The Magnificent Marie Curie


The name Marie Curie (1867-1934) is synonymous with greatness, not only because of the scientific discoveries she made, but also for the exemplary way she led her life. It is a name known worldwide whether by people in the fields of science or outside it. In Marie Curie we find the persevering scientist, the hardworking mother and the compassionate humanitarian. Her pioneering work in the field of radioactivity led to the development of a new and important discipline in science; it also ushered in a new era in medical research and treatment.

Marie Curie lived at a time when women were not seen as equal to men. However, she did not let that stand in her way; she worked hard to attain her goals. She was one for setting many firsts; she was the first woman to receive a doctorate in France in 1903; she was the first woman to be appointed Professor at the Sorbonne in Paris; she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win it twice. Moreover, in reverence of her great achievements in science and her dedication to bettering human life, she was buried in France's National Mausoleum, the Panthéon in Paris; thus becoming the first woman whose own accomplishments earned her the right to rest for eternity alongside France's most renowned dignitaries.

In 1903, Marie Curie along with her husband, Pierre Curie, and the physicist Henri Becquerel, won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics for their joint work in radioactivity. Marie Curie was first interested in radiation, when in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays; and in 1896, Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered that the element uranium gives off similar invisible radiations.

Marie’s journey began with studying uranium radiation applying piezoelectric techniques invented by her husband. She carefully measured the radiations in pitchblende, an ore containing uranium. When she discovered that the radiations from the ore were more intense than those from uranium itself, she realized that unknown elements, even more radioactive than uranium were present.

Marie and Pierre worked long and hard until they were finally able to isolate the radioactive sources in the pitchblende, which they named polonium and radium. Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, “In recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, through the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

Only an extraordinary woman could have had such patience and determination to enable her to make the discoveries she made. These attributes were nurtured in her since childhood by her parents who were both aware of the importance of a good education and a diligent work ethic. Even though Marie Curie came from an occupied Poland where intellectuals were oppressed and education discouraged in order to subdue the people, her parents did not give up on their children’s rights to a wholesome education and did all they could to ensure they had a good intellectual foundation and sound analytical minds.

Marie Curie left Poland, her homeland, and journeyed to France to quench her thirst for knowledge, but she never forgot her roots and it is in honor of her homeland that she named the first element she discovered polonium.

When World War I broke out, a patriotic Marie Curie took a stance using her scientific knowledge to contribute to the war effort. As she herself said, “I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country, since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native country just now”. Marie Curie realized that by using X-rays on wounded soldiers, doctors would be able to locate bullets, shrapnel and broken bones more easily, which would alleviate soldiers’ pain more rapidly. She convinced the Government to help her set up France's first military radiology centres; by late 1914, she had 20 vans outfitted with X-ray apparatus ready to offer help on the battle front. Not only that, she also drove one of the vans herself and had her daughter help her. Together they both helped train other women in working the transportable radiological units.

Not only did Marie Curie display how scientific discoveries can be implemented for the benefit of humanity, she also thrived to share her knowledge of radioactivity so as to impact as many people as possible. “Radioactivity is the natural process by which the heavier elements such as uranium, polonium and radium spontaneously break up, or disintegrate. In the process, the atoms of the radioactive elements throw out pieces of themselves and releasing penetrating Gamma radiation so useful in the treatment of many forms of cancer.”

In 1920, Curie and a number of her colleagues created the Curie Foundation, which over the next two decades became a major international force in the treatment of cancer. Among its first achievements was the construction of a dispensary where innovative treatments were developed, combining surgery and radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer. The Curie Foundation was a model for cancer centers around the world.

Even though Marie Curie was very busy with her research and teaching, she nonetheless made time to run a cooperative school, for the benefit of her daughters, with other professional parents who disapproved of the French school system. Each family agreed to teach one class each week in its field of expertise. She also ensured that they did not forget their Polish roots by hiring Polish governesses and taking her daughters on frequent visits to Poland.

Marie Curie was truly a woman who “had it all” as we would say nowadays, and she was successful at it all. She had an exceptional and unconventional upbringing thanks to her parents’ unusual focus on the importance of girls’ education. She was also the epitome of a hard working individual who strives to do their best in whichever field they chose. On many occasions she could have succumbed to living a life of a celebrity or sharing in the lucrative business that radium has generated, but she never lost sight of her ultimate goal; to continue benefiting mankind through research and teaching.

You might also be interested to read "Marie Curie: Up Close and Personal"



The Science News-Letter, Vol. 26, No. 692 (Jul. 14, 1934), p. 19. Published by:Society for Science & the Public

The Women's Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 8 (May, 1995), p. 5. Published by Old City Publishing, Inc.

Science, New Series, Vol. 267, No. 5205 (Mar. 24, 1995), pp. 1842-1843. Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science (1) (2)

​This article was first published in print in the PSC Newsletter, 2nd School Semester 2010/2011.

Cover image source: by tonynetone/

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