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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, in the Russian partition of Poland. Her birthplace is now home to the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum.
Birthplace on ulica Freta in Warsaw's "New Town" –By Memorino - Wikipedia 

Marie was the fifth and last child of a Warsaw professor, Wladimir. He had a good teaching post in a secondary school but his career was frustrated by the Russian authorities who ruled Poland at the time and determined that prestigious posts went to Russians.

Władysław Skłodowski with daughters (from left) Maria, Bronisława, Helena, 1890

Curie's mother, a principal of a school for girls, died in 1877 of tuberculosis aged 42.

As a teenager Curie was sensitive and idealistic. She wanted to overthrow the Tsarist regime in Poland single-handed. She was bitter about speaking in Polish and being forced to study in Russian.

Marie Curie displayed a powerful intelligence and unusually good memory in her education. She left school in 1883 with many honours but her father still corresponded with her on advanced maths problems.

Curie had to study science secretly in Poland with a group of other interested women in the mid 1880s as the Russians wouldn't let the Poles study it especially females.

Whilst working as a children's governess for a wealthy country family between 1885-91, Curie prepared for university by studying English, French and Russian science text books late into the night.

Curie left her position as governess after the country family refused to let her marry the son.

Marie Curie joined her sister Bronia in Paris in 1891 studying at the Sorbonne. She had to go there as Warsaw University didn't admit women.

As a student in Paris, young Marie was so poor and absorbed in her studies that she found herself fainting through lack of food. Often her meals consisted of buttered bread and tea.

She studied chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne, gaining two masters degrees.

Curie became a research scientist in 1895 starting off with a small grant to research magnetism.

She first met Pierre Curie in spring 1894. One of his first gifts to Marie was a copy of his 1894 paper on Symmetry in Physical Phenomena.


Tall, modest, shy, erudite Pierre was the son of a doctor who had been educated at home and became a bachelor of science aged 16. In 1880 he discovered piezoelectricity which was electricity resulting from the compression of certain types of crystal.

At first Marie hesitated before agreeing to marry Pierre. They eventually wed in a civil ceremony in Sceaux, France on July 26, 1895 as "Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any" (she later wrote). Instead of a bridal gown, Marie chose a dark blue dress.

The Curies spent their honeymoon taking a bicycle tour around the French countryside.

Madame Curie had a Catholic upbringing in her native Poland but by the age of 15 she had abandoned all belief in God. She claims scientists should be interested in things not persons.

Throughout their marriage, the Curies were very much in love and had equal partnership in the laboratory. Like Marie, Pierre was obsessed with science and hard work.

The Curies liked to relax by going for cycle rides in the countryside.

Their first daughter  was born in 1897. The beautiful communist Irene won a Chemistry Nobel Prize for her invention of artificial radioactivity which led the way to the discovery of the neutron particle. Marie and Irene are the only mother-daughter pair to have won Nobel Prizes.

Eve was born in 1904. She distinguished herself as concert pianist and writer including work as a war correspondent.

In her early years Pierre and Marie were extremely poor. She didn't receive any payment for her work or had a proper lab for her research until 1904.

Curie named the first chemical element that she discovered – polonium, which she first isolated in 1898 – after her native country.

Marie Curie taught Physics at Ecole Normale Sevres, the highest woman's college in France in the early 1900s.

Radium was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie on December 21, 1898, in a uraninite sample. The Curies announced their discovery to the French Academy of Sciences five days later.



Curie refused to take out a patent on the process of isolating radium as radium belonged to the world and they had no right to it. Marie and her husband could have made a fortune by patenting their method for isolating radium which fast became an industry but instead they freely gave the patentable information to any person or company who reinvested it.

Marie Curie along with her husband, Pierre, won the Nobel prize for physics for their discovery of radioactivity in 1903. Originally Marie's name was left off the winners’ list but Pierre insisted she be included. She thus became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Marie and Pierre Curie experimenting with radium, a drawing by André Castaigne

The pair shunned fame, Marie and her husband did not even attend the 1903 Nobel Prize ceremony, instead they sent a letter to the organisers in Stockholm saying they had too much teaching to do.

Pierre was notoriously absent minded which maybe contributed to his death on April 19, 1906. He was crossing the Rue Dauphine in Paris where it turns into the Quai Conti. It was very wet, the street was slippery and his umbrella was hiding his view. As he left the pavement to cross the street a cab/long load pulled by two  Percherons came trotting smartly around the corner. In attempting to get out of the way he slipped on the roadway and fell under the wheels of a heavy van coming in the opposite direction. The wheels of the van passed over his head. He was killed instantly. Marie went into a deep mourning and took a long time to recover.

Pierre Curie

In 1906 Marie Curie succeeded her late husband as Director of Physics at Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to teach there.

In 1911 Marie had an alleged relationship with a married man called Paul Langevin (1872-1946) that hit the headlines. They rented a flat near the Sorbonne where they met in secret. A former student of Pierre it may well be Marie was only trying to maternally encourage him in his work and encourage him over personal problems.

It is a strange coincidence that Paul Langevin's grandson Michel later married her granddaughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot.

Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize for the second time in 1911 when she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She used part of the prize money from her second Nobel Prize to re-wallpaper and install a modern bathroom into her Paris home.

Marie Curie was the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice.

Marie Curie

During World War I, she established the first military field radiological centres.

By 1920 Curie was receiving the centre of adulation no scientist had ever received before  and possibly the most famous woman in the world but fame bewildered her. Her struggle to secure that tiny glowing sample of radium and her gender made a media figure paralleled only by Einstein.

Einstein: "Madame Curie is very intelligent but she has the soul of a herring."

In 1921 she was presented with a gram of radium worth $100,000 by the White House. It had been subscribed for by American women.

Curie died on July 4, 1934 at the sanatorium of Sancellemoz (Haute-Savoie), France, due to aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed.

Marie Curie was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. In 1995, in honour of their achievements, the remains of both Curies were transferred to the Panthéon, Paris. Marie Curie was the first woman to be honored with interment in the Panthéon on her own merits.

Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive. Researchers hoping to view them must sign a disclaimer.

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