The following is a Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women.


Marie Curie

Remarkable Scientist


Marie Curie, renowned scientist in her own right and co-discoverer of radium with her husband, Pierre, made possible many of the major medical diagnostic techniques that we all take for granted today. Anyone who has ever had an x-ray owes Marie Curie a debt of gratitude, not only for her scientific research, but for her tireless work to set up and use x-ray machines on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. Madame Curie was the special guest of honor at the dedication of Hepburn Hall for Chemistry at St. Lawrence University in 1929.

Born Manya Sklodowska in Warsaw, on November 7, 1867, she was the fifth and youngest child of Bronsilawa Boguska, a pianist, singer, and teacher, and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Even as a very young girl she was fascinated by her father’s physics equipment, and like him she was quiet and studious. A talented student with a prodigious memory, she won a gold medal on completion of her secondary education at the Russian lycée at the age of 16.

She spent the next eight years working as a tutor and a governess to earn enough money to attend the Sorbonne in Paris, studying mathematics and physics in her spare time. In November 1891, Maria left Poland and registered at the Sorbonne under the French version of her first name, "Marie." At the Sorbonne she met physicists who were already well known--Jean Perrin, Charles Maurain, and Aimé Cotton. Living in Spartan conditions, she graduated first in her class in physical sciences in 1893. She began to work in Lippmann's research laboratory and in 1894 placed second in mathematical sciences. During the spring she met Pierre Curie, a highly acclaimed professor at the School of Physics. They married on July 26, 1895, launching one of the most significant scientific partnerships in history.

Their research partnership was as unique and unusual as the subject of their scientific inquiry. Marie and Pierre Curie worked side by side in the laboratory during the day and studying together in the evening. Their first daughter, Irène, was born in 1897. Marie decided to pursue her doctorate in physics, focusing on the source of the mysterious rays given off by uranium for her thesis, a phenomenon scientist Henri Becquerel had first observed in 1896.

Curie set up her laboratory in a small, glass-walled shed at the School of Physics during the spring of 1898. Within two months she had made two important discoveries: the intensity of the rays was in direct proportion to the amount of uranium in the sample, and nothing she did to alter the uranium affected the rays. This led her to formulate the theory that the rays were the result of something happening within the atom itself, a property she called radioactivity.

Her husband began helping her in her research that summer. Confining their study to pitchblende because it emitted the strongest rays, they developed a painstaking refining method that required them to process tons of the mineral to obtain a tiny sample of radioactive material. They uncovered a new radioactive element they named polonium in honor of Marie's native Poland. They identified an even stronger radioactive element, which they named radium. Although they announced their discovery in 1898, it was 1902 before they were able to isolate enough radium to confirm its existence. This earned Marie Curie her doctorate (the first awarded to a woman in Europe) and both Curies the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics.

With this honor came immediate international fame and enough money to ease some of their financial burdens. After the birth of their second daughter, Eve, in December 1904, Curie rejoined her husband in the laboratory. The French government wanted to reward the Curies by creating a new professorship in physics at the Sorbonne for Pierre and building a new laboratory for Marie. But tragically, Pierre died in a Paris street in 1906 after his skull was crushed by the wheel of a heavily loaded horse-drawn wagon when he absentmindedly stepped into its path. After the accident, Curie confided to her diary that she wondered how she could continue to work in their laboratory, "where I never thought I would have to live without you."

Following Pierre’s death, Marie accepted his physics professorship at the invitation of the Sorbonne, making her the university's first woman faculty member. She continued to work in her laboratory, determined to isolate pure polonium and pure radium to remove any remaining doubts about the existence of the two new elements. Her efforts were rewarded with a second Nobel Prize in 1911.

Throughout World War I, Maria Curie, with the help of her daughter Irène, devoted herself to the development of the use of X-radiography. She trained the army's radiologist nurses at what is now known as the Curie Institute and received approval to operate X-ray machines on the battlefield so that the wounded could receive immediate treatment. Within two years she had established 200 permanent X-ray units throughout France and Belgium.

After the war ended, Curie campaigned to raise funds for a hospital and laboratory devoted to radiology, the branch of medicine that uses X rays and radium to diagnose and treat disease. An American journalist named Marie Meloney heard about Curie's efforts and invited her to tour the United States to publicize the project in 1921. Accompanied by her two daughters, Maria Curie sailed to the United States, where President Warren G. Harding presented her with a gram of radium bought as the result of a collection among American women. She returned to France with enough radium, money, and equipment to outfit her new laboratory.

AAUW Generosity Highlighted in Marie Curie’s Efforts to Obtain Radium

Under the Microscope, a site dedicated to stories about women in science, recently published a post about Marie Curie’s efforts to obtain the radium she needed to continue her research. Her quest brought her to the United States, where she was promised financial help from the women of America. Sam Lemonick writes that the Marie Curie Radium Fund Committee raised $156,413 (about $1.66 million in today’s dollars) and describes AAUW’s contributions along with Curie’s thank-you note to AAUW members. The post, titled “A Little Radium Goes a Long Way,” also mentions AAUW’s long history of giving, which dates back to 1888.

Following her successful trip to the US, Curie began speaking at meetings and conferences throughout the world and had great success as a fundraiser for the Radium Institute. Curie served on the council of the League of Nations and on its international committee on intellectual cooperation. Five years before her death, Madame Curie was the special guest at St. Lawrence University for two days in October 1929 for the dedication of Hepburn Hall of Chemistry. She was in the United States to accept a gift from President Herbert Hoover. She was presented with a honorary doctorate of science degree by the university.

Although the dangers of radiation are well understood now, many of the researchers who investigated these “mysterious rays” in the early part of the 20th century handled these radioactive elements with bare hands and no precautions. By the end of the 1920s, Curie began to suffer almost constantly from fatigue, dizziness, and a low-grade fever. She also experienced a continuous humming in her ears and a gradual loss of eyesight. In the early 1930s Curie's health continued to worsen, and doctors diagnosed pernicious anemia caused by the cumulative effects of radiation exposure. She died on July 4, 1934, at the mountain sanitarium where she had gone to recuperate.

Marie Curie lived long enough to see her investigation into uranium give birth to an entirely new scientific discipline, atomic physics. Perhaps the most famous of all women scientists, Maria Sklodowska-Curie is notable for her many firsts:

This spirit of unquenchable scientific inquiry inspired two other generations of Curie women to continue Marie’s work. Her daughter Irène (born Sept. 12, 1897), who worked with her mother during World War I on medical x-rays, continued to experiment with radioactive elements in conjunction with Frederic Joliot, whom she had married in 1926. Their work prepared the way for the discovery of the neutron by Sir James Chadwick and their own discovery of artificial radioactivity in 1934, for which they received a Nobel Prize in 1935 in chemistry. The more distinguished scientist of the two, Irène was awarded the Barnard Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Science in 1940. She authored 54 books on scientific subjects.

Irène’s daughter, Dr. Helene Langevin-Joliot has made several contributions in the field of radioactivity. She is a Professor of Nuclear Physics and Chemistry at the University of Paris, and a member of the scientific advisory committee to the French Parliament. In 1997 she made a tour of universities and schools in the United States to encourage women to pursue careers in science from the example of the career of her remarkable grandmother who achieved world renown at a time when a women scientist operated in a male-dominated society.

Marie’s younger daughter, Eve, researched and her mother’s biography, Madame Curie. She later wrote Journey Among Warriors, a chronicle of her travel to the fronts of World War II. Eve Curie moved to England in 1940. In 1952, she was appointed Special Adviser to the Secretary General of NATO and served on its International Staff until she and Henry R. Labouisse were married in 1954. They traveled extensively for his job with UNICEF.

A footnote to the story of Marie Curie is that in April 1995 Marie and Pierre Curie’s remains were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris, France, “the memorial to the nation's great men.'" Madame Curie was the first women to be honored in such a way for the achievements she made in physics.

To learn more about Marie Curie, take this WALKING TOUR and walk in the footsteps of the world's most famous woman physicist.

A major new exhibit has been mounted on the Web to explain the life and work of Marie Curie. "Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity" is offered by the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, already known for its award-winning exhibits on Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and other scientists. The new exhibit was written by Naomi Pasachoff, author of a book on Madame Curie aimed at high-school students, and it is expected that the largest number of viewers will be young women and girls with an interest in science. The exhibit covers every aspect of Marie Curie's career, including her turbulent youth, her entry into science and the discoveries that won her two Nobel prizes, her marriage and complex emotional life, her creation of medical services at the Front during the First World War, her foundation of the Radium Institute as a world scientific center, and her legacy including her daughter Irène, another Nobel-winning scientist. The exhibit is augmented by 90 striking illustrations and English translations of articles by Marie Curie, plus supplementary pages explaining the science of radioactivity in simple language. The entire exhibit has been checked and corrected by leading historians of science, with the cooperation of the French Association Curie et Joliot-Curie and the Museum and Archives of the Radium Institute, Paris.

For more information, visit this website.


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