The incredible story of the scientist who launched a nuclear age

Above all else, Marie Curie was a scientist with remarkable insight. But to the science contemporaries of her time, Curie was a woman, who happened to study science.

At times she was overlooked for her achievements, which were laying the foundation for what we understand about radioactive behaviour that, today, runs nuclear reactors, powers deep-space exploration, and drives an entire field of medicine, called radiology.

Through the shameful, sexist-derived neglect, Curie’s intellect, wit, and drive pushed her toward miraculous discoveries that even the scientific community could not ignore for long.

Curie became the first scientist to earn two Nobel Prizes, had three radiology institutes erected in her honour, saw her eldest daughter win a Nobel Prize, and was revered by the most brilliant minds of our time, including Albert Einstein.

Today, she’s celebrated as one of the greatest scientists in history. In honour of Madame Marie Curie’s birthday this month, here’s the incredible story of her struggles and victories in a world where women were shunned.

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland on Nov. 7, 1867. Here's one of the earliest known photos of her at the age of 16.

The Noble Foundation

Born in Warsaw, Poland as Maria Salomea Skłodowska, her middle name originates from the Polish word 'Salome,' which is traced to the Hebrew word for 'peace.'

Maria would later adopt her husband's last name as well as the French translation of her first name, to become known as Marie Curie.


The Curie sisters were determined to study despite government bans on higher education for women.

Uploaded by Pit rock on Wikipedia
Marie Curie's father, Marie (far left) and two of her four older sisters in 1890.

Russia-dominated Poland was in the midst of a feminist revolution, but changes were slow-going.

Since women were still banned from higher education, Curie and one of her sisters joined the Flying University -- an educational institution that admitted women -- in the mid 1880s.

Source: American Institute of Physics

She eventually moved to Paris in 1891.

Uploaded by Michaellambert to Wikipedia
Sorbonne at night.

To continue her studies in chemistry, maths, and physics, Curie studied at Sorbonne -- the University of Paris at the time -- where she eventually became head of the Physics Laboratory.


Curie returned to her home country to teach.

After earning two degrees in science from Sorbonne, Curie returned to Poland in 1894 hoping to secure a job as a professor at Kraków University.

However, she was denied because she was a woman.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Soon after, she met the man who would become the love of her life.

Uploaded by Scewing to Wikipedia
Pierre Curie.

Pierre Curie was a professor at Sorbonne's School of Physics. Marie recorded her first impressions after their meeting:

'He seemed very young to me although he was then age thirty-five. I was struck by the expression of his clear gaze and by a slight appearance of carelessness in his lofty stature. His rather slow, reflective words, his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and young, inspired confidence. A conversation began between us and became friendly; its object was some questions of science upon which I was happy to ask his opinion.'

Source: Encyclopedia

After several proposals, the couple wed in France.

The couple's wedding portrait on July 26, 1895.

In a simple ceremony on July 26, 1895, Pierre and Marie got married in France. Marie decided to wear a more practical dark blue dress (similar to her laboratory outfits) instead of a bridal gown.

The couple would become terrific scientific collaborators.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Pierre and Marie married in 1895.

Wikimedia Commons
Pierre and Marie Curie in a laboratory.

Shortly after their marriage, Marie began investigating the properties of the radioactive element uranium.

Within three years, her work had inspired Pierre to drop his current research efforts and join her.

A choice that undoubtedly advanced the research but that almost eclipsed Marie's brilliance.

Source: American Institute of Physics

In the late 1890s, Marie developed a novel idea that completely revolutionised science.

A sample of uranium-rich pitchblende, called Uranite, which the Curies collected and studied.

Marie was the first to hypothesize that the bizarre properties of uranium came from the elements' atoms -- and not some external force -- and therefore must be present in other elements, not just uranium. She soon discovered that thorium had similar properties.

She later coined the term 'radioactivity' to describe this elemental behaviour.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Following her lead, Maria and Pierre were pushing the envelope of science in no time.

Uploaded by Mauswiesel to Wikipedia
Radium glows in the dark. Here are radium-coated watch hands from the 40s and 50s.

Between 1898 and 1902, Marie and Pierre discovered two, completely new elements: polonium and radium.

They also discovered that, when exposed to radium, tumour-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.

Today, radiation therapy is a widely-used method for shrinking and killing tumours.

Source: Encyclopedia

In 1903, the Physics Nobel Prize was awarded to Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel.

Uploaded by Materialscientist to Wikipedia

Initially, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences were only going to recognise Pierre and Becquerel for the prize. It was only after Pierre learned of this and complained that the academy included Marie.

The prize money was split in half -- not into thirds. The Pierre's shared half while the other half went to Becquerel.

Pierre and Marie were awarded 'in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.


After becoming the first woman to receive a Nobel, Marie is shamefully overlooked for her genius.

Where the French Academy of Sciences is housed in Paris.

Shortly after the Nobel laureates were announced, the University of Paris created a new chair in physics to which they appointed Pierre.

In 1905, Pierre was elected to the French Academy of Sciences.

Despite her ground-breaking contributions, Marie was overlooked for similar recognition by both the university and the academy.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Again, Marie suffers the sting of sexism in Stockholm.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1905, the Curies travelled to Stockholm to receive their Nobel Prize winnings -- a trip that had been postponed since 1903 because the two were too busy for the trip.

Typically, Nobel laureates provide a lecture on their award-winning work before receiving the money. Because she was a woman, Marie was not allowed to present, so she could only watch as Pierre lectured.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Pierre Curie died unexpectedly in 1906.


During a rainy night in April, Pierre was struck by a horse-drawn vehicle and killed.

One month later, the University of Paris appointed Marie her husband's position as professor and chair of physics.

She was the first woman to hold the position of professor at the university.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Heart-broken from her husband's death, Marie pushed on.

The Nobel Foundation
Marie Curie with her two daughters.

Between 1906 and 1911, Marie juggled mothering her two daughters (with Pierre), teaching the first and only class on radioactivity in the world, editing her late husband's entire collected works, and published a 20th century masterpiece 'Traité' de Radioactivité.'

Traité' de Radioactivité is regarded as a classic account of early research in radioactivity.

Source: Encyclopedia, Brown University Library

The French Academy of Sciences' sexist superiority denied them a piece of history.

In 1911, Marie Curie was denied membership with the French Academy of Sciences for the second time.

Within a year of rejection, she became the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes.

The academy did not elect its first female member, Margeurite Perey, until 1962.

Source: Encyclopedia

Marie is awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry diploma.

Marie was awarded 'in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.'

She was the prize's sole awardee that year.


Life began to look up for Marie.

Group photo after a Solvay Conference.

The same year she earned her second Nobel Prize, Marie was also elected as a permanent member of the Solvay Conferences in physics, to which Albert Einstein, Maxwell Planck, and a number of other famous physicists of the day were members.

Source: Solvay Institute

Also, in 1911, Poland erected the Warsaw Institute of Radioactivity in her honour.

Marie was offered directorship at the institute and was sad to turn the offer down.

She only stayed in France because the University of Paris, in partnership with the Pasteur Institute, agreed to build the Radium Institute, today called the Curie Institute.

Source: American Institute of Physics

When war broke out in 1914, the Radium Institute's work was postponed.

Marie established mobile x-ray centres, called 'Petite Curies.'

In a letter to French physicist Paul Langevin, Marie wrote: 'I am resolved to put all my strength at the service of my adopted country, since I cannot do anything for my unfortunate native ountry just now...'

To assist, Curie developed France's first military radiology center, that used x-rays to help doctors identify bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones in soldiers.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Marie also gave her only source of radium, in the amount of one gram, to the French government, at their request. They never reimbursed her for it.

Uploaded by Cliché Online~commonswiki to Wikipedia
French soldiers with machine guns amidst ruins of a cathedral near the Marne, 1918.

Though Marie had given away all her radium for research and was named the Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service during the war, she was never given any formal recognition by the French government for her services.

Source: American Institute of Physics

While France may not have recognised her efforts, the US did.

Certificate for one gram of radium from the US to Madame Curie.

Shortly after war's end, Mrs. William B. Meloney visited the Radium Institute to tell Marie that the US had raised $US100,000 to purchase one gram of radium for her institute.

When she and her two daughters visited the US to collect the gift, President Warren G. Harding personally gave her a golden key to the tiny box containing the radium.

Embarrassed that she did not have any official French distinctions to wear in public, the French government offered Marie a Legion of Honour before her meeting with President Harding. She declined their offer.

Source: Encyclopedia

With fame came new and exciting opportunities.

Curie (left) with President Harding (right), 1921.

By the 1920s, Marie had achieved global fame. Throughout the decade she travelled to Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and Czechoslovakia giving lectures on her work -- a privilege that just two decades earlier she had been denied.

In 1922 she became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Marie didn't enjoy the attention that came with fame and looked forward to returning to Paris.

Getty Images
Albert Einstein at his desk in 1929.

Albert Einstein once remarked: 'Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.'

Source: Encyclopedia

It is good to be a Curie.

In 1926, Maria saw her eldest daughter Irène married to French physicist Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

The two conducted research at the Radium Institute in Paris, and in 1935 shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Today, the Curie family still holds the record for the most Nobel laureates of any family in history.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Despite years of chronic illness from long-term exposure to deadly radiation, Marie lived to 66.

Uploaded by Rémih on Wikipedia

Marie died on July 4, 1934 from aplastic anemia, which is damage of the bone marrow and the blood stem cells within it.

The damage is thought to be the result of Curie's long-term exposure to radiation -- a danger that was unknown during her time.

Today, she is buried next to her husband in the Panthéon in Paris.

Source: American Institute of Physics

Marie Curie's legacy lives on in more ways than one.

1935 statue of Marie Curie that faces the Radium Institute in Warsaw.

Marie Curie's coveted notes that describe her brilliant investigation into radioactivity a preserved today -- stored in lead-lined boxes.

They can only be accessed after you've signed a waiver of liability and put on protective clothing, because just about everything of Marie's -- including her notes, furniture, cookbooks -- were exposed to the radioactive elements she studied, unprotected, throughout her life.

And they will continue to remain dangerously radioactive for at least another 1600 years.

Source: Christian Science Monitor

Since the first Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded, 48 woman and 852 men have been recognised.

Here's the number of women awarded for each Nobel Prize category:

Nobel Prize in Physics: 2

Nobel Prize in Chemistry: 4

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: 12

Nobel Prize in Literature: 14

Nobel Piece Prize: 16

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences: 1


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