radium. The Atomic Age was born.
This was only the beginning. For the Curies to study the properties of the new elements, they needed a substantial amount of pitchblende. Fortunately for them, the government of Austria donated a ton of pitchblende for their research. Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies spent a substantial amount of time processing tons of pitchblende. They were able to extract one gram of radium from eight tons of pitchblende. During that period, they published both jointly and separately 32 scientific papers. In one of those papers, they announced that diseased, tumour-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium.
In June 1903, Curie passed her doctoral examination when she submitted “Researches on Radioactive Substances.” In November 1903, the Royal Society in London awarded the Curies, the Humphry Davy Medal. In December of that year, the Curies, along with A. H. Becquerel were the joint recipients for the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1903. Marie Curie was the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize.
In October 1904, Pierre was appointed professor of Physics at Sarbonne and shortly after, Marie was appointed superintendent of his laboratory. Pierre died suddenly in 1906 when he was run down by a heavy carriage. Curie was asked to take over his position and was the first female professor at the Sorbonne. In 1908 Curie started to teach the only course offered in the world on radioactivity.
For years, Curie continued her research work with radium to isolate pure, un-combined element of metallic radium, and in 1910, with the help of André Debierne she finally succeeded. The following year, in 1911, Curie received a second Nobel Prize, the first recipient of two, and the first person to receive a Nobel Prize in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry). In 1914, Curie became the head of the radioactivity lab of the newly formed Radium Institute in Paris.
During the four years of the First World War, Curie equipped 20 automobiles in her laboratory with X-ray apparatus to aid the sick. She often visited the battlefront to oversee the medical use of radiology.
Curie received a visit from Mrs. William B. Meloney, the editor of a woman’s magazine in New York. Meloney represented many women who were inspired by Curie’s accomplishments and generosity. She later returned to Paris to notify Curie that $100,000 had been raised through national subscriptions to purchase a gram of radium for the Radium Institute. Curie was invited to travel with her daughters to the US to collect the gram of radium.
In May 1921, Curie travelled with her daughters to receive the radium to continue her research. She met with President Harding and received a gold key to the case holding the radium. While in the US she attended a gathering of the American Association of University Women at Carnegie Hall in New York and received many honorary degrees from numerous American institutions. On her visit, Curie gave a rare speech “The Scientific History of Radium is Beautiful” at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1921, Curie’s book, La Radiologie et a la guerre was published, which documented the human experience of radiology during the war. In 1923, she wrote Pierre’s biography.
Curie returned to the US in 1929 to receive more funding, and was a guest of the White House at the invitation of President Henry Hoover and the First Lady. When Curie’s health deteriorated, she never complained because that’s the type of woman she was. Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934.
Why Marie Curie’s Contribution Matters
Marie Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, the first recipient of two, and the first and only person so far who has received a Nobel Prize in two sciences. Curie invented X-ray vans to send out to wounded soldiers. She worked incredibly hard and paved the way for women in science. Women couldn’t attend university in Russian-dominated Poland, but Currie found a way to circumvent that by going to France and studying in French which was no small feat for her. That takes grit and determination.
Why Marie Curie Makes an Excellent Invisible Mentor
An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn things from by studying them from a distance. Curie had many accomplishments in her 67 years and there are many things that we can learn from her. And most importantly, Marie Curie understood that life was not just about her, she had a good grasp of the concept of social responsibility. When Curie worked as a governess, she worked full-time, found time to study, as well as teach the neighbourhood children. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes and the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Marie Curie was an inspiration to others.
Great Minds of Europe: Marie Curie
Who Was Marie Curie?Marie Curie (Little People, Big Dreams)Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First FamilyRadioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and FalloutObsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Great Discoveries)Madame Curie: A BiographyMarie Curie’s Search for Radium (Science Stories)DK Biography: Marie CurieMarie Curie for Kids: Her Life and Scientific Discoveries, with 21 Activities and Experiments (For Kids series)
Encyclopedia of World Biography
UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography
Science and Its Times
Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Chemistry – Foundations and Applications
Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age and War Reconstruction
Macmillan Encyclopedia of Energy
World of Earth Science
YouTube video credit: Women Nobel Prize Winners, CultureRemembers
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- Google Doodle Celebrates Marie Curie’s 144th Birthday (wired.com)
- Marie Curie, born Nov. 7, 1867 (barryraphael.wordpress.com)