Society - People
By: - at October 14, 2013

15 Interesting Facts about Marie Curie

Marie Curie whose real name was Manya Sklodowska, was born on November 7, 1867. She was not French as many people believe but she was actually of Polish descent. At the time, Poland was split into three sections, each controlled by larger countries. Marie Curie’s place of birth, Warsaw, was under Russian control at the time. This was unfortunate for her, since she had a fascination for science ever since she was a child. Before she could benefit from in-school laboratory science instruction, Russian authorities put a stop to a majority of academic programs, along with most of the scientific opportunities available in Poland. Fortunately for her, her father worked around the obstacles associated with growing up in Russian-controlled Poland. He taught her how to be flexible, and how to slip around rules and regulations during her life. The skills she acquired would serve her well, which is seen in her dedication in getting a college education and rightfully receiving her first Nobel Prize for her actions during World War I.

Marie Curie Walking with Members of Standard Chemical Company
Marie Curie Walking with Members of Standard Chemical Company

Marie Curie was intellectually curious from a young age, and her interest in science would only grow as her career progressed.

15)  Marie Curie Took After Her Father
Manya Sklodowska’s father, Wladyslaw Sklodowska, was a renowned math and physics teacher. He also directed two gymnasium programs for boys (gymnasium refers to a school in Germany, Scandinavia, or central Europe that prepares pupils for university entrance). Russian authorities ended laboratory instruction in Polish schools, so Wladyslaw brought the lab equipment home. He taught his five children, including Manya, how to use it. She took after both her parents in that she was inquisitive and bright, but more after her father with her strong interest in scientific research. She attended a boarding school at age 10, then switched to a gymnasium for girls.

Wladyslaw Sklodowski with Daughters (from left) Manya, Bronislawa, and Helena
Wladyslaw Sklodowski and Daughters Maria, Bronislawa, and Helena

In June of 1883 at the age of 15, she graduated secondary school at the top of her class. She wanted to attend college and study scientific research, as did her older sister, Bronya. Unfortunately, the University of Warsaw did not admit women. To get a college education, both sisters would have to leave Poland and search for educational opportunities in other countries. At 17, she found employment as a governess and used her income to help support Bronya’s medical education in Paris. From 1890 to 1891, Manya began practical scientific training at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in a chemical laboratory. In late 1891, she left for France for the Sorbonne, where she enrolled under the name Marie.

14)  Despite Being Unprepared, Marie Threw Herself into Her Studies
Marie arrived in Paris in November of 1891. She enrolled at the Sorbonne in the fall of 1891. Early on she lived with Bronya, and then Bronya married a fellow Polish patriot, Casimir Dluski, whom she met in medical school. The Dluski home was unfortunately an hour away from the Sorbonne, which was a very long commute either on horseback or by horse-drawn coach. That meant she wasted money on fares, as well as losing hours of studying every day of her commute. She soon moved to the Latin Quarter, a neighborhood mostly made up of students and artists that was much closer to Sorbonne. Just so she could afford rent, she often lived off of bread and tea. In winter, just to stay warm she wore almost all of her clothes layered on top of one another.

marie curie

Marie also found she was was not very well prepared for the rigors of the Sorbonne’s physics, chemistry, and mathematics programs. On top of that, she lacked a working knowledge of French. Determined to overcome these problems, she threw herself into her studies, dedicating all of her time to academics. Despite her hardships in the summer of 1891, she completed her master’s degree in physics and was first in her class. The next year, she finished second in her master's degree program in mathematics.

13)  Marie Was Commissioned to Do a Study Before She Even Finished Her Mathematics Master’s Program
Before completing her master’s mathematics degree program, Marie was commissioned to do a study on the magnetic properties of different steels related to their chemical compositions by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. However, they did not provide a lab space, so she had to hunt for a lab on her own. She mentioned her need for space to an acquaintance of hers, a Polish physicist, in the spring of 1894. Her acquaintance had a colleague named Pierre Curie, who had pioneered magnetism research and was in a good position to help Marie. Pierre was the laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Marie’s acquaintance didn’t realize Pierre’s own facilities were inadequate for Marie's needs, but facilitated their meeting anyway.

Pierre and Marie Curie in the Lab
Pierre and Marie Curie in the Lab

Marie did find space at the school but not very much. While she worked, her relationship with Pierre evolved from a deep mutual respect into love. Pierre was eight years older than her, a difference that didn’t matter much to either of them. More importantly, they considered themselves to be colleagues in the scientific world, which was something they valued deeply about each other.

12)  Marie’s Child is Born Just Before She Begins Working with Radiation
Marie pushed Pierre to write about his research into magnetism, which earned him his physics doctorate in March, 1895 after 15 years of research. Marie was determined to earn her own doctorate. Marie and Pierre married in a civil ceremony in July 1895. Marie Curie not only managed their household and her professional responsibilities of researching the magnetism of steel, but also decided to earn a certificate to teach science to young women. She finally finished her steel magnetism research in the summer of 1897, and used part of her earnings from it to repay the scholarship that allowed her to earn her master’s in mathematics. Just months later, Marie gave birth to their first child. She would track Irène’s development just as meticulously as she tracked her experiments and studies in science.

Pierre, Irene, and Marie Curie
Pierre, Irene, and Marie Curie

Her mother-in-law died weeks after her daughter’s birth, and Marie, Pierre, their daughter, and Pierre’s father who was the doctor who delivered Irène, moved into a house together. The family hired a servant to take care of chores, and Marie trusted her father-in-law to care for Irène. She was able to focus her efforts in the lab, without worrying about Irène.

11)  Working with Radioactive Elements Without Protection
In December 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a kind of ray from cathode tubes that could pass through black paper, leaving light on another object. These rays, which he named X-rays because “X” indicates an unknown quantity in mathematics, could pass through human tissue or wood, but not through bone.

Early Researches Experimenting with X-Rays
Early Researches Experimenting with X-Rays

early xrayIn February of 1896, Henri Becquerel found that uranium crystals would leave strong, clear images on photographic plates, even if they were left in the dark. The larger scientific community focused on X-rays, and mostly left the weaker uranium rays alone.

Becquerel’s findings caught Marie’s attention. She wouldn’t have a backlog of papers to read, since there were only a few previous experiments. She began experimenting with uranium-containing ore on her own right away. Marie performed many experiments all without shielding, before she confidently confirmed Becquerel’s observation that uranium rays’ electrical effects are constant, no matter the condition of uranium used in the experiments. She also studied several different uranium compounds, confirming that minerals with more uranium gave off the most intense rays, confirming Becquerel’s conclusion. She then went a step further with Becquerel’s findings, and postulated that uranium rays were an atomic property of elemental uranium.

10)  Earning Marie’s Doctorate and Isolating Radioactive Elements
Marie decided to test all known chemical ores, in order to see if others emitted Becquerel rays just like uranium did. To simplify it, she termed elements that gave off such rays “radioactive” in 1898. Pierre set aside his own work to help her with her monumental task, because Pierre was very interested in what Marie was studying. All their tests showed that two ores, pitchblende and chalcolite, were far more radioactive than elemental uranium.

marie curie

Because of the volume of pitchblende donated by the Austrian government, Marie and Pierre had to move from Marie’s small lab to an old shed where they processed the ore. It took hard work and many experiments to discover how to separate pitchblende into its constituent chemical components. When they’d finally broken it down as much as they could, they found that one component mostly containing barium and a second component containing mostly bismuth were both strongly radioactive. They published their findings in July 1898, naming the bismuth compound’s radioactive element polonium. By the end of the year, they managed to isolate radium.

Bismuth Crystal
Bismuth Crystal

In June 1903, Marie presented her formal thesis and became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in physics.

9)  Feeling the Effects of Handling Radioactive Materials Without Protection or Shielding
In 1900 the Curies presented that materials containing radium, emitted their own light and almost appeared to be glowing. They published their entire processes for separating radium in great detail without ever applying for a patent. They both felt scientists should devote themselves to research for the good of all mankind, and not just to further their own careers. Besides, they had no reason to believe that there was any money to be made with radium research.

Early X-ray Procedure with Minimal Shielding
Early X-ray Procedure with Minimal Shielding

They were quite wrong.

Pierre had done work on living organisms, including himself, which showed that radium could damage tissue. Soon radium was heralded as a “miracle” drug because it was believed that it could be used to treat cancer. A French industrialist, Armet de Lisle, collaborated with the Curies beginning in 1904, with de Lisle receiving suggestions on how best to treat pitchblende. The Curies received large samples of radioactive material in order to conduct further research.

1903 Nobel Prize
1903 Nobel Prize

Beginning in 1900, after Pierre had deliberately exposed himself to radium for hours, and he started suffering extreme fatigue and sharp pains all throughout his body. Pierre gave his Nobel lecture in 1905, despite receiving the award in 1903. The Curies had gotten so sick from handling radioactive material without any shielding, that they could not attend the 1903 ceremony.

8)  The Many Ups and Downs Beginning in 1903
In 1903, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Henri Becquerel. Before this, Pierre had been fruitlessly looking for a job. Between the financial windfall of the prize and the credentials that came from winning it, many opportunities for the Curies began presenting themselves. Pierre was appointed to a Sorbonne physics chair where he would introduce medical students to physics, chemistry, and natural history, or PCN. He was also offered the Legion of Honor that year, but we would reject the position.

In 1903, Pierre applied for the Sorbonne chair of mineralogy, but he was rejected. Further, he didn’t receive any workable lab space with his PCN chair. His pain attacks from radiation exposure became more frequent, and Marie had a miscarriage.

Photograph of Marie Curie
Photograph of Marie Curie

In December 1904, Marie gave birth to their second daughter who they named Eve. They also spent some of the money they received for the Nobel Prize on improving their lab and working environment.

Pierre’s health continued to worsen. By April of 1906 he was ill, tired, and quite possibly may have contracted bone cancer. On April 19, he slipped in front of a horse-drawn cart, the rear wheel of the cart crushed his skull. In his memory, Marie was appointed to his PCN chair in his stead.

7)  Marie’s Strides in the Academic Establishment and Beyond
After Pierre’s death, Marie took over his Sorbonne teaching post for PCN. She was the first female professor in history to teach at Sorbonne. To deal with the loss of her husband and professional partner, Marie kept a journal that she treated as though she was talking to Pierre. After a month she returned back to her lab, began teaching at the Sorbonne, and refused a widow’s pension for which she was entitled to. Her first lecture to her husband’s physics class helped Marie gain acceptance as the brilliant scientist that she was, regardless of her gender. She began participating in scientific conferences, despite being the only woman who was in attendance. This included the Solvay Congress in Physics, where other famous scientists including Max Planck and Albert Einstein attended. 

1911 Solvay Conference - Curie is Sitting at the Table
1911 Solvay Conference - Curie is Sitting at the Table

In 1910, she succeeded in isolating radium metal. The same year, she defined an international standard unit for measuring radioactive emissions, which came to be named after her: the curie. Even with all of her achievements, it still wasn't enough for the French Academy of Sciences to vote her in as a member in 1911. She only lost by one or two votes, and many believe this had a lot to do with the mere fact that she was a woman.  Rebounding from that loss in 1911, Marie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, her second Nobel Prize.

Curie's Nobel Prize from 1911
Curie's Nobel Prize from 1911

6)  Loss and Scandal After Pierre’s Death
Marie managed to make many strides in the scientific community after Pierre died, including founding the Radium Institute. It seemed that everything was going well in Marie's life, but unfortunately that was not the case. In February 1910, Pierre’s father died and Irène took this especially hard, considering she had formed a close bond with him since her infancy. Marie now had to hire Polish governesses to care for her younger daughters.

In 1911, when Marie was a candidate for the vacant seat for a physicist in the French Academy of Sciences, the right-wing press worked hard to tarnish her image. They spread rumors that she was Jewish, and they argued that she wasn’t truly French. The slanderous campaigns against her worked.

Pictured from Left - Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest, Paul Langevin, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, and Pierre Weiss
ictured from Left - Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest, Paul Langevin, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, and Pierre Weiss

Even worse than the questions of her nationality and religion, was the scandal of Marie’s affair with Paul Langevin which was made public. They fell in love, despite the fact that Langevin was still married to his estranged wife and had four children at home. His wife started divorce proceedings in order to legally separate from him. Rumors about Marie and Langevin spread throughout the summer, and in the fall of 1911, the press released alleged intimate letters between the two lovers. The public’s reaction was immediate and harsh. Marie came home from a conference to find a mob outside her home in response to the recently publicized rumors. She and her daughters had to seek refuge at a friend’s home to stay away from newspaper people, and to hide from the constant headlines that talked about her affair.

5)  Marie’s Involvement in World War I
When World War I broke out in 1914, Marie put her radioactivity research on hold. Germany dropped its first three bombs on Paris on September 2, 1914. Marie had a shortage of researches because all of them had been drafted for the war effort. Her lab was moved from the Radium Institute, and research at the facility would have to wait until peacetime. She looked for productive ways to utilize radiology in order to help assist the war effort.

Marie Curie Driving Mobile X-ray Van
Marie Curie Driving Mobile X-ray Van

She realized that X-rays could save soldiers’ lives by allowing doctors to see breaks, bullets, and shrapnel inside their bodies without performing exploratory surgery. However, there couldn’t be permanent X-ray machines on the front lines. Instead, she convinced the government to give her financing in her efforts to set up the country’s first mobile military radiology centers. She gathered automobiles, convinced body shops to modify cars into vans, and managed to get manufacturers to donate medical equipment. Less than two months after Germany first bombed Paris, Marie had the first of 20 radiology vehicles ready. French soldiers soon called them petites Curies.

mobile x-ray truck

She learned to drive a car, operate the radiology equipment, and handle mechanical problems on automobiles on her own. She and Irène made their first trip to the front in late 1914.

4)  Marie and the Postwar Era
Marie started campaigning to raise funds for the Radium Institute shortly after World War I ended, and she began with French benefactors who had money to spare. In May 1920, Marie gave an interview to Mrs. William Brown Meloney, who was the editor of an American women’s magazine. Marie discussed the needs of the Radium Institute and that research was just starting to begin there again. Her lab was well-equipped, but she didn’t have more than a gram of radium. Meloney soon organized a campaign to get Marie more radium for her research. The next year, Marie crossed the Atlantic for a much-publicized visit to the United States, and President Harding presented her with a gram of radium.

Marie Curie

In 1920, 25 years after Marie discovered radium, the French government granted her a stipend. Louis Pasteur was the last scientist to receive a stipend from the French government. Before she left for the United States, the French also  offered her the Legion of Honor and like her husband Pierre, she declined their offer.

She began traveling to other countries, lecturing and making public appearances. Her Radium Institute would produce four more Nobel Prize winners, among them Irène and Irène’s husband. In August 1922, Marie became a member of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.

3)  Marie Curie’s Later Years, Death, and Legacy
For years, Marie suffered from muscle aches and constant fatigue. Considering how much radioactive material she handled and was exposed to for more than 30 years, it shouldn’t be too surprising that she had negative health consequences. In 1933, her health rapidly went downhill. She developed cataracts and problems with her kidneys, along with a fever and cough. In 1934, she was placed on bed rest, and was no longer able to work. She had aplastic pernicious anemia caused by long-term exposure to radiation. She died on July 4, 1934 before she would see her daughter Irène win a Nobel Prize.

Irène Curie-Joliot and Frédéric Joliot
Irène Curie-Joliot and Frédéric Joliot
By GFHund, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the radium Marie and Pierre discovered, nuclear physicists could examine the structure of atoms. Radium offered a way to treat cancer. It caused reconsideration and restructuring of the foundation of physics, since radium seemed to go against the law of conservation of energy.

Marie herself was a pioneer, breaking down traditional barriers for women interested in the sciences. She did this in two countries and set a worldwide example by attending conferences with other top physicists. She fundamentally changed the relationship between women and science.

2)  Marie Curie Won a Second Nobel Prize, Making Her the First Person to Win or Share Two Nobel Prizes
When Marie Curie conducted her experiments testing uranium compounds with Pierre’s electrometer in 1896, she tested several different samples. Among the samples she tested were pitchblende and chalcolite. She found that pitchblende was four times as active as uranium, and chalcolite was twice as active. This led her to suspect that these minerals contained something more active than uranium. The Curie's intense work led to the isolation of polonium and radium. Separating polonium out of minerals proved to be simple. Marie then had to come up with methods to separate radium from radioactive residues in the containing minerals. In 1902, a ton of pitchblende yielded one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride through differential crystallization.

Marie Curie's Second Nobel Prize
Marie Curie's Second Nobel Prize

In 1910, she isolated pure radium. In 1911, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium, isolation of radium, and her studies of radium’s nature and compounds. This made her the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. To date she is one of four people to do this, and the only person to win them in two different sciences.

1)  Marie Curie Was the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize
marie curieIn 1897, Henri Becquerel discovered spontaneous radiation in uranium. Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, further investigated the phenomenon. Marie considered using uranium rays for her doctoral thesis. In order to test samples for radioactivity, Marie decided to use a kind of electrometer developed by Pierre and his brother fifteen years earlier. She used it on a sample of uranium and discovered that the rays caused air that surrounded the samples to become conductors of electricity. By using the electrometer, she found that the activity of uranium compounds depended on the amount of uranium present, which meshed with her theory that radiation came from the atoms themselves. In 1898, the Curies named the rays given off by uranium “radioactivity”. They also discovered thorium’s radioactivity during the same year. In 1903, Becquerel and the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Becquerel won the prize “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity,” and the Curies “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”. Marie was the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize.

Final Words
Marie Curie changed the face of physics simply by her inquisitive and curious nature. Curiosity ultimately led her to replicate Becquerel’s unintentional experiment. Curiosity led her to use an electrometer to see if uranium electrified the air surrounding it. Curiosity led her to use that same electrometer on several different samples, and then to theorize about why some read more strongly. Curiosity led her to break down minerals to get to the radioactive elements hidden inside them, no matter how little the reward in the form of radioactivity would be. This curiosity ultimately led to her new theory of radiation, led to changes in the very foundation of physics and it led to the CERN supercollider particle accelerator. The effects of Marie Curie’s curiosity and resultant theories, as well as discoveries of previously unknown elements still dictate much of today's scientific community. The inclusion of women in the scientific community is another way she changed science for the better, by becoming the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.





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