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Marie Curie

winner of two Nobel Prizes

Marie Curie

Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. Both of her parents were teachers, and she received much of her early education and scientific training from her father. Desiring further education, Marie spent several years teaching at a Warsaw high school and working as a governess in order to get enough money to move to Paris and enter the Sorbonne. She was finally able to make that move in 1891, received her physics degree from the Sorbonne in 1893, and earned her mathematics degree in 1894.

Marie had been able to continue her studies at the Sorbonne thanks to a scholarship earmarked for an outstanding Polish student. While working toward her second degree, she was commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to do a study relating the magnetic properties of different steels to their chemical composition. While searching for a laboratory in which to work, she was introduced to Pierre Curie, who was then the laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. The two soon fell in love, and were married in July of 1895. Meanwhile, the school agreed to provide Marie with the space she needed, despite the fact that Pierre didn't have private lab space in which to conduct his experiments in the field of magnetism. Marie submitted the results of her research to the Society in the summer of 1897, and used part of her payment to return the scholarship money she had received four years earlier. Marie and Pierre's first child, Irčne, was born in September of that same year.

Having completed her first major project, Marie almost immediately began looking for a new field of research. She decided to continue Henri Becquerel's 1896 investigation into the unusual properties of uranium. By early 1898 she had confirmed Becquerel's observations that the electrical effects of uranium rays were constant regardless of whether the uranium was in solid or pulverized form, was pure or in compound, was wet or dry, or even if it had been exposed to light or heat. She also discovered that minerals with higher proportions of uranium emitted the most intense rays, and that the emission of rays by uranium compounds could be an atomic property of uranium itself. She then tested all known elements to see if any other element or mineral would make air conduct electricity better, or if such a property was unique to uranium alone. In April of 1898 she found that thorium compounds also emitted Becquerel Rays, and subsequently coined the term "radioactivity" (which she took from the Latin word for ray). She subsequently found that two specific uranium ores -- pitchblende and chalcolite -- were much more radioactive than pure uranium itself, and hypothesized that one or both ores might contain additional radioactive elements besides uranium. It was her attempt to prove this hypothesis that ultimately led Marie Curie to discover two new elements, and to win an unprecedented two Nobel Prizes.

Recognizing the potential importance of Marie's work, Pierre Curie decided to set aside his own research on crystals in order to help her prove her hypothesis. Using an entirely new method of chemical analysis to isolate unknown substances from pitchblende, the couple worked many long and hard hours before, in July of 1898, they announced the discovery of the element polonium (which Marie named in honor of her homeland); in December they announced their discovery of the element radium.

A drawing of the apparatus used by the Curies for detecting the presence of radioactivity. It consists of a gold leaf electroscope fitted with a microscope to detect the smallest movement of the leaf. Radiation emitted consists of alpha and beta particles and gamma rays travelling at very high speeds which leave ionized atoms in their wake. The radium sample, held near the electrodes of the detector, causes charges to be accmulated on the leaf, which moves through electrostatic repulsion.
apparatus used for detecting the presence of radioactivity

Having isolated two new elements, the Curies next set out to produce pure samples for further study. Because the school laboratory was too small, they moved their research to a poorly heated wooden shed with a leaky glass roof, and began boiling down tons of donated pitchblende. Despite the lack of heat, they had to work with the windows open to let out the smoke and fumes. By 1902 they had managed to produce 0.1 grams of radium chloride; it took another eight years to get actual grains of pure radium. Due to its very short half life, they were never able to successfully produce polonium.

A drawing of the apparatus used by the Curies for studying the glow of substances (in B) caused by a radium salt solution (S).
apparatus for studying the glow of substances caused by a radium salt solution

Although the work done by the Curies had enormous potential, it failed to provide them with enough income to both raise a family and continue their research. Radium would soon prove to be an important medical tool, but since the Curies never patented their process for isolating the element they never personally profitted from its use. They did, however, enjoy some increase in income after Pierre became a Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne (in either 1900 or 1901).

In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work in radioactivity (but not for the discovery of two new elements). The Curies used their share of the prize money to hire a paid lab assistant, and to cover some of the expenses incurred during their initial research. The first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie became an instant celebrity. In 1904 she became Chief of the Laboratory in the Physics Department at the Sorbonne. In December of that year, the Curies celebrated the birth of their second child, Eve.

Marie Curie spent the rest of her life working on radium and its various compounds. Although the cumulative effects of working with radiation left both Marie and Pierre in poor physical health, neither allowed their discomfort to dissuade them from their research. On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was killed when he was hit by a wagon on the streets of Paris. Although Marie was devastated by the loss, she sought comfort by immersing herself even further in research. In 1911 she became the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes, this time receiving one in Chemistry for her work with radium. In 1914 she founded the Institute of Radium in Paris, where she was joined by her daughter Irene. During World War I, Marie and Irene organized radiological services for hospitals, despite being deprived of much of their equipment by the Nazis.

Three decades of working with radioactivity eventually cost Marie Curie her life. She died of leukemia on July 4, 1934.


The Great Idea Finder
The Nobel Foundation

See Also

Henri Becquerel
Irčne Joliot-Curie
Nobel Prize for Physics
Nobel Prize for Chemistry
World War I

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The Robinson Library >> Chemistry >> Biography

This page was last updated on 09/17/2018.