Polish-French chemist and physicist
Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska, youngest child of mother Bronsitwa Boguska, a pianist, singer, and teacher, and father Ladislas Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Bronsitwa Sklodowski died of tuberculosis when Marya was only 11 years old, leaving her father Ladislas Sklodowski as Marie's role model. This is where she became interested in the study of physics.
Marya graduated at the top of her high school class when she was only 15. After graduating she worked eight years as a tutor and a governess to earn enough money to attend the Sorbonne in Paris. With her spare time, she studied math and physics on her own and attended what was called a "floating" university, a poorly organized, school conducted by Polish professors in defiance of the Russians then in charge of the educational system. Finally, in November 1891, Marya left Poland and registered at the Sorbonne under the French version of her first name, "Marie."
Despite living in poor conditions that made her ill on several occasions from lack of food and sleep, Marie graduated first in her class in the spring of 1893. A year later, she received her master's degree in mathematics, then remained in Paris to conduct some experiments for a French industrial society. Finding the Sorbonne's laboratories inadequate, Marie set out to learn where she might find the necessary laboratory space and equipment. She then found Pierre Curie, a highly acclaimed professor at the School of Physics. The two scientists shared many of the same beliefs and were immediately attracted to each other. They were married on July 26, 1895.
Marie and Pierre Curie were inseparable, working in the laboratory during the day and studying together in the evening. Even the arrival of their daughter, Irene, in 1897 barely interrupted their routine. By this time, Marie had decided to get her doctorate in physics, and for her thesis she chose to focus on the source of the rays given off by uranium, a theory scientist Henri Becquerel had first discovered in 1896.
Curie set up her equipment in a small, glass-walled shed at the School of Physics. This is where it is said that she discovered radioactivity. Tests she performed on certain minerals such as pitchblende had high levels of radioactivity.
Marie began working on this problem during the spring of 1898, and by summer her husband had devoted his full time to help her in her studies. Confining their study to pitchblende because it emitted the strongest rays, they developed a refining method that required them to process tons of the minerals to obtain just a tiny sample of radioactive material. At last they uncovered a new radioactive element they named polonium after where Marie came from (Poland). They then stumbled across an even stronger radioactive element, which they named radium. Although they announced their discovery on December 26, 1898, it wasn't until March 1902, before they were able to isolate enough radium to confirm its existence which helped earn Marie Curie her doctorate (the first awarded to a woman in Europe) and both Marie and Pierre the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics.
With this honor came international fame and enough money to pay off some of their financial debts (They had supported the radium research with their own money). After the birth of her second daughter, Eve, in December 1904, Marie rejoined her husband in the laboratory.
Shortly thereafter Pierre was killed when he stepped into the path of a horse-drawn wagon on a Paris street. After her husband's death, Marie took over his physics professor job at the invitation of the Sorbonne, making her the university's first woman faculty member. In addition to teaching, Marie also continued to spend time in the laboratory, she then began to isolate pure polonium and pure radium to remove any remaining doubts about the existence of the two new elements. Her success in doing so gave her another Nobel Prize in 1911.
Realizing that her status as a world known celebrity gave her the power to have an impact on causes, Marie began speaking at meetings and conferences throughout the world, gradually becoming more comfortable in the spotlight. She found that people were very willing to support her work, and she had great success as a fund-raiser for the Radium Institute. Marie also lent her name to the cause for world peace by serving on the council of the League of Nations and on its international committee on intellectual cooperation.
As the 1920s drew to a close, Marie began to suffer almost constantly from fatigue, dizziness, and a low-grade fever. She also experienced a humming in her ears and a gradual loss of eyesight that was helped only partially by a series of cataract operations. Even though a number of her colleagues who had worked with radium were displaying many of the same symptoms and others had died at relatively young ages of cancer, for a very long time Marie could not bring herself to admit that the element she and her husband had discovered could possibly be at fault. Soon enough she did accept the fact that radium was dangerous, but she continued to work with it anyway. In the early 1930s, however, Marie's health noticeably worsened, and doctors finally discovered the cause: pernicious anemia caused by the cumulative effects of radiation exposure. The news was kept from the public as well as from Marie herself, and on July 4, 1934, she died at the mountain sanitarium where she had gone to recuperate.
In April 1995 Madame Curie and Pierre's remains were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris, France. Madame Curie is the first woman to be honored in such a way for the achievements she made in physics.