Curie has inspired subsequent female scientists.
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
property of the atom changed forever our understanding
of our physical universe, the nature of scientific
research, and the status of women scientists.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, won the
Nobel Prize in physics in 1903—making her one of
woman to win the award was Maria Goeppert Mayer
Marja Sklodowska, born in Warsaw, Poland, on
November 7, 1867, was the fifth and youngest child
of Bronsitwa Boguska, a musician and teacher, and
Ladislas Sklodowski, a professor of math and physics.
Bronsitwa Sklodowski died of tuberculosis in 1878.
Ladislas raised his five children in Warsaw, Poland,
during Russian occupation of the Polish capital. Russia
had annexed part of Poland in 1772; CATHERINE
II of Russia invaded Poland again in 1792, and both
Russia and Prussia annexed additional regions of
Poland. A rebellion against the foreign overlords
ended with the fall of Warsaw in 1794, when Poland
ceased to exist as a sovereign nation for the next 124
nation with Warsaw as its capital.
Marja Sklodowska graduated from high school at
the top of her class when she was only 15. She spent
the following eight years working as a tutor and governess,
earning money for both her own and her sister
Bronia’s education. In her spare time, she studied
math and physics and attended a “floating” university
in Warsaw—a loosely run, underground program
conducted by Polish professors in defiance of the
Russian-instituted education program in place. In
1891, Sklodowska left Poland and entered the prestigious
Sorbonne in Paris. Marja, who began using the
French version of her name, Marie, graduated at the
top of her class in 1893.
She continued her studies for an additional year,
obtaining a master’s degree in math. She then
searched for a facility in which she could conduct
experiments in physics. Her search led her to Pierre
Curie (1859–1906), a physicist recognized for his
work on crystallography and magnetism, and professor
of physics at the Municipal School of Industrial
Physics and Chemistry in Paris. The two married in
1895, and Marie Curie embarked on her doctorate in
physics. Two years later, their daughter Irène was
born. Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) later became
professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris and contributed
research that became an important step in
the discovery of uranium fission.
At the Municipal School Marie Curie met Henri
Becquerel (1852–1908), a scientist who studied X
rays. Becquerel had observed rays given off by the element
uranium. Intrigued, Marie wanted to find out
more about these mysterious rays and about uranium.
Within a couple of months, she discovered that the
intensity of the rays was in direct proportion to the
amount of uranium in her sample, and that, regardless
of other factors—combining it with other elements,
or subjecting it to heat, cold, or light—nothing
seemed to affect the rays. She experimented with other
elements, and found that another substance, thorium,
was also “radioactive”—a term she coined—giving off
similar rays to those found in uranium. Together,
Marie and Pierre Curie demonstrated that the radioactivity
was not the result of a chemical reaction but was
By studying pitchblende, a uranic substance,
Marie discovered that it was actually more radioactive
than uranium alone. She then discovered two new elements,
polonium (which she named after her native
land) and radium, in 1898. Marie and Pierre Curie,
along with their partner Henri Becquerel, won the
Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of natural
radioactivity in 1903. Marie Curie finished her doctorate
the same year.
Meanwhile, Pierre began observing the effects of
radiation on human beings. He noticed, for example,
that when he applied radium to his skin, it caused a
burn and then a wound. Soon, radium would be
used to treat tumors. Marie and Pierre Curie had
another daughter, Eve, in 1904, but in 1906, tragedy
struck; weakened by exposure to radiation, Pierre
Curie was struck and killed by a moving vehicle on
the streets of Paris.
After Pierre Curie’s death, Marie Curie assumed
her husband’s position as professor of physics at the
Sorbonne; her appointment made her the first
woman faculty member there. In addition to teaching
courses, she continued experimenting with the
new elements of polonium and radium. Her success
in isolating them earned her a Nobel Prize in chemistry
in 1911. By this time, Curie was operating the
Radium Institute, an experimental laboratory in
Paris. During World War I (1914–18), Curie abandoned
her experiments and went to work developing
an X-ray machine that could be used at field hospitals
to treat wounded soldiers who needed immediate
Marie Curie sailed for the United States in 1921.
Marie Maloney, a journalist, invited her to raise
funds for a hospital and laboratory dedicated to radiology,
a new branch of medicine in which X rays and
radium were used to diagnose and treat disease. The
tour was a success: she collected enough money and
donated equipment to outfit her new laboratory. As
her fame grew, however, Marie Curie was becoming
more and more ill. For a long time, Curie could not
admit that the substance to which she had devoted
most of her life was ending her life. She died of
leukemia at a sanitorium on July 4, 1934.
Giroud, Françoise. Marie Curie, a Life. New York: Holmes
& Meier, 1986.
Greene, Carol. Marie Curie, Pioneer Physicist. Chicago:
Children’s Press, 1984. Young Adult.
Quinn, Susan. Marie Curie, a Life. New York: Simon &
Thorne, Alice. The Story of Madame Curie. New York:
Grosset & Dunlap, 1959. Young Adult.