The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1911
7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934
Sklodowska–Curie was a physicist and chemist of Polish
upbringing and, subsequently, French citizenship. She was a
pioneer in the field of radioactivity, the only person honoured
with Nobel Prizes in two different sciences, and the first
female professor at the University of Paris.
She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Vistula Country,
Russian Empire, and lived there until she was 24. In 1891 she
followed her elder sister Bronislawa to study in Paris, where
she obtained her higher degrees and conducted her subsequent
scientific work. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and
Warsaw. Her husband Pierre Curie was also a Nobel laureate, as
were her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frédéric
Her achievements include the creation of a theory of
radioactivity (a term coined by her), techniques for isolating
radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two new elements,
radium and polonium. It was also under her personal direction
that the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment
of neoplasms ("cancers"), using radioactive isotopes.
While an actively loyal French citizen, she never lost her sense
of Polish identity. She 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.
Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, the fifth and
youngest child of well-known teachers Bronislawa and Wladyslaw
Sklodowski. Maria's older siblings were Zofia (born 1862), Józef
(1863), Bronislawa (1865) and Helena (1866).
Maria's grandfather Józef Sklodowski had been a respected
teacher in Lublin, where he had taught the young Boleslaw Prus.
Her father Wladyslaw Sklodowski taught mathematics and physics,
subjects that Maria was to pursue, and was director successively
of two Warsaw gymnasia for boys, in addition to lodging boys in
the family home. Her mother, Bronislawa, operated a prestigious
Warsaw girls' boarding school; she suffered from tuberculosis
and died when Maria was twelve. Maria's father was an atheist,
and her mother a devout Catholic.
Two years earlier, Maria's oldest sibling, Zofia, had died of
typhus. The deaths of her mother and sister, according to Robert
William Reid, caused Maria to give up Catholicism and become
When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding
school that her mother had operated while she was well; next
Maria attended a female gymnasium, from which she graduated on
12 June 1883. She spent the following year in the countryside at
her father's relatives, and next with her father in Warsaw,
where she did some tutoring.
On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family had lost
their property and fortunes through patriotic involvements in
Polish national uprisings. This condemned each subsequent
generation, including that of Maria and her elder sisters and
brother, to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life.
Maria made an agreement with her sister Bronislawa, that she
would give her financial assistance during Bronislawa's medical
studies in Paris, in exchange for similar assistance two years
later. In connection with this, she took a position as
governess. First with a lawyer's family in Kraków, then for two
years in Ciechanów with a landed family, the Zorawskis,
relatives of her father. While working for the latter family,
she fell in love with their son Kazimierz Zorawski, which the
future eminent mathematician reciprocated. His parents, however,
rejected the idea of his marrying the penniless relative, and
Kazimierz was unable to oppose them. Maria lost her governess'
position. She found another with the Fuchs family in Sopot, on
the Baltic Sea coast, where she spent the next year, all the
while financially assisting her sister.
At the beginning of 1890, Bronislawa, who had a few months
earlier married Kazimierz Dluski, invited Maria to join them in
Paris. Maria declined because she could not afford the
university tuition and was still counting on marrying Kazimierz
Zorawski. She returned home to her father, with whom she
remained till the fall of 1891, tutoring, studying at the
clandestine Floating University, and beginning her practical
scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry
and Agriculture run by her cousin Józef Boguski, who had been
assistant in St. Petersburg to the great Russian chemist Dmitri
In October 1891, at her sister's insistence and after receiving
a letter from Zorawski definitively breaking up with her, she
decided to go to France after all.
Maria's breakup with Zorawski was tragic for both. He soon
earned a doctorate and pursued an academic career as a
mathematician, becoming a professor and rector of Kraków
University and president of the Warsaw Society of Learning;
still, as an old man, a mathematics professor at the Warsaw
Polytechnic, he would sit contemplatively in front of the statue
of Maria Sklodowska before the Radium Institute that she had
founded. Maria, in Paris, briefly found shelter with her sister
and brother-in-law before renting a primitive garret and
proceeding with her studies of physics, chemistry and
mathematics at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris).
Sklodowska studied during the day, and she tutored evenings,
barely earning her keep. In 1893 she obtained a degree in
physics and began work in an industrial laboratory at Lippman's.
Meanwhile she continued studying at the Sorbonne and in 1894
earned a degree in mathematics.
In the same year Pierre Curie entered her life. He was an
instructor in the School of Physics and Chemistry, the École
Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de
Paris (ESPCI). Sklodowska 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.
Her departure for the summer to Warsaw only enhanced their
mutual feelings for each other. She was still laboring under the
illusion that she would be able to return to Poland and work in
her chosen field of study. When, however, she was denied a place
at Kraków University merely because she was a woman, she
returned to Paris. Almost a year later, in July 1895, she and
Pierre Curie married, and thereafter the two physicists hardly
ever left their laboratory. Their shared hobbies were only long
bicycle trips and journeys abroad, which brought them even
closer. Maria had found a new love, a partner and scientific
collaborator that she could depend on.
In 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted
rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power. He
demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did
not depend on an external source of energy but seemed to arise
spontaneously from uranium itself. Becquerel had in fact
Marie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of
research for a thesis. She used a clever technique to
investigate samples. Fifteen years earlier, her husband and his
brother had invented the electrometer, a device for measuring
extremely low electrical currents. Using the Curie electrometer,
she discovered that uranium rays caused the air around a sample
to conduct electricity. Her first result, using this technique,
was the finding that the activity of the uranium compounds
depended only on the amount of uranium present. She had shown
that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction
between molecules but must come from the atom itself. In
scientific terms, this was the most important single piece of
work carried out by her.
Marie's systematic studies had included two uranium minerals,
pitchblende and chalcolite. Her electrometer showed that
pitchblende was four times as active as uranium itself, and
chalcolite twice as active. She concluded that, if her earlier
results relating the amount of uranium to its activity were
correct, then these two minerals must contain small amounts of
some other substance far more active than uranium itself.
The idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and
although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly
established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact
twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no
chance whatever of any ambiguity. It is likely that already at
this early stage of her career she realized that... many
scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could
be capable of the original work in which she was involved.
In her systematic search for other substances besides uranium
salts that emitted radiation, Marie had found that the element
thorium was likewise radioactive.
She was acutely aware of the importance of promptly publishing
her discoveries and thus establishing her priority. Had
Becquerel, two years earlier, not presented his discovery to the
Académie des Sciences the day after he made it, credit for the
discovery of radioactivity, and even a Nobel Prize, would
instead have gone to Silvanus Thompson. Marie chose the same
rapid means of publication. Her paper, giving a brief, simple
account of her work, was presented for her to the Académie on
April 12, 1898, by her former professor, Gabriel Lippmann.
Even so, just as Thompson had been beaten by Becquerel, so Marie
was beaten in the race to tell of her discovery that thorium
gives off rays in the same way as uranium. Two months earlier,
Gerhard Schmidt had published his own finding in Berlin.
No one else in the world of physics had, however, yet noticed
what Marie recorded in a sentence of her paper in describing how
much greater were the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite
compared with uranium itself: "The fact is very remarkable, and
leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element
which is much more active than uranium." She would later recall
how she felt "a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as
rapidly as possible."
Pierre Curie was sure that what she had discovered was not a
spurious effect. He was so intrigued that he decided to
temporarily drop his work on crystals and join her. On 14 April
1898, they optimistically weighed out a 100-gram sample of
pitchblende and ground it with a pestle and mortar. They did not
then realize that what they were searching for was present in
such minute quantities that they would eventually have to
process tons of the ore.
In July 1898, Pierre and Marie together published a paper
announcing the existence of an element which they named
"polonium," in honor of her native Poland, which would for
another twenty years remain partitioned among three empires. On
26 December 1898, the Curies announced the existence of a second
element, which they named "radium" for its intense radioactivity
— a word that they coined.
Pitchblende is a complex mineral, and the chemical separation of
its constituents was an arduous task. The discovery of polonium
had been relatively easy; chemically it resembles the element
bismuth, and polonium was the only bismuth-like substance in the
ore. But radium was more elusive; it is closely related
chemically to barium, and pitchblende contains both elements. By
1898 the Curies had obtained traces of radium, but appreciable
quantities, uncontaminated with barium, were still beyond reach.
The Curies undertook the arduous task of separating out radium
salt by differential crystallization. From a ton of pitchblende,
one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was separated in 1902. By
1910 Marie, working on without her husband, who had been killed
in 1906, had isolated the pure radium metal.
In an unusual decision, Marie Curie intentionally refrained from
patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific
community could do research unhindered.
Since they were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation
exposure attendant on their chronic unprotected work with
radioactive substances, Marie and Pierre had no idea what price
they were paying for their research.
In 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, Marie
received her DSc from the University of Paris.
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."
Maria and Pierre were unable to go to Stockholm to receive the
prize in person, but they shared its financial proceeds with
needy acquaintances, including students.
On receiving the Nobel Prize, Marie and Pierre Curie suddenly
became very famous. The Sorbonne gave Pierre a professorship and
permitted him to establish his own laboratory, in which Marie
became director of research.
In 1897 and 1904, respectively, Marie gave birth to their
daughters, Irène and Eve Curie. She would later hire Polish
governesses to teach them her native language, and send or take
them on visits to Poland.
Sklodowska–Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel
Prize. Eight years later, she would receive 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."
A month after accepting her 1911 Nobel Prize, she was
hospitalized with depression and a kidney ailment.
Sklodowska–Curie was the first person to win or share two Nobel
Prizes. She is one of only two people who have been awarded a
Nobel Prize in two different fields, the other being Linus
Pauling (Chemistry, Peace). Nevertheless in 1911 the French
Academy of Sciences refused to abandon its prejudice against
women and she failed by two votes to be elected to membership,
losing to Édouard Branly, an inventor who had helped Guglielmo
Marconi develop the wireless telegraph. It would be her doctoral
student, Marguerite Perey, who would be the first woman elected
to the Academy — in 1962, over half a century later.
On 19 April 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident.
Walking across the Rue Dauphine in heavy rain, he was struck by
a horse-drawn vehicle and fell under its wheels, fracturing his
skull. While it has been speculated that he may previously have
been weakened by prolonged radiation exposure, it has not been
proven that this was the cause of the accident.
Marie was devastated by her husband's death. She noted that as
of that moment she had suddenly become "an incurably and
wretchedly lonely person." On May 13, 1906, the Sorbonne physics
department decided to retain the chair that had been created for
Pierre Curie and entrusted it to Marie together with full
authority over the laboratory. This allowed her to emerge from
Pierre's shadow. She became the first female professor at the
Sorbonne, and sought in her exhausting work regime a meaning for
Recognition for her work now grew to a crescendo, and in 1911
the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her a second Nobel
Prize. A delegation of celebrated Polish men of learning, headed
by world-famous novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz, besought her to
return to Poland and continue her research in her native
In 1911, too, it transpired that in 1910–11 Marie had conducted
an affair of about a year's duration with physicist Paul
Langevin, a married man who had left his wife. This resulted in
a press scandal, exploited by her academic opponents. Despite
her fame as a scientist working for France, the public's
attitude tended toward xenophobia—the same that had led to the
Dreyfus Affair and that now fueled false speculation that
Sklodowska–Curie was Jewish. Five years Langevin's senior, she
was portrayed in the tabloids as a home-wrecker. Later,
Sklodowska–Curie's granddaughter, Hélène Joliot, would marry
Langevin's grandson, Michel Langevin.
Sklodowska–Curie's second Nobel Prize, in 1911, enabled her to
talk the French government into funding the building of a
private Radium Institute (Institut du radium, now the Institut
Curie), which was built in 1914 and at which research was
conducted in chemistry, physics and medicine. The Institute
became a cradle of Nobel Prize winners, producing four more,
including her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law,
World War I
During World War I, Sklodowska-Curie pushed for the use of
mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as
petites Curies ("Little Curies"), for the treatment of wounded
soldiers. These units were powered using tubes of radium
emanation, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium,
later identified as radon. Sklodowska-Curie personally provided
the tubes, derived from the radium she purified. Also, promptly
after the war started, she donated her and her husband's gold
Nobel Prize medals for the war effort.
In 1921, Sklodowska-Curie toured the United States, where she
was welcomed triumphally, to raise funds for research on radium.
These distractions from her scientific labors, and the attendant
publicity, caused her much discomfort but provided resources for
her work. Her second American tour in 1929 succeeded in
equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute, founded in 1925 with her
sister Bronislawa as director.
In her later years, Sklodowska-Curie headed the Pasteur
Institute and a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the
University of Paris.
Sklodowska–Curie visited Poland a last time in the spring of
Only a couple of months later, Curie was dead. Her death on 4
July 1934, at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie,
eastern France, was from aplastic anemia, almost certainly
contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of
ionizing radiation were then not yet known, and much of her work
had been carried out in a shed without any safety measures. She
had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her
pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the
pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the
She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her
husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their
achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris
Panthéon. She became the first woman so honored.
Her laboratory is preserved at the Musée Curie.
Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s
(and even her cookbook) are considered too dangerous to handle.
They are kept in lead-lined boxes; those who wish to consult
them must wear protective clothing.
Madame Curie was decorated with the French Legion of Honor. In
Poland, she had received honorary doctorates from the Lwów
Polytechnic (1912), Poznan University (1922), Kraków's
Jagiellonian University (1924) and the Warsaw Polytechnic
The Curies' elder daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won a Nobel
Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for discovering that aluminium could
be made radioactive and emit neutrons when bombarded with alpha
rays. The younger daughter, Ève Curie, wrote a biography of her
In 1936, Michalina Moscicka, wife of Polish President Ignacy
Moscicki, unveiled a statue of the scientist in front of
Warsaw's Curie Institute, the former Radium Institute. Eight
years later, the monument suffered from gunfire during the 1944
Warsaw Uprising; but after the war, when maintenance work was
being done, it was decided not to remove these scars.
In 1967, a museum devoted to Sklodowska–Curie was established in
Warsaw's "New Town," in her birthplace on ulica Freta (Freta
The Curies' work contributed substantially to shaping the world
of the 20th and 21st centuries, in both its physical and
societal aspects. L. Pearce Williams observes:
The result of the Curies' work was epoch-making. Radium's
radioactivity was so great that it could not be ignored. It
seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy
and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of
physics. On the experimental level the discovery of radium
provided men like Ernest Rutherford with sources of
radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the
atom. As a result of Rutherford's experiments with alpha
radiation, the nuclear atom was first postulated. In medicine,
the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which
cancer could be successfully attacked.
If the work of Maria Sklodowska–Curie helped overturn
established ideas in physics and chemistry, it has had an
equally profound effect in the societal sphere. In order to
attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers
that were placed in her way as a woman in both her country of
origin and her adoptive country. This aspect of her life and
career is highlighted in Françoise Giroud's Marie Curie: A Life,
which emphasizes Sklodowska's role as a feminist precursor. She
was ahead of her time, emancipated, independent, and in addition
uncorrupted. Albert Einstein is supposed to have remarked that
she was probably the only person who was not corrupted by the
fame that she had won.
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