Marie Curie – Notable Women in History Series


Amid blatant sexism and regular denigration of her contributions to science, Marie Curie made history in her discovery of not one, but two elements, polonium and radium. She was also the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, and remains the only woman in history to hold two Nobel Prizes.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Russian Federation (now Poland) on November 7, 1867, the youngest of five siblings. Her parents were both educators who believed strongly in the education of their daughters as well as their son. Though Marie was a top student at her secondary school, women were not permitted to attend university. So she and her like-minded sister Bronia moved to France where they could pursue their studies. Marie enrolled at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris, where she subsisted primarily on buttered bread and tea, in order to afford her rent and tuition. Curie graduated with a degree in physics in 1893, and another in mathematics the following year.

Around the time of her graduation, Marie received a commission to do a study on different types of steel and their magnetic properties. Needing a lab in which to work, she was introduced to her future husband, Pierre Curie, who also had some space in his lab for her to work. The pair went on to make scientific history with the discovery of the radioactive element polonium, named after Marie’s homeland of Poland, in 1898. Five years later, in 1903, she and her husband were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, along with French physicist Henri Becquerel, for their work on radioactivity.

Tragedy struck in 1906, when Pierre was killed in a carriage accident. Though naturally devastated by his sudden death, Curie did not want his work or efforts wasted, thus she assumed his position at the Sorbonne, becoming its first female professor. Hundreds of people including students, artists, photographers and celebrities lined up hoping to attend her first lecture. Though she had already made remarkable contributions to science, she still was not seen as an equal by her male counterparts.

Continuing her work with dogged determination, Curie went on to win the Nobel Prize again in chemistry, in 1911, this time entirely of her own accord. Though rumors of an affair had spread earlier in the year, which marred her reputation and sought to undermine her work, winning the prestigious award for a second time served to dispel some of the more sexist notions against the female scientist.

With the arrival of World War I, Curie headed to the frontlines armed with x-ray equipment meant to locate fractures, bullets, and shrapnel in wounded men. The International Red Cross lauded her efforts and made her head of its radiological service. In this position she held training courses for medical orderlies and doctors in the new techniques.

After the war, Curie returned to her pursuit of better understanding radium. She travelled twice to the United States, once in 1921 and again in 1929, where she raised funds to procure radium for the purpose of establishing a radium research institute in Warsaw.

Unfortunately, the long years of radiation exposure took their toll on Marie, and she died in July of 1934. In 1995, both Marie and her husband were reburied at the Panthéon in Paris, where many of France’s greatest minds are interred. Her contributions to science, even in the face of blatant sexism, cannot be discounted. A true scientist and remarkable pioneer, Marie Curie has well earned recognition as a notable woman in history.