Marie Sklodowska Curie

The Polish-born French physicist Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) pioneered radioactive research by her part in the discovery of radium and polonium and in the determination of their chemical properties.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw on Nov. 7, 1867, the youngest of the five children of Wladislaw and Bronislava Boguska Sklodowska. Marie was a brilliant student, gaining a gold medal upon completing her secondary education in 1883. As girls could not attend universities in Russian-dominated Poland, Marie at her father's suggestion spent a year in the country with friends. On returning to her father's house in Warsaw the next summer, she had to begin to earn her living through private tutoring, and she also became associated with the "Floating University," a group of young men and women who tried to quench their thirst for knowledge in semiclandestine sessions. In early 1886 she accepted a job as governess with a family living in Szczuki, but the intellectual loneliness she experienced there only stiffened her determination to achieve somehow her dream to become a university student. One of her sisters, Bronya, was already in Paris, successfully passing the examinations in medicine. In March 1890 she offered hospitality to Marie whose acceptance was a foregone conclusion, but it was not until September 1891 that she could leave for Paris.

When classes began at the Sorbonne in Paris in early November 1891, she enrolled as a student of physics. By 1894 she was desperately looking for a laboratory where she could work on her research project, the measurement of the magnetic properties of various steel alloys, and it was suggested that she see Pierre Curie at the School of Physics and Chemistry of the University of Paris. Their first meeting was movingly recorded in the future Madame Curie's recollections: "He seemed very young to me although he was then age thirty-five. I was struck by the expression of his clear gaze and by a slight appearance of carelessness in his lofty stature. His rather slow, reflective words, his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and young, inspired confidence. A conversation began between us and became friendly; its object was some questions of science upon which I was happy to ask his opinion."

Although she was insistent from the very start that she would go back to Poland in half a year to assist her subjugated country in whatever way she could, Pierre Curie was most intent to see her more and more often. The result was that she returned to Paris in October 1894 after spending the summer months in Poland. The next summer witnessed their wedding and the beginning of a most extraordinary partnership in scientific work. By mid-1897 Curie could list as her scientific achievements two university degrees, a fellowship, and a monograph on the magnetization of tempered steel. Their first daughter, lrène, had just been born, and it was in that euphoric atmosphere that the Curies' attention turned to the mysterious radiation from uranium recently discovered by Antoine Henri Becquerel. It was Curie's hunch that the radiation was an atomic property and therefore had to be present in some other elements as well. Her search soon established the fact of a similar radiation from thorium, and the historic word "radioactivity" was coined by her.

While searching for other sources of radioactivity, the Curies had before long to turn their attention to pitchblende, a mineral well known for its uranium content. To their immense surprise the radioactivity of pitchblende far exceeded the combined radioactivity of the uranium and thorium contained in it. From their laboratory two papers reached the Academy of Sciences within 6 months. The first, read at the meeting of July 18, 1898, announced the discovery of a new radioactive element, which the Curies named polonium after Curie's native country. The other paper, announcing the discovery of radium, was read at the December 26 meeting.

To substantiate the existence of the new elements and to establish their properties, the Curies had to have sufficiently large quantities. Fortunately, the Austrian government was willing to give the Curies a ton of pitchblende, but to process it a laboratory was needed. After long search, the Curies had to settle for a shed occupying part of a courtyard in the School of Physics and Chemistry. From 1898 to 1902 the Curies processed several tons of pitchblende, but it was not only the extremely precious centigrams of radium that rewarded their superhuman labors. The Curies also published, jointly or separately, during those years a total of 32 scientific papers. Among them was the one which announced that diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium.

From abroad came the full measure of recognition which the French Academy of Sciences refused to give in 1902, when Pierre Curie presented himself as candidate for membership. In November 1903 the Royal Society in London gave the Curies one of its highest awards, the Davy Medal; and a month later followed the announcement from Stockholm that three French scientists, A. H. Becquerel and the Curies, were the joint recipients of the Nobel Prize in physics for 1903. Finally even the academics in Paris began to stir and a chair in physics was created at the University of Paris, and a few months later Curie was appointed director of research associated with the new chair. In December 1904 their second daughter Ève, was born; while the next year brought the election of Pierre Curie to the Academy of Sciences and their travel to Stockholm, where he delivered on June 6 the Nobel lecture, which was in fact their joint address. Its concluding paragraph evoked in prophetic words the double-edged impact on mankind of every major scientific advance. Still Pierre Curie asserted his conviction that "mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries."

The illustrious husband-and-wife team, now installed in more appropriate academic positions, had, however, their happy days numbered. The first academic year of Pierre Curie in his new professorship was not over when, on the rainy mid-afternoon of April 19, 1906, he was run down by a heavy carriage and killed instantly. Two weeks later the widow was asked to take over her late husband's post. Honors began to pour in from scientific societies all over the world on a woman left alone with two small children and with the gigantic task of leadership in radioactivity. In 1908 she began to give as titular professor at the Sorbonne the first, and then the only, course on radioactivity in the world. In the same year she edited the collected works of her late husband, and in 1910 she published her massive Traitéde radioactivité. The next year the Academy of Sciences showed once more its true colors by denying with a one-vote majority the membership to the person who 11 months later became the first to receive twice the Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry.

In addition to the Nobel Prize the two finest honors that came to Curie in 1911 were her election as permanent member of the Solvay Conferences in physics and the erection in Warsaw of the Institute of Radioactivity, whose directorship was offered to her by a most distinguished group of Polish intellectuals. The first of these honors reflected on her stature as a scientist. The second honor was more of an emotional satisfaction and represented some temptation for her to turn her back on the unappreciative scientific establishment of her adopted country. But she decided to stay in France, though she did her best to assist the new institute in Warsaw in every possible way. A most important factor in Curie's decision to stay was the future of the laboratory which Dr. P. P.E. Roux, the director of the Pasteur Institute, proposed to build for her. The plan finally jolted the Sorbonne to join hands with the Pasteur Institute in establishing the famous Radium Institute. Its dedication took place in July 1914, a year after the institute in Warsaw had been dedicated in her presence.

Curie devoted much of her time during the 4 years of World War I to equipping automobiles in her own laboratory with x-ray (Roentgen) apparatus to assist the sick. It was these cars that became known in the war zone as "little Curies." By the end of the war Curie was past her fiftieth year with much of her physical energy already spent, together with her savings, which she had patriotically invested in war bonds. But her dedication seemed to be inexhaustible. The year 1919 witnessed her installation at the Radium Institute, and 2 years later her book La Radiologie et la guerre was published. In it she gave a most informative account of the scientific and human experiences gained for radiology during the war. With the end of the war also came the appointment of her daughter Irène, a physicist, as an assistant in her mother's laboratory.

Shortly afterward, a momentous visit took place in the Radium Institute. The visitor was Mrs. William B. Meloney, editor of a leading magazine in New York and representative of those countless women who for years had found in Curie their ideal and inspiration. A year later Meloney returned to tell her that a nationwide subscription in America had produced the sum of $100,000 needed to purchase a gram of radium for her institute. She was also asked to visit the United States with her daughters and collect in person the precious gift. Her trip was a triumph in the finest sense of the word. In the White House, President Warren G. Harding presented her with the golden key to the little metal box containing the radium.

On questions other than scientific, Curie rarely uttered public comment of any length. One of the exceptions was her statement at a conference in 1933 on "The Future of Culture." There she rallied to the defense of science, which several panelists held responsible for the dehumanization of modern life. "I am among those," she emphasized, "who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanism, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty."

The most heartwarming experience of the last phase of Curie's life was probably the marriage of Irène in 1926 to Frédéric Joliot (later Joliot-Curie), the most gifted assistant at the Radium Institute. Before long it was evident to her that their union would be a close replica of her own marvelously creative partnership with Pierre Curie.

She worked almost to the very end and succeeded in completing the manuscript of her last book, Radioactivité. In the last years her great support was her younger daughter, Ève. She was also her mother's faithful companion when, on July 4, 1934, death claimed the one of whom Albert Einstein aptly said, "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted."


Further Reading on Marie Sklodowska Curie

The classic biography of Marie Curie, written by her daughter, Ève Curie, is Madame Curie (trans. 1937), a work which emphasizes the human element. Nobel Lectures: Physics, 1901-1921 (1967), published by the Nobel Foundation, includes a biographical sketch. General background works which discuss Curie include Gerald Holton and Duane H. D. Roller, Foundations of Modern Physical Science (1958), and Henry A. Boorse and Lloyd Motz, eds., The World of the Atom (2 vols., 1966).