Marie Curie is perhaps one of the most celebrated scientists to have ever lived. Famous and highly-decorated for her work on radioactivity, she won the Nobel Prize twice, discovered and named elements in the periodic table and made scientific leaps that led to breakthroughs in medicine that are estimated to have saved millions of lives.
Curie’s personal life was similarly varied. From a humble background in Poland, she worked to fund her education in Paris where she met fellow scientist Pierre Curie. Their happy marriage was to be marred with tragedy, however, when he was killed in a freak accident.
Here are 10 facts about Marie Curie’s remarkable life.
1. She was one of five children
Marya Salomee Sklodowska was born on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. The youngest of five children, she had a brother and three older sisters. Her parents were both teachers who ensured that their daughters were educated as well as their son.
Curie’s mother died from tuberculosis in 1878. This had a profound impact upon her, and catalysed curie’s lifelong battle with depression. It also shaped her views on religion: she renounced Catholicism and stated that she would never again “believe in the benevolence of god”.
She was renowned for her prodigious memory, and she graduated from secondary education aged 15, coming first in her class.
2. She got a job to fund her sister’s education
Curie’s father lost his savings because of a bad investment. Curie therefore took up work as a teacher. At the same time, she also secretly took part in the nationalist ‘free university’, reading in Polish to women workers.
Curie’s sister Bronisława wanted to attend medical school. However, the University of Warsaw didn’t accept women, meaning both needed to move abroad to do so. Aged 17, Curie took up work as a governess, where she experienced an unhappy love affair.
Curie’s earnings were able to fund her sister’s attendance at medical school in Paris. When there, Bronisława earned money to also pay for Curie’s education in Paris, which she began in November 1891.
3. She was a brilliant student
Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris under the name ‘Marie’ to sound more French. She came top of her class, and was thus awarded the Alexandrovitch Scholarship for Polish students studying abroad. This helped her pay for her degrees in physics and mathematical sciences in 1894.
She worked exceptionally hard – often far into the night – and it’s reported that she often forgot to eat. When she did, she lived on bread, butter and tea.
4. She married fellow scientist Pierre Curie
In 1894, one of Curie’s professors arranged a research grant for her to study steel. Also working on the project was Pierre Curie, an accomplished researcher.
The pair were married in the summer of 1895, had two daughters and reportedly enjoyed a devoted and affectionate marriage. Pierre repeatedly insisted upon his wife properly receiving credit for her scientific discoveries, instead of them being attributed to him.
Pierre once wrote to Marie: “It would be a beautiful thing, a thing I dare not hope if we could spend our life near each other, hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream.”
5. She coined the word ‘radioactive’
Curie was intrigued by the discovery of X-rays and began conducting her own research. In a paper, she coined the word ‘radioactive’ and made two startling observations: that measuring radioactivity would allow for the discovery of new elements, and that radioactivity was a property of the atom.
When World War One broke out, Curie realised that the radiation of X-rays could help doctors see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in soldiers’ bodies. Battlefield X-rays became commonplace and helped to save countless lives.
6. She named the element ‘polonium’ after her native country
Though a French citizen, Marie Skłodowska Curie never lost touch with her Polish heritage. She taught her daughters Polish and took them on visits there.
In 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered a previously undiscovered radioactive element and named it polonium, after Poland. By the end of the same year, they had also discovered another radioactive element called radium, derived from ‘radius’, the Latin word for rays.
7. After her husband’s tragic death she took over his job post
On a rainy day in 1906, Pierre Curie tragically died after he fell beneath a horse-drawn carriage and a wheel ran over his head. Marie Curie filled his faculty position as professor of general physics in the faculty of sciences at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman to serve in the role and became the first woman to be employed as a professor at the university.
She once wrote, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’
8. Curie was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes
Curie broke numerous records for the accolades she collected throughout her life. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and was the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields.
Her husband Pierre Curie was co-winner on her first Nobel Prize, making them the first-ever married couple to win the Nobel Prize. However, the Curie family legacy didn’t stop there. In 1935, Curie’s daughter Irène and her husband Frédéric were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on new radioactive elements.
9. She died from a radiation-related illness
After World War One, Curie worked hard to raise money for her Radium Institute. However, by 1920 she was suffering from health issues which were probably caused by her exposure to radioactive materials.
On 4 July 1934, Curie died of aplastic anaemia, which occurs when the bone marrow fails to produce new blood cells. Curie’s bone marrow had probably been damaged because it had accumulated radiation over a long time.
10. She and her husband are buried in the Panthéon in Paris
Curie was initially buried next to her husband in Sceaux, a commune in southern Paris. In 1995, their remains were moved to the Panthéon in Paris alongside France’s greatest citizens.
In 1944, the 96th element on the periodic table of elements was discovered and named curium after the couple. Curie’s office and laboratory in the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute have been preserved and are now called the Curie Museum.