Marie Curie

Marie Curie: An Extraordinary Female Leader

On November 7, 1867, Marie Curie was born to Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland. Both of her parents were teachers – her father of physics, and her mother in charge of a private school for girls. Marie was the youngest of five children. Sophia, the eldest child of the family, died of typhus when Marie was young. When Marie was twelve, her mother died of tuberculosis. Marie was stricken with grief after this and her health was suffering, so she was sent to stay with relatives in the country for a year. During that year, she was allowed to study only French.

            Because women were not permitted to study at conventional universities in Poland, Marie became a governess. During this time, she read to further her education with a focus on science. Her older sister Bronislawa, who lived with her husband in Paris, urged Marie to stay with her. Marie had helped Bronislawa through school, and now Bronislawa wanted to do the same for Marie. Finally, in 1891, Marie went to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. (James, Remarkable physicists: from Galileo to Yukawa.)

            Marie attended school during the day and tutored in the evenings. By 1894, she had two degrees from the Sorbonne – one in physics and one in mathematics. She had been working in a laboratory at Lippman’s since 1893 and continued working there after she got her degree.

In 1894 she met Pierre Curie. Curie was an instructor at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris (ESPCI). Pierre and Marie had a mutual interest in the magnetic properties of several different steels (Marie was studying the subject), and the two quickly fell in love. After she was turned away at Krakow University for work because she was a female, Marie returned to Paris. Pierre and Marie married in July 1895 and eventually had two daughters together.

Marie began studying uranium rays, hoping to come up with a thesis from this field of research. Using an electrometer (invented by her husband and his brother), Marie discovered that radiation came from the individual atom and not a group of molecules. She discovered that the elements thorium and uranium were both radioactive. (“Marie Curie and the Science of

 Marie started research on two metals called pitchblende and torbernite. She discovered that the metals had much more activity than uranium, itself. Her husband quit his research to help her further investigate this discovery. By the end of 1898, the couple had discovered two new elements: polonium (named after Poland) and radium (because of its great amount of radioactivity). Later during World War I, Marie donated tubes of radon (the radioactive gas given off by radium) to the troops to help wounded soldiers. These tubes were commonly called “petites Curies”.

Marie and Pierre won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their research on radiation, which was originally discovered by Henri Becquerel. In 1911, Marie received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium and studying radium more closely. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. Marie also became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was killed. He was crossing the Rue Dauphine in Paris when he fell under a horse drawn carriage. Its wheels crushed his skull. Marie lived twenty-eight more years before dying on July 4, 1934 of aplastic anemia. It has been determined that Marie contracted aplastic anemia from all of her time spent with radiation – which, at that point, had no dangers associated with it. (“Marie Curie.”

In 1995, the remains of Pierre and Marie Curie were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. So far, Marie is the only woman to receive such an honor. Her laboratory is still preserved today at the Musée Curie in Paris. Because of their high level of radioactivity, Marie’s papers are kept in lead lined boxes.

Marie Curie was an incredibly important woman in history. Though many women were not respected during the time in which she lived, Marie overcame the obstacles for her gender by furthering her education and continuing with her work. Not only was she was first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but she also became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. Regardless of her gender, she made great contributions to science and health that will be remembered forever.

Report by CB


About mlleminor

Instructor in MCL French Division at the University of Kentucky
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