Madame Curie


Madame Curie was the physicist with expertise in chemistry that, in 1898, discovered the radioactive substances of radium and polonium in Paris, France. She was the first to isolate pure radium, and was world renowned as the leading expert on radiation. In fact, she coined the term, "radioactivity." The Curies and Henri Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize for Physics because of their discovery of natural radioactivity. Years later, after a brutal political fight, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for determining the atomic weight of radium.

The incredible woman who we all know as Madame Curie came into the world in a different place, and under a different name. Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born on 7 November 1867, in Russian occupied Poland. The circumstances of her youth, and her reactions to them, helped to form the bright, passionate, and dedicated scientist who changed the face of physics forevermore.

Maria was the youngest of five children born into a family of patriotic intellectuals. Her parents were teachers, and supplemented their children’s education with a love of and dedication to learning. Their mother tutored her children privately, and their father patiently played games that taught math and geography.

Both her mother and father were descended from a Polish form of landed gentry. The immediate family no longer held land, but the pride of aristocratic blood still ran through their veins. The Poles were not allowed to speak the Polish language in Warsaw. Several of Maria’s relatives had broken this rule, and had been sent to prison camps in Siberia as a result. These difficult circumstances created a defiant nationalism that brought her loving family even closer.

Maria’s family operated an educational and patriotic underground along with other intellectuals. They hoped to instill within the common people a love for the masterpieces of Polish prose and poetry. Maria emulated this model of education at different times throughout her life.

At fifteen, Maria herself obtained a higher education (forbidden to girls in Poland) from a clandestine, revolving academy for women taught in private homes. Both Maria and her sister Bronia had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Unfortunately, the family was not in a position to financially support the girls’ education. Maria and Bronia came up with a plan: they would save enough money together to support Bronia while she went to medical school in France. Once established, Bronia would then provide a place for Maria. Toward that end, Maria swallowed her pride and took a position as governess in the countryside. There, she educated herself in physics and chemistry late at night. She also secretly tutored peasant children so that they, too, could one day obtain control of their own destinies. She was only eighteen when she performed this dangerous and patriotic act.

Bronia sent for Maria later that year. Maria was concerned for her widower father, and did not take the opportunity to go to Paris until she was finally convinced by him to follow her dream. She was a brilliant student, well respected by her colleagues and professors in a society replete with male chauvinism. In fact, the word for female student, etudiante, was a euphemism for the prostitutes who "served" the male students and professors at the Sorbonne.

She prevailed, and earned her "licence es sciences" in 1893 as one of two female license recipients in the entire university. In 1894, she was one of five women to earn the university’s "licence es mathematiques." She had studied under some of the most important scientific minds of the age. Her name was now Marie, and she was now an official scientist, studying the properties of magnetism for her doctorate in physics. After her studies were completed, she planned to answer the call of duty to country and family, and return to Poland to care for her father. Fate stepped in and introduced a new experience: Pierre Curie.

Marie had reached a point in her research where she needed a laboratory to proceed fruitfully, and told a Polish friend of her problem. This friend knew of another physicist working in Paris who was also working on the properties of magnetism. His name was Pierre Curie; famous in the scientific community for his work on magnetism, and inventions of scientific instruments of fine precision. He and his brother had been acknowledged for their work on crystallography. Pierre Curie was introduced to Marie Sklodowska, and he let Marie work in his laboratory. His mind worked differently from Marie’s--forming equal partners with different perspectives. Their shared insight and ability to concentrate led to mental leaps that changed the course of history in physics and chemistry.

Personally, Pierre was a brilliant, shy, and kind-hearted man whose love of life perfectly complemented Marie’s serious personality. His anti-establishment beliefs blended well with her hatred of Poland’s oppressors. Pierre’s old promise to remain a bachelor dissipated quickly. He now tried to convince Marie not to return to her father in Poland. He wrote of their dreams: her patriotic dream, their humanitarian and scientific ones. They were both convinced that science was the way to save humanity.

They were married in 1895, and rode to their honeymoon on newly purchased wedding gifts: bicycles. People were shocked to see a women in pants, but Marie was unafraid to display her unique qualities, be they mental, spiritual, or athletic. Husband and wife settled in Paris, and sought an interesting project on which to work.

One scientist noticed a mark on a photographic plate that was near uranium. Oblivious to its cause, this scientist called the photography company and ordered a replacement for the "defective" film. Another scientist named Henri Becquerel had observed the same phenomenon when the plates were placed underneath a uranium salt, and placed in the sun. The weather was bad, so he placed the plate and the uranium in a cupboard to wait for a sunny day. Two weeks later, Becquerel noticed that uranium had left a mark even though not exposed to sunlight. This was a great surprise because everyone thought that the shadow (or x-ray) had been created by a chemical reaction with sunlight. He wrote about this phenomenon, which piqued the curiosity of the Marie and Pierre.

The Curies set out to find the cause of this mysterious reaction. Marie began working with pitchblende because it contained uranium, but was cheaper to buy than pure uranium.

Using Pierre’s invention to make the measurements, Marie noted that thorium was radioactive. Then she found that pitchblende was more radioactive than uranium by itself. This led her to deduce that there were other substances within pitchblende that had properties of radioactivity. It was heavy, dirty, and tedious work to separate and measure the various substances, but Marie was able to discover two in 1898. She named one substance polonium, after her motherland of Poland. She named the other radium. She measured the amount of radioactivity, an atomic property, and felt that the radioactivity was proportional to the amount of the element. The Curies tried to compare their rays with Becquerel’s rays, to find the commonalties. Others had performed similar work, but the methodical and precise approach of the Curies that distinguished them from the rest. By 1898, Pierre was focused on understanding the meaning of radium, while Marie took on the formidable task of isolating it. It took three years of tedious work to isolate radium. During this time, there was much excitement and worldwide competition to understand the implications of Marie’s discovery. Before the discovery of radioactivity, gravitational attraction and the force of electro-magnetism had been enough to explain everything. Now there was something new to understand: the spontaneity of radiation. How could an element emit energy by itself, without undergoing conversion? Marie had linked the relationship between radioactivity to individual atoms in her first solo paper. The source of the radioactive energy. however, was still a mystery.

Marie Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1902, but didn’t win. In 1903, a letter was written to nominate Pierre Curie and Becquerel. This letter gave Pierre credit for the discovery of thorium and radium and falsely reported that Becquerel and Pierre Curie worked side-by-side in the laboratory. In reality, they had never worked together. In fact, Pierre had never liked nor trusted Becquerel who was part of the political hierarchy that Pierre so detested. What is even more incredible, is that one of the authors of the fictional letter, Lippmann, was the one to read to French Academy of Sciences the first paper written by Madame Curie on her discoveries of radioactivity. Lippmann was Marie’s mentor. He had also sought funds for her work. Another of the authors supplied Marie with the uranium with which she experimented. All four authors of this nomination letter were fully aware that Marie Curie alone, was responsible for the isolation of a decigram of pure radium. Why did they leave Madame Curie out of the picture? No one knows. Fortunately, Marie had an ally in Sweden who happened to be a most influential of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. He informed Pierre of the nomination letter. Pierre responded, "If it is true that one is seriously thinking about me, I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies." Pierre then referred to the important role, which Marie had played. The Nobel Committee investigated the research done by Becquerel and both of the Curies. The nomination of Marie in 1902 was hurriedly resurrected to include her as a nominee for 1903, and all three received the Nobel Prize.

The Curies had hoped that the Nobel Prize would finally bring the opportunity for a chair at the French Academy and the laboratory that went with it. Instead, it brought unwanted publicity and more responsibility. Both Curies were expected to share their knowledge and teach classes: he at the Sorbonne, and her at Sevres.

Marie Curie was the first female professor at Sevres, a college for girls who wanted to teach higher education. These twenty-year-olds would eventually become professors. Marie was not liked by her pupils during her first year as a professor. By her second year, the students loved her. One student reported that the courses taught by Marie were "the essential reference during the entire length of my career. She didn’t dazzle us, she reassured us, attracted us, held us with her simplicity, her desire to be useful to us, the sense she had of both our ignorance and our possibilities (Quinn, p. 214)." She was the first to take her students into the laboratory to physically manipulate their newly-learned theories. She also taught by example, and invited the physics class to hear the defense of her dissertation. Marie argued for the elimination of additional, difficult tests given only to the female students. She also convinced the dean to provide calculus classes to the female students. Marie wanted the girls to have the tools to succeed in academia and fought tooth and nail to provide every opportunity.

This woman is known for her scientific discoveries and the progress derived from them. Of course her scientific discoveries are impressive and useful. It is also important to understand the kind of woman that she was. Humankind was important to her. She was stubborn, and she hated to lose, but it was her goal to use science to help the world in whatever way possible. Her stubbornness led to tenacity and determination. These qualities promoted the use of her brilliance. The love and support of her family taught Marie to never question the possibilities that stood before her. She was a scientist who turned the world upside down. Not only was she intelligent, she was adventuresome and humorous, compassionate, and playful. She was a wife, friend, and partner to her precious husband. She was a mother who scientifically recorded all pertinent information regarding the physical, mental, and spiritual growth of her children. She took her children to the laboratory, and to the beach. She and her colleagues created a revolving home-school for their children to provide intellectual and spiritual freedom while learning. She was an excellent professor, and a wonderful friend. Don’t let these things be forgotten. For it is her character that produced the skills that changed the world.




Curie, Marie. Radioactive Substances published in Chemical News: London, reprint: New York: Philosophical Library ©1961.

Curie, Marie. Radioactivitie, Tomes 1&2. Paris: Hermann & Cie © 1935

Encyclopedia America ©1996

Encyclopedia Britannica ©1995

Quinn, Susan Marie Curie; A Life New York: Simon & Schuster ©1995

World Book Encyclopedia ©1996


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