Maria (Manya) Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland to schoolteacher parents. As Maria’s parents were proud of their Polish heritage, although the Polish territory was part of Russia at the time, Maria was taught Polish and Polish history by her parents. As a young child in formal schooling, Russian inspectors often came to the school, so the children were forced to hide their contraband Polish history books. Maria was always a gifted child, entering school in the same grade as her older sister, Helena.
After Maria’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1878, her father sent her to the previously German Gymnasium Number Three, now a Russian public school. She was taught physics, Russian literature, and German. By 1883, she graduated at age 15, younger than the other students and first in her class. As it was rare for a woman to enter Russian universities, Maria entered the “ Floating University,” an underground academy of secret classes. During this time, she became interested in the Polish resistance movement. When she turned 22, Maria had her first taste of laboratory work in a secret lab set aside for Polish scientists. “This experience confirmed her interest in the fields of experimental physics and chemistry” (Oglivie 18).
Maria moved to Paris at 24 to enter the elite Sorbonne University, where she registered under the name Marie Sklodowska. There she studied under the best physicists and mathematicians in France, including Nobel Prize winners. In 1893, she passed her licence exam in physics (like a master’s degree), only one of two women to receive the degree in the Sorbonne. By 1894 she had also received a licence in mathematics. Marie also met Pierre Curie in 1894. As she left Paris for the summer to return to Poland, Pierre asked her to come back and stay with him. She did return to Paris, and to Pierre, and the two were married in July 1895.
The two were happy during their newlywed phase, sharing a lab together. By 1897 Marie was pregnant, giving birth to a girl (Irène) in September. She obtained certification to teach in a girls’ secondary school and moved on to a doctorate degree, a step that no woman in Europe had yet completed. She was inspired by Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895. She began to study the electrical current emitted by metals, forming the hypothesis that radiation is an atomic property, issued from the atom itself. In the course of her experiments, Mme. Curie found two new radioactive elements – radium and polonium. She was awarded a Doctorate in Physical Science from the University of Paris in 1903 for her work. Marie’s work led to acceptance of the notion of the unstable atom in chemistry and physics, and helped to usher in the atomic energy era of the 20 th century.
At this point, Pierre gave up his own work on magnetism and began to assist Marie with her research. Pierre and Marie both began feeling the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation, which eventually led to the death of their premature baby. However there was good news as well, as on December 11, 1903, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie is only one of 11 women to have won Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Afterwards, Pierre received a professorship at the Sorbonne, and Marie became director of Pierre’s research lab. Marie had another baby on December 16, 1905, named Eve.
On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was killed when he was struck by a wagon, crushing him. Marie began to keep a journal, this time addressed to Pierre, where she wrote letters to him. She was also given the professorship created for Pierre, the first woman to hold such a faculty position. In 1911, Curie was nominated to the French Académie des sciences, but lost the seat to another nominee by two votes. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in different sciences.
By July 1914, the Radium Institute was constructed in Paris, headed by Marie and funded by the Sorbonne. However France was too absorbed by the onset of World War I to pay any attention to lab work. Hearing of a German attack on Paris, Marie moved her children to Brittany and her radium to Bordeaux. She devoted her time to equipping French ambulances with X-ray machines to help diagnose battle injuries. She used the new Radium Institute to train men and women in wartime X-ray techniques, then sent them to the field. Her daughter, Irène, continued her own studies in radiation, earning degrees in physics, mathematics, and chemistry from the Sorbonne.
Curie’s health was in decline by the end of the war, as she developed a buzzing in her ears and cataracts; at 54, she appeared to be an old woman. She toured various east coast American universities in early 1920, and accepted a gram of radium from President Warren Harding on May 20 th. Also in 1920, Marie saw Poland become an independent state, one of her childhood dreams.
Toward the end of her life, Eve cared for her mother at home while Irène accompanied her mother to the Radium Institute. In 1923, Marie was awarded a large annual pension by the French government, and traveled to Warsaw in 1925 to lay the cornerstone for another Radium Institute. In 1934, Marie’s health worsened, leading to her death on July 4; her bone marrow had been so damaged by radiation that it did not react to her bouts of flue and bronchitis. The next year, Irène and her husband won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work with artificial radiation.
In 1995, Marie and Pierre’s remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris. Marie is the only woman to be interred in “France’s monument to its ‘great men’” (Dry 127).
Dry, Sarah, Curie.
Oglivie, Marilyn Bailey, Marie Curie: A Biography.