Marie Curie was a Polish born French physicist known for her work on radioactivity. She was the first person (and only woman to date) to win two Nobel Prizes, and the only person to win twice in multiple sciences.
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Poland. Both her parents were educators and insisted their daughters be educated along with their son. Curie took after her father as a child and was known for her bright and curious mind. She excelled at school and graduated high school at the top of her class when she was 15.
Curie took a post as a governess when she was 18 and helped finance her sister Bronisława’s medical studies in Paris. In return, Bronisława would later help Curie get an education. Curie earned her masters degree in physics in 1893, and received a scholarship from women’s education advocates. The scholarship allowed her to stay and take a second degree in mathematics, which was awarded in 1894.
While working in Paris, she met Pierre Curie and they were married in 1895. The marriage was the start of a partnership that would achieve results of worldwide significance, including the discovery of polonium radium.
In 1896, while looking for a subject for a new thesis, decided to find out if a newly discovered phenomenon present in uranium was present in other matter. The newly discovered phenomenon would in later years become known as radioactivity, a term Curie herself coined.
Intrigued by Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, and Henri Becquerel’s reports of similar rays emitted from uranium ores, Curie used her husband’s instruments to measure the faint electrical currents she detected in the air that were bombarded by uranium rays. She discovered the effects of the rays were constant, even when the uranium ore was treated in different ways. This caused Curie to start a revolutionary hypothesis. Curie believed the emission of the rays was an atomic property of uranium, which would mean the accepted view of the atom as the smallest possible fragment of matter was false.
Curie later turned her attention to testing all of the chemical ores to see if any others emitted Becquerel rays. Curie’s husband, Pierre, was so interested in her research that he set aside his own research in order to help her. They discovered two ores, chalcolite and pitchblende, were much more radioactive than pure uranium, causing Curie to suspect they might contain as yet undiscovered elements.
Curie worked to obtain pure radium in the metallic state with the help of one of Pierre’s pupils, André-Louis Debierne. Curie received her doctorate of physics in June 1903 on the results of this research. She was the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in physics. Later in that year, Madame Curie, along with her husband Pierre, André-Louis Debierne and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radioactivity.
Pierre Currie passed away in 1906 and marked a decisive turning point in Madame Curie’s career. Following the death of Pierre, Curie devoted all her energy to completing by herself the scientific work they had undertaken together. Curie was appointed to the professorship that had been left vacant by the death of her husband and became the first woman to teach at the Maison de Sorbonne. Curie became the titular professor in 1908, and treatise on radioactivity was published in1910. Curie received her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for Chemistry, for the isolation of pure radium.
Curie continued to do research in radioactivity in later years, although she suspended her studies upon the outbreak of World War I and organized a fleet of portable X-ray machines for doctors at the front.
Curie was suffering from medical problems by 1920, most likely due to her exposure to radioactive materials. Curie passed away in 1934. She was buried next to Pierre, although in 1995, their remains were moved to the Pantheon in Paris where they were interred alongside France's greatest citizens. Curie was the first woman to be entombed within the Pantheon and remains the only woman interred there to date.
Curie passed her love of science to the next generation, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her mother's footsteps, and won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
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