Maria Sklodowska-Curie

Marie Curie (born Maria Sklodowska, also known as Marie Curie-Sklodowska; November 7, 1867 – July 4, 1934) was a physicist and chemist of Polish upbringing and, subsequently, French citizenship. She was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, the first twice-honored Nobel laureate (and still the only one in two different sciences) and the first female professor at the University of Paris.

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Poland (1989) 20,000 Zlotych (front) – Marie Sklodowska Curie

She was born in Warsaw, Congress Poland, Russian Empire, and lived there until she was 24. In 1891 she followed her elder sister to study in Paris, where she obtained her higher degrees and conducted her scientific work. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw. She was the wife of fellow-Nobel-laureate Pierre Curie and the mother of a third Nobel laureate, Irene Joliot-Curie.

While an actively loyal French citizen, she never lost her sense of Polish identity. Madame Curie named the first new chemical element that she discovered (1898) “polonium” for her native country, and in 1932 she founded a Radium Institute (now the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology) in her home town, Warsaw, headed by her physician-sister Bronislawa, who had likewise studied in Paris. She was born in Warsaw to Polish parents, Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, both of whom were teachers and instilled in their children a sense of the value of learning. Władyslaw Sklodowski was a teacher of mathematics and physics.

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Maria was the youngest of five children. Maria’s early years were marked by the death of her sister Zofia (from typhus) and, two years later, the death of her mother (tuberculosis). These events caused her to give up her Roman Catholic religion and become an agnostic.

From childhood Sklodowska showed an exceptional memory and work ethic, and was known to neglect food and sleep in order to study. At age sixteen she graduated from a Russian liceum at the top of her class, winning a gold medal on completion of her secondary education there. Because she was female, and because of Russian reprisals following the Polish 1863 uprising against Tsarist Russia, Sklodowska was denied admission to a regular university. Her father having lost his savings through bad investments, Maria had to take work as a teacher while attending Warsaw’s illegal Polish Floating University. At age 18 she took a post as a governess, where she experienced an unhappy love affair. From her earnings she supported her elder sister Bronislawa, who was studying medicine in Paris, on the understanding that Bronislawa would in turn later help Maria get an education. Eventually in 1891 Maria went to join her sister in Paris.

At the University of Paris, Sklodowska studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. (Later, in 1909, she would become that University’s first female professor, when she was named to her late husband’s chair in physics, which he had held for only a year and a half before his tragic death.) In early 1893 she graduated first in her undergraduate class. A year later, also at the University of Paris, she obtained her master’s degree in mathematics. In 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, she received her DSc from the University of Paris, becoming the first woman in France to complete a doctorate.

At the University of Paris, also, she met and married Pierre Curie. At the time, Pierre Curie was an instructor in the School of Physics and Chemistry. Sklodowska was a student at the University of Paris, and had begun her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Sklodowska and Curie together. They studied radioactive materials, particularly pitchblende, the ore from which uranium was extracted. By April 1898, Sklodowska-Curie deduced that pitchblende must contain traces of an unknown substance far more radioactive than uranium. In July 1898, Pierre and Marie together published an article announcing the existence of an element which they named polonium, in honor of her native Poland, then still partitioned among three empires. On December 26, 1898, the Curies announced the existence of a second element, which they named radium for its intense radioactivity — a word that they coined.

Over the course of several years of unceasing work in the most difficult physical conditions, they processed several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive substances and eventually isolating the chloride salts (refining radium chloride on April 20, 1902). Polonium was not yet isolated at this time.

In 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”

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Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris lab before April 19,1906

Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Eight years later, she received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “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”.

In an unusual decision, Sklodowska-Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered.

A month after accepting her 1911 Nobel Prize, she was hospitalized with depression and a kidney ailment.

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