SCIENTISTS (1867–1934); WARSAW, POLAND
Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867, Marie Curie grew up in a world where science was strictly a man’s domain. That didn’t stop her from getting an education from an illegal university; making groundbreaking discoveries with her husband, Pierre; and winning Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences. From her work on radioactivity to the death that likely resulted from it, here are the facts about Marie Curie you need to know.
1. Marie Curie studied at a secret university in Poland.
Before Marie Curie (born Maria Sklodowska) was a famous scientist, she was a student at the Flying University in her home country of Poland. After graduating from high school at the top of her class, Curie intended to pursue her higher education at the University of Warsaw. She soon discovered that wasn’t an option: It was against the law for women to go to college in 19th-century Poland, and because of her gender, she was barred from attending. She enrolled at the Flying University instead—an underground institution that accepted female students and taught from a strongly Polish perspective that was controversial in the Russian-controlled state. It was dubbed the Flying University because classes were constantly changing locations to evade the authorities.
2. Marie Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium.
Two of the elements on the periodic table owe Marie Curie for their discovery. The first is polonium: Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, found it while searching for the root of the radioactivity in uranium-rich ore called pitchblende. In a 1898 paper on their work, Marie suggested the name polonium as an homage to her home country of Poland.
The second element Marie Curie identified was radium. She made this discovery with her husband the same year they found polonium.
3. Marie Curie won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry.
Many scientists dream of winning a Nobel Prize, and Marie Curie remains one of the few to receive more than one. In 1903, she shared the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband Pierre and physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity. She was the first woman to take home the medal. She made history again in 1911, when she won her second Nobel Prize—this time on her own and in chemistry—which was awarded 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." To this day, Marie Curie remains the sole person of any gender to receive Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.
4. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie were research partners.
Marie met Pierre Curie while continuing her university studies in Paris in 1894 and they were married the following year. Pierre was more than a husband to Marie: They were also professional collaborators. The two scientists were determined to unravel the mysteries of radioactivity together after Henri Becquerel discovered it in 1896. Research space was hard to come by for the couple, so they did most of their work in an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. Pierre aided Marie in her most important discoveries until he died in a tragic carriage accident in 1906.
5. Marie Curie’s notebooks are still radioactive.
By the nature of her work, Marie Curie handled a lot of radioactive materials over her lifetime. She left many of the dangerous substances she worked with out in the open in her lab, and even today, some of the notebooks she used are still radioactive. The books will likely stay that way for the next 1500 years. Radioactivity is taken much more seriously in the modern era, and her books are currently being stored in lead-lined boxes.
6. Marie Curie likely died from prolonged exposure to radiation.
Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia in 1934 at age 66. Aplastic anemia occurs when the body fails to produce new red blood cells at a healthy rate. In Curie’s case, the condition was likely the result of all the radiation she absorbed while handling incredibly hazardous materials—including the two elements she helped discover—without taking the proper safety precautions.
Notable Marie Curie Quotes:
- "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."
- "Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas."
- “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: He is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
- "There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down error instead of establishing the truth."
Marie Curie’s Discoveries and accomplishments:
- Discovered radium.
- Discovered polonium.
- Coined the term "radioactivity."
- Developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes.
- Developed mobile X-ray machines during World War I.