Marie Curie - Radioactive Researcher
Updated: Jul 25
This Badass Woman of History takes us to Paris, France in the early 20th century. Here we meet a true scientific pioneer and two time Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie. Whether they overcame an enemy on the battlefield or solved perplexing mysteries, women have been making their mark on history. This series aims to celebrate those women that shaped the world through their sheer force of will. Check out the first article in this series (Saint Olga of Kyiv) here.
Marie Curie is not only a pioneer in terms of her scientific achievements but also known for advancing the cause of equality in academia. Her work in the field of radioactivity allowed for the isolation of radioactive isotopes for the first time. She is not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win the Nobel Prize in two separate categories. This Polish professor fundamentally changed the way we think about radioactivity and the potential applications of radioactive material. That's why she's a titan of badassery.
Marya Sklodowska - Future Genius
Marie Curie was born on the 7th of November 1876 in Warsaw, Poland. Her birth name was Marya Sklodowska, a name she would later change to the more French Marie upon attending the Sorbonne, Paris. The youngest of five, Marya grew up in a poor family. Her father and mother were both well-known teachers who lost their familial fortune due to their patriotic support of the pro-polish movement. Poland was under the tyrannical rule of Russia at this time and the people of Poland were losing liberties fast. While they could not provide financially for their children, they made up for it by giving them an excellent education. The average polish woman of the time had zero access to education, a fact that young Marya wanted to change.
Władysław Skłodowski (Marie's father) taught physics and mathematics as well as being the director of two Warsaw gymnasia. The Russian government banned laboratory work in polish schools and Marie's father was forced to bring his lab equipment home. He trained his children in the use of these instruments during this time, furthering Marie's illegal education. Suffrage would not make it to Poland until 1918 and by then Marie would have already won both of her Nobel prizes. Her father would continue to support her education and later financially when he got a lucrative position once more.
Bronisława Skłodowski (Marie's mother) died of tuberculosis when Marie was 10 years old. Her sister had died of Typhus three years earlier. These events drove her further from her mother's religion, Catholocism, and she became agnostic. Marie graduated from boarding school on the 12th of June 1883 with top grades. She suffered a collapse due to fatigue, or depression, that same year and was unable to continue her schooling. Her father had family in the countryside that agreed to host young Marie for a year while she recovered.
Marie would pursue her education voraciously upon her return to Warsaw the next year. While she was unable to enroll in an institute of higher education due to Russian regulations, she did participate in the secretive Flying University. The Sorbonne in Paris did allow women to enroll though, and Marie made a deal with her sister, Bronisława, that they would support each other in attending the school. Her sister shipped off for Paris while Marie worked as a governess for a local family. She supported her sister in this way for two years before her sister could return the favor.
Marya Becomes Marie - Move to Paris
Marie finally saved up enough money by late 1891 to move to Paris and enroll in a university. Her sister, Bronisława, who had married a polish physician the year before invited Marie to stay with her. She spent a year saving up the money to do so and with the financial help of her father she made the journey to Paris. Marie didn't stay with her sister for long before moving closer to the University of Paris.
Marie had very little money and would be forced to wear all of her clothing during the cold winters. She poured herself into her studies, often forgetting to eat for days. By 1893 she was awarded a degree in physics studying during the day and working as a tutor at night. Recognizing her talent the university offered her a fellowship to continue her studies. During this time she found work at the industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann. Marie Curie earned her second degree in 1894.
She began her scientific work studying the magnetic properties of various steels for the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry.
Pierre Curie - Match Made in Science
Marie needed more space to conduct her experiments on magnetism. Pierre Curie was looking to sublet his laboratory space. It's a tale as old as time. The two young scientists were introduced by the Polish physicist Professor Józef Wierusz-Kowalski. Through a mutual passion for science, the two grew close. Likely bonding over the totally not woo-woo things that Pierre liked to do to crystals.
At first, Marie denied Pierre her affections, not fully certain that she wanted to remain in Paris at all. She returned to Warsaw to seek employment as a scientist at the Kraków University. Here she was denied on the basis of gender. While her dreams of becoming the first female scientist in Poland were being dashed she was inundated by love letters from Pierre. He simply could not imagine life without her, going as far as saying that he would give up science altogether and become a french teacher in Poland if he had to.
Marie returned to Paris after Pierre urged her to pursue a Ph.D. after attaining his own. His doctorate thesis was based on his work in magnetism, and he likely understood a thing or two about attracting Marie's attention. The two were married on the 26th of July 1895 in Sceaux. Marie famously wore a blue suit to their wedding, the same suit she would wear for many years while working in the lab. They did not have a religious ceremony.
The Call of Radiation
Following in the footsteps of Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered X-rays in 1895 and Henri Becquerel who discovered that uranium salt had similar rays emanating from it in 1896, Marie chose this exciting new field as the focus of her doctorate. These rays were complete mysteries to the scientists at the time and would have remained so had it not been for Marie's innovative studies.
Using a modified spectrometer developed by Pierre and his brother, Marie was able to detect that the rays emanating from the uranium samples made the surrounding air conduct electricity. Marie hypothesized that the radiation was not caused by some interaction of the molecules but a product of the atoms themselves. Her ideas on this were an important step in disproving the old notion that the atom was indivisible. She would never know the dark outcome of this research.
The Curies would continue to study radiation after the birth of their daughter, Irène. They worked out of a dilapidated shed next to the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. Their work continued in blissful ignorance of the negative effects of radioactive contamination.
Marie worked her way through the periodic table in search of other radioactive elements. She had found that pitchblende and torbernite, both uranium minerals, were emitting much more radiation than regular uranium. This led her to believe that there was some other even more radioactive element present in these substances. By 1898 she had found that thorium was also radioactive.
Pierre abandoned his work on crystals by mid-1898 to join Marie in her research.
Two New Elements
Due to the breakneck speed at which new elements were being discovered during this time period, Marie fast-tracked her research papers. Gerhard Carl Schmidt had already beaten her to the discovery that thorium emanates radiation by two months. She wasn't going to lose scientific priority on a discovery again.
Marie and her husband set to work on isolating the mystery element in pitchblende in April of 1898. They would eventually have to sift through tonnes of the stuff to find a viable sample. Four months later, the Curies published a research paper announcing the discovery of polonium (named after Marie's beloved Poland). Later that same year they would announce the discovery of yet another new element called radium, choosing to name it after the Latin word ray. They also coined the term "radioactivity" in this paper.
The pair would now set about the tedious task of isolating pure samples of polonium and radium. Marie would only succeed at isolating pure radium metal in 1910. Pure polonium was beyond her means due to its short half-life. The Curies published 32 scientific papers between 1898 and 1902. This included a paper that found that cancer cells were destroyed more quickly than healthy cells when exposed to radium.
Two Nobel Prizes
Marie Curie was awarded her first Nobel prize in December of 1903. She shared the prize for physics with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed upon them the reward "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel."
Still, the committee was reluctant to give the award to Marie. They intended only to honor Pierre and Henri because a woman had never won the prize before. The Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a noted advocate for women scientists and a member of the Nobel committee, alerted Pierre to Marie's omittance. Pierre complained to the academy and they acquiesced.
The Curies at first refused to attend the award ceremony due to their unwavering commitment to their work. Unsurprisingly, Pierre had been feeling progressively sicker at this time too. They finally undertook the journey to Sweden in 1905 to deliver their acceptance lecture and collect the award money.
Pierre was promoted to a professor and the chair of physics at the University of Paris following the award and an offer by the University of Geneva. They still lacked a proper laboratory and Pierre used his famous complaining skills to have one arranged for them. This new lab wouldn't be ready until 1906, and by that time Pierre would have met his untimely death.
Pierre Curie died in an accident involving a horse-drawn vehicle crushing his skull. The death of her husband was a devastating blow to Marie, but this juggernaut of science would not be stopped. One month after the death Pierre, the University of Paris offered his position to Marie. She accepted the position, becoming the first female professor in the institution's history.
The lab space provided by the University of Paris was disappointing to Marie. In 1909 Pierre Paul Émile Roux, the director of the Pasteur Institute started an initiative for the creation of the Radium Institute (now known as the Curie Institute). Once again the University of Paris only acted when another institution was about to poach one of their academics. The institute became a joint operation of the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris.
By 1911 Marie would have overcome xenophobic racism as well as a sex scandal to be awarded her second Nobel prize. This time she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work "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."
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” Marie Curie
Marie suffered another bout of serious depression after winning her second Nobel prize. Just another example of how success does not heal emotional wounds. She would spend the next 14 months recovering before returning to head the Radium Institute in 1914.
French right-wing thinkers spread xenophobic falsehoods about her through the years, especially following her affair with a married man. She was even met with an angry mob outside her house after a trip to a conference in Belgium.
Marie would struggle in a world that viewed her as second-class. Her determination and grit would pull her through and make her one of the greatest scientists in history.
Radiology on the Frontlines - World War 1
Marie Curie further applied her genius during the first world war. She recognized the need for mobile radiology units in treating the wounded soldiers. Becoming an expert in radiology, anatomy and automotive mechanics overnight was a simple task for this monumental genius. Her newfound knowledge led to her developing mobile radiography units, lovingly called "Petites Curies".
She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and founded France's first radiology center by 1914. Marie also pioneered the use of hollow needles, filled with radon gas, in sterilizing infected tissue. Over a million soldiers are estimated to have been treated using her mobile radiology units.
Despite all of her humanitarian contributions, despite donating all of her wealth to the war effort and offering to melt her solid gold Nobel prizes as well, she received no formal recognition from the French government at the time.
Marie's scientific research took a backseat during the war. Who knows what further discoveries she could have made had it not been for the distraction?
Throughout the 1920s, Marie Curie would continue to give lectures around the world. Her fame had grown to that of a global sensation by this time and she was sought out for her vast wealth of knowledge. The French government had grown embarrassed at her fame, realizing too late that they had never awarded her any national honors to display while abroad. They offered her the Legion of Honour award in 1921, but Marie refused. She was probably aware that they were trying to ride her coattails.
Marie became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine in 1922. She would continue to lead the Radium Institute during this time, which produced four more Nobel prize winners over the years. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, was but one of the many women who have followed in Marie's footsteps over the years.
Marie Curie died on the 4th of July 1934. Her death was likely due to her years of exposure to radioactive material without the use of any protective equipment. Her preserved notes are too radioactive to handle to this day. Leading up to her death she was working on a book titled Radioactivity, the original manuscript of which is likely also radioactive. Radioactivity was published posthumously in 1935.
She changed the way the world views women and their potential. That, along with her numerous scientific achievements, makes her a true badass woman of history.