Marie Curie: The Woman Who Redefined Physics

She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize. The first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win twice across multiple fields of science.

To revere Madame Marie Curie as anything less than one of the greatest scientists to ever live is to ignore the remarkable impact her work had not just on the sciences, but indeed all around the world.

Born Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. In these dark days, the city that would become the nation’s capital was held under the dominion of the Russian Empire. Curie’s family had been involved in attempts to restore Polish independence – most recently in 1863 – and their desire for freedom had come with a great cost. By the time she had been born, the Sklodowskas had lost their property and substantial fortunes, condemning Curie and her four older siblings to a challenging childhood.

Fortunately, what they lacked in money was made up for in curiosity. Both of her parents were teachers, and throughout her young life she had access to laboratory equipment her father, who taught maths and physics, had brought home when the Russians banned laboratory instruction in schools.

To pay for the costs of living, the family started lodging boarders in their home. Tragically, in 1975, one of these boarders arrived sick from typhus. The disease was contracted by Curie’s oldest sibling, Zofia, who died soon after. Three years later, she was followed by Curie’s mother, who suffered from tuberculosis.

Curie was subsequently sent to the J. Sikorska boarding school, and a gymnasium for girls. At 15, she graduated with the highest honours, but the weight of the past lay heavily upon her. After leaving school, she suffered from what doctors called “a nervous illness” – depression.

She spent the next year recovering in the countryside, but her appetite for knowledge eventually drew her back to Warsaw. Though women could not enrol in higher learning institutions, a so-called ‘floating university’ had been established to make up for this injustice. The students met at night in various locations around the city, in order to avoid attention from the Russian police.

For as much as they appreciated what the floating university offered, Curie and her sister Bronislawa knew that a true education was only possible if they travelled west, into France. Unable to afford such an opportunity individually, they came to a decision; Curie would take up a position as a governess in order to provide financial support to her sister over the following two years. Afterwards, Bronislawa would provide the same for Curie.

“I have a bright remembrance of the sympathetic intellectual and social companionship which I enjoyed at that time. Truly the means of action were poor and the results obtained could not be considerable; yet I still believe that the ideas which inspired us then are the only way to real social progress. You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful,” she wrote in her autobiography.

After a year as a home tutor, Curie moved out to Szczuki to work for her father’s relatives. Here, she met and fell in love with Kazimierz Zorawski, a doctorate student pursuing a career in mathematics. Due to her family’s financial hardships, the notion of marriage was immediately suppressed. Zorawski went on to become chancellor of Krakow University. Years after her death, he could often be found sitting and staring at the statue to Curie erected outside of the Radium Institute which she founded.

Ultimately, Curie wouldn’t leave for Paris until the age of 24, when she felt she had enough money to pay for tuition. Promising to return to her father and homeland after completing her studies, she set off.

In 1891, she enrolled at the University of Paris, pursuing the study of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Though she could afford her classes, she had little money for anything else. Often, Curie would pass out from hunger; sometimes because she couldn’t afford to eat, other times because she was so involved in her work that she forgot to.

Curie received a degree in physics in 1983, and immediately begin work in a laboratory alongside Nobel laureate Gabriel Lippmann. The following year, she received her second degree. Sources differ on whether this degree was in mathematics, or chemistry.

That same year, while studying the magnetic properties of various kinds of steel, Curie met Pierre Curie, an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry. He made space for her in his lab, and eventually proposed marriage as their relationship evolved. Curie initially refused; she had promised to return to Poland. Pierre declared that he would come with her, even if it meant the only job he could get was teaching France.

Eventually, an understanding was formed; Curie would remain in Paris, and together they would pursue doctorates. For Pierre, that was not a ludicrous notion, but at the time, no woman in the world had completed a doctorate in the sciences.

Pierre received his in March of 1895. They married a few months later. Curie then completed her research on magnetism, shortly before giving birth to her first child Irene, and then turned her attention to finding a subject that would allow her to complete a Ph.D.

It was the study of x-rays that would capture her interest. Two years prior, Wilheim Roentgen had discovered the existence of x-rays quite by chance, and they had remained a mysterious subject ever since.

Curie was not given any funding. For a lab, she only had a converted shed at the Paris Municipal School where Pierre was a professor. Damp, small, and stuffy, it served as only a means to an end. Her experiments with uranium – samples of which she would often carry around in her pockets – revealed how the element’s radioactive (a term Curie herself coined) principles functioned regardless of the substance’s composition. Such a state was unheard of, but as Curie continued her research, she found that other elements like thorium acted similarly.

A major discovery came about soon after, when she realised a certain mineral was emitting radiation at unprecedented levels. Was she in the process of discovering a new element? Pierre joined her to find out.

“The idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity. It’s likely that already at this early stage of her career, Curie realised that… many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved,” wrote Robert William Reid in his book, Marie Curie.

It was no easy task. The mineral, pitchblende, contains up to 30 different elements, making identification of each one a slow and careful process.

In July 1898, they found it. Curie and Pierre published a joint paper announcing the discovery of polonium, an element named after her native Poland. Five months later, they found another: radium.

The discovery was momentous, but it took its toll. Curie lost over 10 kilograms, and Pierre was often in pain. The latter had discovered that radiation had a means of damaging living tissue, paving the way for such treatments as modern day chemotherapy, but the pair refused to believe that their suffering was a result of the research.

Between 1898 and 1902, Curie and Pierre wrote and distributed over 32 research papers regarding their work, leading to Curie receiving her doctorate in 1903 from the University of Paris. Shortly after, they were invited to the University of London to present their findings…but because of her sex, Curie was not allowed to speak in front of the Royal Institution.

A new industry revolving around radium sprung up in the wake of their findings, but the Curies had not patented their discovery, and received very few benefits over the years as a result.

What they did receive, however, was a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henry Becquerel”. Marie almost missed out on the award, until committee member and advocate for women in the sciences, mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, joined Pierre in protest.

They did not travel to Stockholm to receive the prize; Pierre was increasingly ill. He would die three years later after being struck by a horse-drawn carriage.

Curie was devastated. After his death, she agreed to replace him as a professor at the University of Paris – becoming the first woman to do so – with the hopes of creating a world-class laboratory in tribute to her husband.

She went on to create the Radium Institute, a radioactive lab developed by funding from the Pasteur Institute, who felt Curie was not receiving due support from the university.

In 1910, Curie finally managed to succeed in isolating radium, and defining a standard for which radioactive emissions were measured: the curie.

Regardless of her findings, she was not elected by the French Academy of Sciences in 1911, and became embroiled in a scandal suggesting she had fallen in love with one of Pierre’s students. She was mobbed at her home and vilified in the press. Curie and her daughters were forced to find refuge with a friend.

The darkness finally broke when Curie was honoured with a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry. The award was granted “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”. She became the first person to win two Nobel prizes, and the first to win across two fields.

Polish scientists tried to entice her home, but Curie ended up taking a 14 month break from the laboratory due to depression and a kidney ailment. She returned her focus to the Radium Institute, intending to complete it by August 1914.

Before that could happen, World War 1 broke out. Curie became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and set up the first radiology service. She made several discoveries during this time, including a way to use radon – the radioactive gas given off by radium – in the sterilisation of infected tissue. Curie tried to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French National Bank to support the war effort, but the organisation refused them.

After the war, Curie toured the United States, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and Czechoslovakia, while continuing to lead the Radium Institute. The institute would produce four more Nobel prize winners, including Irene and her husband, Frederic. She wrote Pierre’s biography, was ordained to the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, and established the Warsaw Radium Institute.

Marie Curie died on July 4th, 1934, from aplastic anemia, likely resulting from her long-term exposure to radiation. Even today, her papers from the 1890s (even her cookbook) are too dangerous to handle. Those who wish to view them can only do so wearing protective clothing.

Her work reshaped the world. “It seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics,” declared Cornell University professor L. Pearce Williams.

Beyond her achievements in the sciences were her achievements as a woman at a time when very few could find a place, let alone success, in the sciences. A feminist precursor, she set the standard for all who would come in her wake.

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