Marie Curie

And the Study of Radioactivity

Poland and the Sorbonne

Marie Sklodowska

Marie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. In a family of seven, Vladislov, her father, and Bronislawa, her mother, were both schoolteachers. To young Marie, Poland was a cage. Russia had controlled parts of it for over a century. Her parent's couldn't afford to send all of her siblings to university, and Poland wasn't even willing to give women college education. Making things even worse, her mother died and left their family with little money. She dreamed that someday she might attend the Sorbonne (University of Paris), where she could continue her education.

Scientifically Minded

Marie's first science classes were taught by her father, though she attended a standard school. Though the family's living conditions changed rapidly due to Vladislov's many job changes, he was always helping them in school. Marie was at the top of her classes. To fulfill her dream of going to university, she worked as a governess, a private tutor, to send first her sister, Bronya, and then herself to college. Finally, at twenty-four years of age, Marie was financially ready for the Sorbonne.
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Marie at 24, just before leaving for college.

The Female Image

A female scientist was almost unheard of during Marie's life. Her achievements could have been overlooked, if not for the help of her husband, Pierre. When he was contacted about being considered for a Nobel prize in 1903, he said that radioactivity wasn't just his discovery, Marie was the one who made it possible. Marie also suffered the prejudice of anti-Semitism, as her surname suggested Jewish origin. It is even thought that the Nobel prize she won in chemistry (1911) may have been an apology for not recognizing her Scientific genius.

Studies with Pierre


The existence of radioactivity had been discovered by Henri Becquerel in 1896. He placed a sample of uranium in the sunlight. When he was done, he put the uranium on top of a photographic plate. He was surprised to find that the uranium had somehow left a strong image on the plate. Though he was curious where the energy had come from, he chose to not investigate.

The contents of pitchblende

Marie decided to try picking up where Becquerel left off. She acquired a large sample of ore containing uranium and many other elements, called pitchblende, as well as pure uranium. She used a Curie electrometer to test the samples. This machine had actually been invented by her husband and his brother. The experiment yielded unexpected results, as the ore proved more radioactive (a term Marie coined) than the pure metal. She realized that the ore must contain more than just uranium. Pierre was so intrigued by Marie's discovery that he joined her in her research. Neither Marie nor Pierre could find a way to successfully isolate the other radioactive elements that they knew existed in pitchblende. There were so many elements in their samples that progress went slowly.

The outcomes and consequences

After many, many tests on pitchblende, Marie found two completely new elements, polonium (which she named for Poland) and radium. Unfortunately, she and Pierre had no idea that radiation could harm you. They casually carried polonium and radium with them to show off and kept it around the house to remind them of their rewarded efforts. They both became very ill. Pierre died in 1906. He was run over by a horse-drawn wagon. Though this event was undoubtedly tragic, it allowed Marie's genius come to light. In 1913, Marie died from the intense exposure to radiation. To her, the discovery must have been worth it.


Nobel Prizes

  • Pierre almost won the Nobel prize in Physics of 1903 for research on radioactivity, but he told them that Marie was the one who made it possible and they worked as a team. Therefore, Marie, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel won it together.
  • In 1911 Marie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her discovery of polonium and radium.

Other awards

  • Davy Medal (1903) with Pierre
  • Matteuchi Medal (1904) with Pierre
  • Actonian Prize (1907)
  • Elliot Cresson Medal (1909)
  • John Scott Legacy Medal and Premium (1921)
  • Benjamin Fraklin Medal (1921)

Why Curie?

You might be wondering why Curie is so important. There are multiple reasons, of course. The first is Marie's contribution to science. She saw the potential of using radioactivity when Becquerel passed on the chance to study it. She knew that it could be used. The discovery of polonium and radium not only expanded scientific knowledge, but Marie pushed the use of radioactivity for medical purposes.

Maybe the most important reason is, well, simple. Marie's status as a female scientist was unheard of in her day. She was not only the first woman to earn a doctorate in France, but she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize. Even more, she the first of four people to ever win two Nobel prizes. Marie was able to overcome not just the victorian pressures on women, but also the grasp of the Russian government on her home country. Marie Curie was easily one of the bests scientist throughout history.

Marie Curie Animated

Animated Hero Classics: Marie Curie on DVD
These are selected pieces of a longer piece of animation. You can watch it in entirety in the link below.


British Broadcasting Corporation. "Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)". 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Duke University. "The Discovery of Radioactivity". Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. "The Discovery of Radioactivity". 9 August 2000. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Naomi Pasachoff. "Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity". 2000. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Nobel Media AB. "Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium". 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Nobel Media AB. "Marie Curie - Biographical". 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Ron Cathren. "Answer to Question #7134 Submitted to "Ask the Experts". 13 August 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

The Science Museum. "Marie Curie and the History of Radioactivity". Web. 8 Dec 2014.