Marie Curie: Neliti Face of Science 003

Neliti's 3rd Face of Science is the mother of modern physics and the woman whose discoveries of radium and polonium changed the world’s understanding of radioactivity.

Neliti Faces of Science celebrates the lives and impact of the world’s greatest scientists – those whose thinking redefined the depth of human knowledge. Every month a new scientist is chosen, a 3D model is created of their face, and their lives are celebrated on the Neliti homepage, here in the Breakthrough blog, and in the Neliti Faces of Science NFT collection.

Neliti’s 3rd Face of Science is the mother of modern physics and the woman whose discoveries of radium and polonium changed the world’s understanding of radioactivity, Marie Curie.

Rendition of Marie Curie by 3D artist Ying Chuan Chen

In the 1800s, when women were deemed to have limited intellectual capacity, there rose a woman who carried a blazing torch of discovery and knowledge, becoming arguably the world’s first woman to significantly contribute to scientific thought. This was Marie Curie, a woman of tireless determination and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. She lived by the axiom “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”

Indeed, with keen powers of observation, and compelling abilities to deduce and predict, Marie discovered polonium and radium, and promoted radiation as an effective tool in medical diagnosis, while fundamentally changing scientific understanding of radioactivity. This led her to become the world’s only female Nobel Prize winner in two fields.

Even as her contributions to science were achieved through hard and dangerous work, Marie Curie’s life was itself a long, harsh journey of intense effort to achieve towering aspirations.

Difficult early years

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Poland on November 7, 1867, to poor teacher parents Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowski. She was the fifth child in the family and was affectionately called Manya. While Marie’s birth led her mother to resign as a school principal, her father, a professor, earned well by teaching math and physics. From their early days, the parents instilled the value of education in their children, adding playful enjoyment to learning projects.

Marie’s mother taught her the importance of kindness and single mindedness in duty, while her father taught her the value of reflection, the importance of precision and an obsession for self-education.

Their stable lives upended, however, when Vladislav unexpectedly lost his job. The family was forced to take in student boarders to make ends meet. Tragically, Marie’s eldest sister caught typhus from a boarder and died. Less than three years later, when Marie was only 10, her 42-year-old mother, who had valiantly fought tuberculosis for five years, died in May 1878. Later, Marie remembered her mother’s passing as “the first great sorrow of my life,” which “threw me into a profound depression.”  

Nevertheless, it was the loss of her mother that led to Marie’s first glimpse of the scientific world. Her professor father bonded more with his remaining children, reading the classics to them on Saturday nights, and educating them on the scientific instruments he had once used to teach physics in school. Marie would keep gazing fascinated at these instruments displayed in her father’s glass cabinet.

A child prodigy with an abiding passion to learn

The academic atmosphere she grew up in stimulated Marie’s amazing learning skills, revealing her undoubted tendencies of being a child prodigy. History records that she was only four when she taught herself to read French and Russian. When she was still a child, she helped her older siblings with their math homework. She also vividly remembered events even from her infant years, such as a sibling putting a diaper on her backwards when she was three months old.

Although she won a gold medal upon graduating from the Russian Lyceum at the age of sixteen,  the doors of the male-only University of Warsaw remained closed to her.

Meanwhile, her father lost most of his money through a bad investment, compelling Marie to become a teacher in the country’s free but nationalist university. At the same time, in order to assuage her burning passion to learn, she continued her education secretly and informally at Warsaw’s clandestine “floating university,” learning physics and natural history. This gave her the opportunity for progressive thought and introduced her to developments in the sciences.

These secret learning sessions only whetted Marie’s determination to seek a scientific career. She made a pact with one elder sister, Bronya who yearned for a medical degree overseas, but had no money. According to their agreement, Marie would earn the money so Bronya could study overseas. When Bronya completed her studies, she would find a job and support Marie financially to achieve her dream. Thus, at 18, Marie found herself a job as tutor and governess for five years, and financed Bronya’s studies, but paid a very high emotional price through a short-lived, mismatched love affair.

Paris here I come

In 1891, the stars finally aligned for Marie’s dreams to come alive. She entered the Sorbonne in Paris to continue her studies in Physics and Math. She recalled later, “I was entirely absorbed in the joy of learning and understanding.”

Yet, following her dreams was not a picnic for Marie. She realized before long that she was way behind in the knowledge required of students enrolled in the program. With Bronya, who was married then, living an hour away from Sorbonne, Marie chose to live alone close to Sorbonne, in frugal conditions. She walked up and down six flights of stairs to her room, kept warm on icy winter nights by piling “all my clothes on the bedcovers,” and fed herself scanty meals irregularly, leading to fainting at times. But these less-than-rosy conditions did not unduly concern her. As she said, “…my usual state of mind was one of calm and great moral satisfaction.” Alone in Parisian society, she felt free and independent. She said, “It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.”

Marie was the best among students completing a physics master’s degree in the summer of 1893, and received the honour of becoming the first woman to earn a physics degree from Sorbonne. She could not afford a math master degree, so senior French scientists who identified her giftedness influenced the college to award her a scholarship meant for an exceptional Polish student. She received the second highest marks for a mathematics master’s degree in 1894. As she graduated, she was hired by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to study the magnetic properties of steel.

Love and marriage with Pierre Curie

Having accepted the project, Marie was looking round for lab space. As destiny designed, a Polish physicist suggested that his colleague Pierre Curie, a pioneering researcher on magnetism, could assist her. As Marie recalls, during her initial meeting with Pierre, she was “struck by the open expression of his face and by the slight suggestion of detachment in his whole attitude.”

Before long, their mutual passion for science and research kindled a flame in their hearts. Marie and Pierre fell in love with each other. After turning down his proposal of marriage thrice, she finally relented, and they married on July 26, 1895.

The Curies’ romance was a commitment rooted in practicality. For instance, Marie abandoned the traditional white bridal dress for a dark blue dress. As she subsequently explained to Pierre, “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”

The wedding was one of absolute simplicity. No white dress, no gold ring, no religious ceremony and no legal frills. They had nothing but two gleaming bicycles bought on the wedding eve with the money sent by a cousin as a wedding gift. They took a bicycle tour in the countryside on their honeymoon.

This cycling passion born during the honeymoon, continued unabated for Marie, as she indulged in it every summer, even when 8-months pregnant in 1897, cutting the trip short only to deliver her baby in Paris.  

Pierre and Marie had two daughters, Irene and Eve, but the intensity and commitment to work for Marie did not change with motherhood. She once said, “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”

Moreover, at its core, the Curies’ marriage was one of deep understanding, as Marie felt Pierre “dedicated his life to his dream of science: he felt the need of a companion who could live his dream with him.”

Roentgen’s X-rays and Becquerel’s uranium rays

Six months after the Curies married, in December 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a mysterious category of rays he called X-rays that could penetrate flesh to yield images of the bone structure. In 1901, Roentgen became the first Nobel prize winner for physics.

On the heels of the X-rays, French physicist Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered uranium rays. He proclaimed that the uranium compounds, even in the dark, emitted rays able to go through solid matter, fog and photographic film, leading air to conduct electricity. However, the importance of the new discovery was lost on the world’s scientific community still fascinated by X-rays.

On the other hand, the neglected new discovery captivated Marie’s scientific mind. She picked the uranium rays as the subject for her thesis, and began researching them.

Later, she called this new phenomenon “radioactivity.”

Marie Curie’s critical research beyond Becquerel’s discovery

A cramped, damp storeroom at the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry where Pierre was physics professor, served as Marie’s new research lab.

There, she successfully used the electrometer, invented 15 years before by Pierre Curie and his older brother Jacques, to measure the very low electrical currents emitted by uranium.

Through many experiments with the electrometer, Marie concluded that the electrical effects of uranium are constant, whether solid or crushed, pure extract or compound, wet or dry, in light or heat.

Her conclusions, while endorsing Becquerel’s findings, went beyond them to form a critical hypothesis that rays emitted by uranium compounds could be an atomic property of the element uranium, built into the structure of its atoms.

Marie’s hypothesis, although simple in statement, revolutionized scientific knowledge. Nobody had, until then, understood the complex inner structure of the atom or the huge amounts of energy stored in them. Even the Curies were not really sure. Marie’s true achievement was dissecting the unclear, complex observations, and arriving at clear conclusions, which, although startling, were logically possible.

Pierre joins Marie’s research as new possibilities arise

Marie observed a strange characteristic in samples of a mineral called pitchblende that contains uranium ore. Pitchblende appeared to have far greater radioactivity than pure uranium. Deeper research convinced her that the extremely high numbers in her readings could not possibly be caused by uranium alone. There had to be some other element in the pitchblende that caused it.

Marie’s research fascinated Pierre so much he thrust aside his own research on crystals and joined forces with her to make new scientific discoveries through analyzing pitchblende.

Discovery of new elements polonium and radium

Marie needed huge volumes of pitchblende for her research, and it so happened the Austrian-Hungarian government owned a pitchblende mine in Bohemia, where the ore was considered waste byproduct with uranium already extracted from it. Austria looked to Marie to find a use for the mineral and offered the pitchblende free, while an unknown benefactor, believed by some to be French-Swiss banker Baron Edmond de Rothschild, transported several tons of pitchblende in large sacks from Bohemia to Paris.

The Curies then engaged in laboriously isolating tiny quantities of unknown substances from the highly complex pitchblende which contained around 30 different elements. In this task, the Curies trailblazed the use of chemical analysis and engaged the Curie electrometer to identify radioactive fragments.

The Curies finally isolated two strongly radioactive fragments, one mostly comprising bismuth and the other mostly comprising barium. After further analysis, the Curies, in July 1898, published their groundbreaking conclusion, that the bismuth fragment contained a new element. Although chemically no different to bismuth, the black powder was 330 times more radioactive than uranium. It was a new element added to the Periodic Table with atomic number 84 in 1898, named “polonium” in honor of Marie’s birth country.

It was in 1902, that Marie finally managed to isolate radium, deciding its atomic weight as 225.93.

Marie Curie breaks records in Nobel Prizes

The incredible work was recognized by society, and Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and still the only woman to be Nobel Prize winner in two different fields.

In 1903, she and Pierre shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Becquerel, for research on spontaneous radiation that Becquerel discovered.

However, if not for Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the nominating team at the French Academy of Sciences, and advocate of women scientists, Marie would have been omitted from the joint Nobel Prize. He informed Pierre who insisted Marie should be included in the award.

Years later in 1911, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her studies on measuring radioactivity.

Prior to this, on June 12, 1903, Marie presented her thesis “Researches on Radioactive Substances,” at the Sorbonne, and received her doctorate of science.

Pierre and Marie, meanwhile, ignorant of the health harms of exposure to and handling of radioactive materials, were constantly ill and physically exhausted from radiation sickness. They were even too ill to attend the Nobel award ceremony in 1903.

Moreover, while France was not generous in honoring the Curies’ work, other countries were. In June 1903, the U.K.’s prestigious Royal Institution, an independent charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science, invited Pierre and Marie as guests at a glittering event attended by England’s social elite and high-profile scientists. Also, U.K. ‘s The Royal Society, the world’s oldest, most eminent scientific academy, awarded the Davy Medal jointly to Marie and Pierre Curie in November 1903. 

 Tragedy hits the Curies

Even as success and fame brightened the Curies’ lives, the darkness of tragedy struck without warning.  On April 19, 1906, Pierre, walking in the rain on the streets of Paris, inattentive to traffic, was struck by a horse-drawn carriage and killed instantly. Left alone with two young daughters, Marie was devastated.  It would take her years to recover from the bitter shock. She said, “Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used to say, that even deprived of him, I ought to continue my work.”

Meanwhile, the day after Pierre’s funeral, when the French government offered financial support for the family with a state pension, Marie declined, insisting she could take care of herself and the children.

 Marie as Sorbonne’s first female professor

A few weeks after Pierre’s death, on May 13, 1906, Sorbonne University reached out to Marie to take over Pierre’s vacant post. She thus became Sorbonne’s first female professor.

Taking over Pierre’s unfinished work, Marie was determined to fulfill his cherished dream by creating a lab worthy of his memory. He had once written to a university administrator, “…a laboratory is not created in a few months with a wave of a magic wand…”

Marie’s work takes different turn

Helped to a large degree by her own determination, fame and friends, Marie engaged in getting built the first Radium Institute in Paris, which, after 1918, became a global center for nuclear physics, chemistry and radioactivity studies. During the first 15 years of the institute’s existence, scientists published 483 works, including 31 papers and books by Marie herself.

With this effort, Marie’s life direction changed from total immersion in her own research to directing the work of the institute and keeping contact with the work of three or four dozen researchers there. Moreover, the focus of Marie’s research took the path of studying the chemistry of radioactive matter and the possible medical application of such matter.

In 1909, the University of Paris and the Institut Pasteur founded a mammoth laboratory for Marie, naming it the Institut du Radium, which, today, is one of the world’s leading medical, biological and biophysical centers. This institute comprised two divisions, the Curie Laboratory for research on physics and chemistry, and the Pasteur Laboratory focused on studying biological and medical effects of radioactivity.   

In 1920, Marie Curie and Dr. Claudius Regaud, a director of the institute, established the Curie Foundation which immediately became a global authority in radiation therapy for cancer treatment. Fifty years later, in 1970, the Curie Foundation merged with the Radium Institute, which in 1978, was renamed the Institut Curie.

In the midst of her global recognition as an incredible scientist, Marie did not forget the land of her birth. On May 29, 1932, two years before her death, she inaugurated the Radium Institute in Warsaw, Poland, with her sister Bronya as director.

A World War I hero

Marie hid her scientific research far from Paris when war broke out in 1914, and instead redirected her scientific capabilities to save lives on the battlefield. She invented the first “radiological car,” naming the vehicles “Petits Curies,” equipped with an X-ray machines and darkroom equipment, to be driven right onto the battlefields to assist army surgeons locate fractures, bullets and shrapnel using X-rays. With donations from Parisian women, Marie had 20 Petits Curies to help out on the battlefield, while she and daughter Irene trained women volunteers as X-ray operators. Marie learned driving and the basics of auto mechanics, even as she supervised the construction of 200 X-ray units at stationary field hospitals behind battle lines, and functioned as Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service.

Global recognition for Marie Curie

With the end of the war, Marie returned to her previous work as researcher, teacher and institute head. By this time, news of Marie’s groundbreaking scientific achievements had spread far and wide, bringing her much honor. She began receiving awards and prizes from across the world. Among them was the 1921 Ellan Richards Research Prize awarded to outstanding pioneers, the 1923 Grand Prix du Marquis d’Argenteuil and the 1931 Cameron Prize from Edinburgh University, U.K. She also received honorary degrees from many foreign universities.

In 1921, she engaged in a victorious visit to the U.S., where President Warren G. Harding presented her with a gram of radium bought collectively by American women. In his remarks while presenting the radium to her, President Harding said, “We greet you as foremost among scientists in the age of science, as leader among women in the generation which sees woman come tardily into her own. We greet you as the exemplar of liberty’s victories in the generation wherein liberty has won her crown of glory.”

Beyond this, Marie gave lectures internationally, particularly in Belgium, Brazil, Spain and Czechoslovakia, and was offered membership of the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation by the Council of the League of Nations.

Nobel awards pass on to next generation of Curies

Marie and Pierre Curies’ influence on scientific research permeated down to next generations with similar passion.

Their elder daughter Irène Joliot-Curie who was a battlefield radiologist, activist and politician, discovered the first artificially created radioactive atoms, together with her husband Frédéric. This new finding led the way to myriad medical advances, especially in fighting cancer. The couple were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.

Marie’s second daughter Eve, concert pianist and writer, did not herself win a Nobel prize, but her diplomat husband, Henry Labouisse accepted a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF in 1965.

And, from the third generation, Irène’s daughter, Dr Hélène Langevin-Joliot, born in 1927, also chose a career in nuclear physics, subsequently becoming research emeritus of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris.

Final days

In the early 20th century, there was little understanding about the health harms of exposure to radioactive material. In fact, through the 1920s, most people believed low levels of radiation were beneficial because they killed germs and stimulated growth. The idea prevailed to the extent of thorium and radium being used to make certain beauty care products.

Even the scientific community had little clarity regarding the ways radioactive material affected the human body, which is why the Curies were inattentive in protecting themselves.

And so, since 1920, Marie was assailed by medical problems such as double cataract which clouded her vision. She had to write her notes in extra-large letters and her daughters had to help her steer her way in the house. Four surgeries were required for her to work in her lab again, or drive a car.

Marie wrote to her sister Bronya in November 1920, “Perhaps radium has something to do with these troubles, but it cannot be affirmed with certainty.”

Gradually, through the recommendations of the French Academy of Medicine, she began to understand that radioactive materials do harm the human body, and instructed safety measures for lab researchers.

By 1934, the effects of radioactivity in Marie turned lethal, and she developed aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder that prevented her bone marrow from producing new healthy red blood cells.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie breathed her last at the age of 66, at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France. The cause of death was stated as aplastic pernicious anemia, contracted most likely from handling radioactive material.

The extraordinary followed Marie, even in death.

France interred her remains twice. First, she was laid to rest in the same cemetery as Pierre and her in-laws. Then on April 21, 1995, then French President Francois Mitterrand, in an emotional ceremony, installed the remains of Marie and Pierre Curie in the Pantheon, where the remains of France’s “great men” are entombed. President Mitterrand praised Marie’s extraordinary life work as “the exemplary battle of one woman who decided to fight in a society dominated by men.”

Indeed, personal endurance of hardship, and courage in the face of tragedy were the hallmark of Marie’s life. She once said, ‘Life is not easy for any of us, but what of that? We must have perseverance, and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted in something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

Marie Curie truly lived what she believed.

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