history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  




by Olivia Borecka



Maria Sklodowska Curie, the first woman scientist to win worldwide fame, and one of the great scientists of this century, was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. The impact of her scientific contribution to chemistry and physics is reflected in two Nobel Prizes awarded to her. Marie Curie gained fame for her work on radioactivity, discovery of two chemical elements: Radium and Polonium, as well as other important scientific findings which inspired subsequent generations of chemists and physicists and laid foundations of successive discoveries Sklodowska's motives were purely humanitarian and the ill application of nuclear physics (some forty years later), to which she has contributed, sadly turned out to be very ironic. And so was her death in 1934 of leukemia caused by overexposure to radiation.

From very early years Maria displayed an exceptional talent as well as enthusiasm and determination for learning. She learned how to read, virtually by herself, when she was barely four, despite her parent's disapproval. She completed her secondary education two years earlier than her colleagues, graduating with a gold medal at the age of sixteen.

Her versatile mind bore broad interests ranging from literature and sociology to the exact sciences. Maria's prodigious memory, remarkable from early childhood, together with an exceptionally academic environment at home laid foundations to the emergence of the great scholar.


Maria Sklodowska was the fifth and the youngest child of a teachers' family. Her father taught physics and mathematics in a secondary school and her mother was a principal of one of the best girls' schools in Warsaw. Maria, growing up in the atmosphere of scientific and scholarly discussions, developed a special interest in books, many of them which included textbooks and technical works from her father's library. At school she was always the best student in all subjects, even though two years younger than her classmates.


Warsaw belonged to the part of Poland which was at that time under Russian domination. Growing up under foreign oppression wasn't easy. Even children at school were strictly forbidden to learn in their native language. Patriotic teachers, however, used Polish clandestinely when no visitation by a tsarist inspector threatened. Joining the protesters and conspirators against Russification Maria first attended an underground illegal Polish university and spent her free time reading in Polish to women workers. At the age of eighteen she became a governess to several gentry children in the country, devoting her free time to educating (illegally) peasant children. Although of noble birth, Sklodowskis family suffered from financial hardship, and Marie had to work hard to collect money for her further education. In Warsaw she gained access to the laboratories at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture. There she completed a systematic course of chemical quantitative and qualitative analysis and in the analysis of minerals. Experience she gained in these laboratories, as she often mentioned, helped her in her future discoveries. But Maria needed a formal education. Russian University in Warsaw was not open to women, hence she would have to go abroad. Maria decided to use her earnings to finance her older sister's medical studies in Paris, who in return would help her later to come to study over there.


So it happened in 1891. Twenty four year old Maria Sklodowska left for Paris. Her objective was to study mathematical and physical sciences. For she loved her home country, Maria intended to stay abroad for only a few years; until she finishes her education. But it turned out differently. Hardship was prevalent from the very beginning. Maria traveled in a fourth class train to Paris. There she lived in an attic room, insufficiently heated by a small stove, which during some winters sometimes did not work at all due to the freeze of water at night. She virtually lived on bread, butter and tea. She attended Lectures at the Sorbonne, where she met famous scientists. Marie had to supplement the shortcomings in her education by persistent work and studies. She completed her studies in physics in 1893, taking first place as a "licentiate", and following year she came in second as a "licentiate" of mathematics.


In 1894 Marie started working in Professor Gabriel Lippmann's research laboratory to investigate magnetic properties of steel. In the same year she met Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1985. This marriage was at the same time a perfect research partnership of two enthusiastic scholars (Pierre Curie was already well known physicist at that time). Both Curies worked on the discovery of first polonium (named after Poland) and then radium. Maria later regretted that she had not called the second element, which turned out to be more important, polonium. Inspired by the discovery of ray emission in uranium by Henri Becquerel, which she later called "radioactivity", Marie decided to undertake a doctoral thesis in a further search whether the property discovered in uranium was to be found in other matter. This work was to revolutionize all natural science. Her hypothesis that uranium's ability to emit rays is an atomic property, as opposed to physical property, turned out to be correct based on the investigation of radiation of thorium. As a result of long and tedious work, despite of immensely primitive and difficult conditions, Marie succeeded in obtaining a pure radium in metallic state. For her work she received doctorate of science in 1903. Same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radioactivity, jointly with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. With her husband, Marie also received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society.


Marie did not interrupt her intensive scientific work even upon the birth of her two daughters. But she managed to be a loving and caring mother and a persistent researcher at the same time. Her marriage was also a very happy one. The unexpected death of Marie's husband was a deep shock for her, but she made a commitment to continue the work they started together with all her energy. In 1911 Marie Curie alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the isolation of pure radium. She also became the first woman to teach at Sorbonne, where she became titular professor.

During World War I Marie, helped by her daughter, organized a radiological service for the French army. She herself rode ambulances to the front, with X- ray equipment, bringing immediate help to the wounded, she and put together numerous radiological stations with trained personnel. Upon Curie's discoveries Radium Institute was founded in Paris, a universal center for nuclear physics and chemistry. In 1922 Marie was awarded a membership in the Academy of Medicine, and she committed her research to medical applications of radioactive substances.

Throughout her life, Maria Sklodowska Curie remained not only devoted to her studies, but also to educating and encouraging others. She gave Lectures in numerous countries, and she contributed to the development of important research institutes which employed radioactive substances in the control of cancer. Although spending most of her carrier in France, Maria maintained close ties with her beloved homeland, Poland where numerous laboratories and institutions were founded based on her discoveries. Maria was characterized by modesty, unselfishness, dedication to the benefit of humanity. She avoided publicity, and fame bothered her.


Albert Einstein noted about her: "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted". Both Curies did not aspire for personal benefits, they did not patent their methods for obtaining pure radioactive substances. On the contrary- they published a very detailed descriptions and provided public with all technical information. They claimed that "Radium is a chemical element, it belongs to all the people". They saw radium as a remedy, not a source of money.

Pierre Curie, during the Nobel Prize inauguration warned against misuse of their scientific discoveries on the structure of matter by criminals who involve nations in war. This ironically happened 40 years before first nuclear bomb was used. The discovery of radium is often considered more important than a discovery of any other element since oxygen. Radiation was a new "force" of matter which caused revolutionized the view about properties of elements.


The discovery of neutron, and of artificial radioactivity in 1934 was possible due to Marie Curie's previous achievements. These and other discoveries and virtually the development of nuclear physics were feasible due to accumulation of intensive radioactive sources done by Marie Curie. The subsequent discovery of nuclear fission allowed to liberate nuclear energy on a technical scale. This controversial application of nuclear physics is used in nuclear reactors which supply heat to nuclear power plants, nuclear ships, etc. In this process artificial substances replace radium obtained with such great effort by Marie. However, the discovery of radioactivity found use not only in scientific research but also in industry, agriculture, and other fields of national economy, in medicine, both for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes; a usage that Marie actually intended.



Curie, Eve "Madame Curie" (1937)

New York: Doubleday

Farber, Eduard "Noble Prize Winners in Chemistry" (1956),

New York: Abelard-Schuman

Pflaum, Rosalynd "Grand Obsession" (1989),

New York: Doubleday

Quin, Susan "Marie Curie, a Life" (1995),

New York: Simon & Shuster




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