Marie Sklodowski was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw the capital of Poland. Both of her parents were school teachers, and they had high expectations for their five children (Zosia, Bronia, Jozef, Helena and Marie). Marie, her sisters, and brother all graduated with the highest grades in their class. The Sklodowski family was very learned and cultured, but they struggled financially. Poland was occupied by Russia and Germany. Many jobs were taken by these unwelcome foreigners. Marie’s father, Wladyslaw, was a school principal. He lost his job to a Russian because he was loyal to Poland and a patriot.
To help meet living expenses, Marie’s family took in student boarders. The household was crowded with so many people in one apartment. Those crowded living conditions helped to spread tuberculosis, a major infectious disease in the late nineteenth century. Marie’s mother got the disease from Wladyslaw’s brother who came to live with them. After several expensive rest cures in the south of France, she died in 1878 from TB when Marie was only nine years old. .
Why She Chose Physics Marie was encouraged to study physical science by her cousin, Jozef Boguski. He was the director of the Warsaw Museum of Industry. He allowed her to do experiments in physics and chemistry on the weekends at the museum. When Marie got to the Sorbonne in Paris, a revolution was about to take place. It was not a revolution with soldiers, but a revolution in science. This was a very exciting time to study physics. Physics is a branch of science that investigates the four forces at work in the universe both on a large scale, as in the solar system, or on a small scale, as in atoms. The structure of the atom and the forces which hold it together were still unknown when Marie enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne.
Marie Curie’s Research
With Pierre acting as her advisor, Marie spent several years purifying uranium ore. It was a grueling task to isolate the “radioactive” substances from tons of ordinary rock. Toiling over a giant vat, she worked out of doors or in a drafty shed. This was a blessing in disguise because the vat gave off poisonous radon gas. The Curies were not aware of this.
Marie proposed that the radiation came from inside the atoms. Other scientists followed her lead and started to investigate the structure of atoms. She discovered two new elements which the Curies named Radium (after “radiation”) and Polonium (after Poland). In 1903, the Curies and Henri Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in physics for their combined research and discoveries on radioactivity.
The Dangerous Beauty of Radium
The Curies had two daughters: Irene was born in 1897 and Eve in 1904. Pierre’s father took over the childcare duties as Marie and Pierre became more and more involved in their work. Marie became pregnant again, but she suffered a miscarriage probably due to high levels of radiation in her lab. One rainy afternoon in April of 1906, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn wagon and died. Pierre had been experiencing severe pains in his legs, and this may have caused the accident. Marie was devastated, and she turned to a close friend of Pierre’s, Paul Langevin, for companionship. Their love affair was exposed by a tabloid newspaper, and a scandal resulted. Marie’s reputation and career were nearly destroyed. Then the Swedish Nobel committee announced she had won the prize for chemistry!
Director of an Institute
This probably saved her career in physics. In the following years she was very bitter about the way she was treated. She made a point of hiring people at her lab who also had suffered discrimination by the male science establishment. She also hired several women at her lab and gave them their start in physics. One was Marguerite Perey who began as a test tube washer and, a few years later, discovered the radioactive element Francium. Ellen Gleditsch came to the lab from Norway. At home, Marie was training Irene to become a physicist. Irene reminded her of Pierre; she had the same temperment and the same dislike of school.
Because of her service to soldiers during the war, the French public began to think of Marie less as a foreigner and more as a patriotic French woman. She also toured America twice after the war and raised money for her Radium Institute. During these years, she controlled the largest supply of radioactive substances used in scientific research. She shared these with other physics labs engaged in studying the structure of the atom.
Marie had the constitution of a horse, but even she eventually succumbed to the lethal effects of radiation exposure. In the last decade of her life, she suffered from severe pains and aches like Pierre had. She also had cataracts in her eyes and constant ringing in her ears. In 1934, Marie’s bold adventure into the atomic universe came to an end. She died in Paris of leukemia, a cancer of the blood.
The Curie Tradition Lives On
In 1997, Marie’s remains were moved to the Pantheon, France’s monument to its heros. She is the first woman to be so honored. Marie Curie was a great Polish patriot, but she had won a place in the heart of the French people.