Marie Sklodowska Curie

French chemist Marie Sklodowska Curie, co-recipient, with Pierre Curie, of the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics and recipient of the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
French chemist Marie Sklodowska Curie, co-recipient, with Pierre Curie, of the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics and recipient of the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry.


Physicist-chemist Marie Sklodowska Curie, sometimes referred to as the "mother of atomic physics," is perhaps the best-known woman scientist of all time—a legend of twentieth-century science. Cowinner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, she was the first person to be awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911.

Marya Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. Educated in government schools, she worked for several years in Poland as a governess before going to Paris in 1891 for further study. By dint of considerable effort she completed the physics course at the Sorbonne in 1893, and the course in mathematics the following year. She married physicist Pierre Curie in 1895.

Although her first research focused on the magnetic properties of steel, for her doctoral work she moved to the new field of "radioactivity," as it came to be called. Her studies, a continuation of the work of her teacher, physicist Henri Becquerel, developed directly from Becquerel's 1895 observation that uranium minerals emit rays that pass through opaque materials and fog a photographic plate (as well as discharge an electroscope by making the surrounding air conductive). Marie Curie, with the collaboration of her husband, undertook a systematic investigation of the Becquerel radiation to try to discover its source. Their starting material was the residue left after the extraction of uranium from pitchblende, a uranium ore. The fact that this residue was more radioactive than purified uranium oxide suggested it as a likely source for some unknown material more radioactive than uranium.

Her work at this time was done in minimal facilities that had been secured for her by Pierre Curie at the Paris École Municipale de Physique et de Chimie Industrielle, the industrial college at which he was teaching. With the collaboration, initially, of Gustav Bémont, head of the chemistry section of the École Municipale, she took on the laborious task of isolating the postulated unknown material by chemical methods (group separation and fractional crystallization ). Pierre Curie established the electrical properties of the rays emitted by the fractions. In June 1898, following their isolation of a fraction 400 times more radioactive than uranium, the Curies reported the presence in the fraction of what was probably a new element. That element, named polonium by Marie Curie, was the first element discovered via its property of radioactivity. Six months later, working with a different fraction, the Curies discovered a second new element. It was given the name radium. In spite of its still impure state, it had an activity a million times that of uranium.

In 1902 Marie Curie succeeded in isolating one-tenth of a gram (0.0035 ounces) of pure radium chloride from eight tons of pitchblende residue, a task that required an enormous amount of physical labor. The atomic weight of radium she determined to be 225. These results aroused immediate interest. She received her doctoral degree in 1903, her radioactivity investigations forming the major part of her thesis. It was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable doctoral theses ever written. Her Nobel Prize in physics, shared that same year with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie, received unprecedented press coverage. Pierre Curie was appointed to a professorship in physics at the Sorbonne in 1904. He died suddenly in 1906.

From 1900 until 1904 Marie Curie taught physics at a college for women teachers in the Paris suburb of Sèvres. In 1906, after her husband's death, she succeeded to his professorship in physics, becoming the first woman to hold a teaching post at the Sorbonne. Her scientific research continued, and the tremendous world interest in the new field of radioactivity, coupled with her own international prestige, attracted many students and research workers to her laboratory in the period leading up to World War I. To a notable extent, however, she stepped aside from the increasingly competitive field of atomic physics (which she had in part created) after 1906, and left to others, for example, Ernest Rutherford and his colleagues, the further theoretical development of modern atomic theory . Her own work after 1906 tended more toward radiochemistry, and consisted, primarily, of investigations of the radioactive elements (including the substances that came to be called isotopes ) and their disintegration processes and products. A number of her students and coworkers made notable contributions to both radiochemistry and physics that included: the development of instrumentation for the detection of subatomic particles; characterizations of the range (distance traveled from source) and energy of α -particles ; descriptions of the effects of α -particles on chemical processes; investigation of β -rays; and the disintegration products in the thorium series. Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in chemistry (1911) was awarded for her discoveries of radium and polonium, and the isolation of radium and the study of its properties.

The applications of radiation as a diagnostic tool in medicine were quickly recognized. With the coming of World War I, Curie became director of the Red Cross Radiological Service and worked with her daughter Irène to provide radiology stations for the French army. In 1918 she began work at the new Paris Institute of Radium. She continued to lecture at the Sorbonne until 1934, but gradually turned over the leadership of her laboratory at the Institute of Radium to her daughter and her son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot. By the 1920s she was in poor health. The high doses of radiation to which she had been exposed over the years had taken their toll. Despite failing health, to raise funds for the support of the institute, she made several speaking tours in Europe and the United States. Although never accepted into the Paris Academy of Sciences, she was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Medicine. She died on July 4, 1934, of leukemia, misdiagnosed as tuberculosis, in a nursing home in the Département of Haute-Savoie region of France.


Electromagnetic rays emitted by radioactive materials are classifiable into three distinct groups: alpha ( α ), beta ( β ), and gamma ( γ ). Seminal studies by Pierre Curie, the Curie team's major investigator of these rays, include his study of α -rays, his demonstration that β -rays are negatively charged, and his observation (with Marie Curie) that radium causes induced radioactivity.

SEE ALSO Becquerel, Antoine-Henri ; Polonium ; Radioactivity ; Radium ; Rutherford, Ernest ; Thorium ; Uranium .

Mary R. S. Creese


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