Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) was a physicist and chemist whose pioneering research in radioactivity won her two Nobel Prizes in two scientific fields. Referred to as the woman who opened the nuclear age, Marie Curie’s discovery of radium and its radioactive properties earned her this designation. She even coined the term radioactivity to describe the mysterious rays that French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered in 1896. In addition to her groundbreaking work in nuclear physics and chemistry, she developed the mobile X-ray unit which was first used to diagnose injuries during World War I.
Curie’s discovery of radioactivity in uranium and radium was the first indication that an energy source existed that was more powerful than chemical reactions. This opened the door to understanding the structure of the atom, to radiation therapy for cancer, and to the use of nuclear energy. Madame Curie decided not to take out a patent because “radium is not to enrich anyone, it is for all people.”
Born in Poland in 1867, Curie moved to France to study physics, chemistry, and math at the University of Paris in 1891. There she met her future husband and research partner Pierre Curie. She earned two degrees from the institution, one in 1893 and another in 1894.
In 1903, Curie and her husband received the Nobel Prize for their joint research in radioactivity alongside Henri Becquerel. They were responsible for the discovery of new elements radium and polonium which came from the radioactive mineral pitchblende, now commonly known as uraninite. She was the first woman to hold her position in the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne and the first to win the Nobel Prize.
In 1910, she was successful in producing radium as a pure metal, further proving the element’s existence, and was awarded her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. She remains the only person awarded a Nobel Prize in two areas of science.
Curie served in World War I as the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service. She created small, mobile X-ray units called “Petite Curies” which were vehicles containing an X-ray machine and darkroom equipment. She trained over 150 women to operate the units which ultimately helped treat over one million soldiers near the battlefront.
Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, likely a result of her work with radiation.
Awards & Recognition
- 1903 – Received the Nobel Prize in Physics (with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel)
- 1911 – Awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
- 1920 – Became the first female member of The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters
- 1924 – Became an Honorary Member of the Polish Chemical Society
- Received 4 honorary doctorates from Polish universities
- The radioactivity unit “curie” is named in honor of Marie and Pierre Curie
- Element 96 was named curium