Marie Curie’s birthday was celebrated this month, making it the perfect time to write about her! Her story is fascinating. Grab a cup of tea and let’s get started!
Marie Curie grew up as Maria Sklodowska. She was born on November 7, 1867, the fifth child to educators in Poland. After her birth, Maria’s mother resigned as the head of the school. They moved to a high school for boys, where her father taught physics and math.
The income from the teaching position was not enough to feed a family of seven so Maria’s family took in student boarders. Typhus made it around the house, taking Maria’s eldest sister when Maria was eight years old. Two years later, her mother would be taken by tuberculosis.
Maria did well in school and graduated high school at fifteen years old. She and her sister, Bronya, began attending an underground school as women were not permitted to attend medical school.
This was not enough for Maria and Bronya. The two made a pact. They would each work to help subsidize each other’s education. Bronya being older would go to school first while Maria worked to help. Bronya would then help Maria later after she finished school.
Maria began as a tutor but found this was not enough. She became a governess – a live-in teacher – to an employer who ran a beet-sugar factory. Maria taught the employer’s children and was even allowed to teach the illiterate laborer children how to read.
All was going well until Maria and the oldest son fell in love. The employers did not consent to the marriage. Nevertheless, Maria continued to stay with the family in order to help her sister.
In her downtime, Maria studied on her own. She studied sociology, literature, physics and chemistry. She took the equivalent of an advanced math course via mail with her father. She took more chemistry lessons when it became apparent that the physical sciences were her forte. She was taught by a chemist in the beet-sugar factory.
Maria returned home in 1889. Her father became the director of a reform school so he was able to provide Bronya as much money as Maria was. Soon, Maria was being subsidized by her father as well and in the fall of 1891 Maria would be able to go to school at the University of Paris.
At age 24, Maria enrolled in the University of Paris as Marie. She lived with her sister and her family at first, an hour’s travel from the university. Marie was not happy with all this time being wasted traveling. She moved out on her own to a neighborhood near the university. She had very little. She kept warm by wearing every article of clothing she owned. She often fainted of hunger while studying but Marie was in her element. She could study as long as she wished.
In 1893, Marie completed her Master’s degree in physics. A year later she had finished her Master’s degree in math with the help of some scholarships.
Marie now needed a lab.
She was introduced the Pierre Curie in 1984. Curie researched magnetism. He did not have space for Marie but that did not hinder their relationship. Marie found lab space at the Municipal school.
In the summer of 1985, the two wed.
In the fall of 1897, Irene was born. Pierre’s farther came to live with them after his wife died. He was the ideal babysitter for Irene.
The discover of x-rays in 1895 and Antoine Becquerel’s discovery of uranium’s fogging of a photographic plate in 1896 prompted Marie to pursue her doctoral degree. No woman in France had succeeded in obtaining one before. Marie focused on the uranium as the scientific community stuck with the x-rays.
She worked in a crowded storeroom at the school where Pierre taught. Here, Marie confirmed that uranium rays are constant regardless of what they’re exposed to. Pierre began to be intrigued by Marie’s work so he joined her research. They discovered that two uranium ores were more radioactive than pure uranium itself.
In the summer of 1898, the Curie published the discovery of polonium, a new element that acted like bismuth but was radioactive; therefore, making it a new element. The discovery of radium followed later that year. Marie set forth in isolating these compounds. She never succeeded with polonium and it took three years to isolate one tenth of a gram of radium. The radium glowed! Marie described them as looking like “fairy lights” in their lab.
In 1903, Marie successfully defended her thesis, thus earning her doctorate degree. That same year, Becquerel and both Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
In 1904, Eve Curie was born. Things began looking up for the Curie’s as the prize money benefited them greatly.
This sweet moment was not to last for in 1906, Pierre was struck by a horse drawn carriage and killed instantly. Marie refused government assistance. She did, however, accept to take Pierre’s position at the University of Paris.
She began to construct the Radium Institute. In the year 1914 it was complete. This was also the same year that France was bombed by Germany.
It was time to go to war.
Marie brought x-rays to soldiers on the front lines of the war. Vehicles were used and Marie drove them herself. Irene came with her to the front line. Now seventeen, Irene was a fantastic assistant; however, the two of them were not enough. Marie began to train others to work the x-ray machines as well.
After the war, Marie traveled to the Unites States to get support for the Radium Institute. She was well received in the United States and all over the world.
Thirty-one papers were published between 1919 and 1934 as the Institute housed three or four dozen researchers. Curie was involved in every one of them.
In the 1920s, Curie’s health began to decline from the radiation she was exposed to. She died on July 6, 1934. She was buried next to her in-laws and Pierre before being buried, sixty years later, in a Paris’ national mausoleum with Pierre.
Today, we are protected from x-rays with lead aprons. The Curie’s were unaware of the damage their research was doing to them. Their thirst to benefit humanity allowed them to ignore the cost.
Images are in the public domain.