Marie Skłodowska Curie, 1867 - 1934

portrait of Marie Curie
Circa 1920

Born: 7 November 1867, Warsaw, Vistula Country, Russian Empire
Died: 4 July 1934, Passy, Haute-Savoie, France

Marie Skłodowska was born at Warsaw, the youngest child of well-known teachers. Her older sister died when Marie was ten, and her devout Catholic mother two years later, at which point she became an atheist like her father. While her mother lived, Marie attended the school her mother ran, and then entered a female gymnasium, graduating in 1883. She made a bargain with her older sister to work for two years to help pay for the sister's education at Paris in exchange for repayment in kind after the sister's graduation. When the elder sister invited her to Paris Marie declined, expecting to marry, but the young gentleman's parents forbid the match and Marie moved to Paris in 1891, entering the Sorbonne. While tutoring at nights to pay her tuition, Marie earned a degree in physics in 1893, then a degree in mathematics the following year. Her physics work had been in the area of magnetism, which brought her into close contact with Pierre Curie. She intended to continue her education in her home country and returned to Warsaw only to be denied entry at Krakow University because she was a woman. She returned to Paris and married Pierre a year later. After Henri Becquerel discovered radiation in uranium, Marie began investigating the phenomenon and coined the term radioactivity. She determined that thorium also emitted radiation and, more significantly, that two uranium ores emitted more radioactivity than uranium itself, leading her to isolate and name the element polonium, and shortly afterwards, radium. Polonium was named for her homeland, although there was no Poland at the time. Marie and Pierre, along with Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and the Sorbonne created a professorship in Physics for Pierre with its own laboratory, where Marie was director of research. Despondent after Pierre's death in a 1906 traffic accident, the Sorbonne elevated her to a full professorship, the first woman to hold that rank, which provided the challenge to return to work. She received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the discovery of the two new elements and the isolation of radium. The damaging effects of radiation was not known at the time, and Marie had casually worked with so much radioactive material that her papers, including her cookbook, are radioactive and stored in lead vaults and can only be read wearing protective clothing. While she provided radium to treat cancer in others, she contracted aplastic anemia, almost certainly from radiation, and died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium.

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