- The title given to this article is incorrect due to technical limitations. The correct title is Maria Skłodowska-Curie.
Maria Sklodowska was born as the fifth and youngest child of Bronsilawa Boguska, a pianist, singer, and teacher, and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. When she was little and living in Poland, her nickname was Manya. From childhood she was remarkable for her prodigious memory, and at the age of 16 she won a gold medal on completion of her secondary education at the Russian lycée. Because her father, a teacher of mathematics and physics, lost his savings through bad investment, she had to take work as a teacher and, at the same time, took part clandestinely in the nationalist "free university," reading in Polish to women workers. At the age of 18 she took a post as governess, where she suffered an unhappy love affair. From her earnings she was able to finance her sister Bronia's medical studies in Paris, on the understanding that Bronia would in turn later help her to get an education.
In 1891 Maria Sklodowska went to Paris and began to follow the lectures of Paul Appel, Gabriel Lippmann, and Edmond Bouty at the Sorbonne. There she met physicists who were already well known--Jean Perrin, Charles Maurain, and Aimé Cotton. Sklodowska worked far into the night in her students'-quarter garret and virtually lived on bread and butter and tea. She came first in the licence of physical sciences in 1893. She began to work in Lippmann's research laboratory and in 1894 was placed second in the licence of mathematical sciences. It was in the spring of this year that she met Pierre Curie.
Maria Sklodowska's father was a freethinker but she was reared by her Catholic mother. She abandoned the Church before she was 20 and her marriage with Pierre Curie was a purely civil ceremony. She says in her memoir of him, Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any.
Their marriage (July 25, 1895) marked the start of a partnership that was soon to achieve results of world significance, in particular the discovery of polonium (so called by Maria in honour of Poland) in the summer of 1898, and that of radium a few months later. Following Henri Becquerel's discovery (1896) of a new phenomenon (which she later called "radioactivity"), Maria Curie, looking for a subject for a thesis, decided to find out if the property discovered in uranium was to be found in other matter. She discovered that this was true for thorium at the same time as G.C. Schmidt did.
Turning to minerals, her attention was drawn to pitchblende, a mineral whose activity, superior to that of pure uranium, could only be explained by the presence in the ore of small quantities of an unknown substance of very high activity. Pierre Curie then joined her in the work that she had undertaken to resolve this problem and that led to the discovery of the new elements, polonium and radium. While Pierre Curie devoted himself chiefly to the physical study of the new radiations, Maria Curie struggled to obtain pure radium in the metallic state--achieved with the help of the chemist A. Debierne, one of Pierre Curie's pupils. On the results of this research Maria Curie received her doctorate of science in June 1903 and, with Pierre, was awarded the Davy Medal of the Royal Society. Also in 1903 they shared with Becquerel the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radioactivity
At the Sorbonne she met and married another instructor, Pierre Curie. Together they studied radioactive materials, particularly the uranium ore pitchblende, which had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. By 1898 they deduced a logical explanation: that the pitchblende contained traces of some unknown radioactive component which was far more radioactive than uranium; thus on December 26th Marie Curie announced the existence of this new substance.
Over several years of unceasing labour they refined several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive components, and eventually isolated initially the chloride salts (refining radium chloride on April 20, 1902) and then two new chemical elements. The first they named polonium after Marie's native country, and the other was named radium from its intense radioactivity.
Together with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903: "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel". She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Eight years later, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911 "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 move, Curie intentionally did not patent the radium isolation process, instead leaving it open so the scientific community could research unhindered.
After her husband's death, she had an affair with physicist Paul Langevin, a married man, which resulted in a press scandal. Despite her notoriety as an honored scientist working for France, the public's attitude to the scandal tended towards xenophobia—she was a foreigner, from an unknown land (Poland was still referred to as a geographical area, under the Russian Tsar), an area known to have a significant Jewish population (Marie was an atheist, raised a Catholic, but that didn't seem to matter). France at the time was still reeling from the effects of the Dreyfus affair, so the scandal's effect on the public was all the more acute. It is a strange coincidence that Paul Langevin's grandson Michel later married her granddaughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot.
During World War I, she pushed for the use of mobile radiography units for the treatment of wounded soldiers. These units were powered using tubes of radium emanation, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later to be identified as radon. Marie personally provided the tubes, milked from the radium she purified. Promptly after the war started, she cashed in her and husband's gold Nobel Prize Medals for the war effort.
Her death near Sallanches, France in 1934 was from leukemia, almost certainly due to her massive exposure to radiation in her work.
Her eldest daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935, the year after Marie Curie's death. Her youngest daughter, Eve Curie, wrote a biography on Curie after her mother's death.
Element 96, Curium, symbol Cm was named in her and Pierre's honour.
- Madame Curie: A Biography, by Eve Curie, ISBN 0306810387
- Marie Curie: A Life, by Susan Quinn, ISBN 0201887940
- Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, by Barbara Goldsmith, ISBN 0393051374
- About Marie Curie
- Maria Sklodowska-Curie 1867-1934