Polish French Physicist and Chemist
Marie Curie was the first woman to be granted a Ph.D. in Europe and the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize (she went on to garner a second). A woman of enormous personal character, Curie stands as one of the most significant and influential scientists of the twentieth century.
Curie was born Manya Salomea Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. She was the youngest of five children. Both of her parents were ardent educators, and instilled in their children respect for physical work and a love of the countryside and nature.
Curie excelled at school and finished first in her class in the gymnasium in 1883. At the time, Warsaw University did not admit women, and a young graduate's only options were to go abroad to study or to get married. Curie hatched a plan with her sister Bronia whereby each would pay for the other's studies in France. While waiting her turn, Marie took a job as a governess. It was during this time that she decided on a career in science.
In 1891, at the age of 23, Marie Curie enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. She had arrived at a critical time. It would be a while until French women were fully emancipated, but a number of technological innovations such as electricity, the telephone, and moving pictures were contributing to an explosion of interest in science, and scientific studies were generously subsidized. Curie was exposed to some of the finest scientific minds of the day, including the mathematicians Paul Appell and Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), and the physicist Gabriel Lippmann (1845-1921). Curie took her degree in physics in 1893, graduating first among her classmates, and ranked second for the degree in mathematics the following year.
Her initial plan had been to return to Poland to teach. But in the spring of 1894 she met 35-year-old Pierre Curie (1859-1906), who shared her love of and devotion to science. The two were married in 1895 and were soon an inseparable team of researchers. Their daughter Irène was born in 1897. A second daughter, Eve, followed in 1904.
The 1895 discovery of mysterious "x rays" by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) created a sensation among scientists and the general public alike. In 1896 Henri Becquerel (1852-1908 1908) found that uranium also gave off rays, a phenomenon the Curies would later call radioactivity. Because uranium rays were new, and little attention had been paid to them in the wake of excitement over x rays, Curie decided to concentrate her doctoral thesis on uranium rays.
Working in a primitive space in the school where Pierre taught, she was surprised to find that pitchblende, a source of uranium, contained two unknown elements that were far more active than uranium. She named these elements polonium and radium. In 1903, the year Marie defended her Ph.D., she and Pierre, along with Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for "joint researches in radiation phenomena." For the first time, light had been shed on the forces within the nucleus of the atom.
Pierre Curie died tragically in a street accident in 1906, and Marie took up the position he had obtained at the Sorbonne. Several years later her highly publicized love affair with a married friend and colleague, Paul Langevin (1872-1946), almost eclipsed the announcement that she had been awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of radium. Fallout from the scandal put a substantial strain on her health.
Public obsession with her personal life was swept away with the advent of World War I. Curie distinguished herself during the war by procuring and equipping cars and personnel to make x-ray examinations available to soldiers at the front.
After the war, the dangers of radium and other radioactive substances, previously assumed to be harmless in small doses, became increasingly obvious. In 1934 Curie herself succumbed to leukemia, the result of a lifetime of exposure to radioactivity. She was buried beside her husband in a small cemetery in Sceaux. A year later, her daughter Irène Curie (1897-1956) and Irène's husband Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.