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Marie Sklodowska Curie was one of the first woman scientists to win world-wide
fame and win a Nobel prize. She was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland.
Her family was poor and consisted of her mother, a musician, her father, a teacher and her three older sisters and her brother. Her family took in boarders, one of which had a
deadly disease, which her mother later died of.
She was raised in a family that valued education. She got late start with her
education, however, and obtained her license in physics in 1893 and the corresponding
degree in mathematics in 1894. She finally received her doctorate in 1903 and study
mathematics, chemistry and physics in France. She became the first women to study and
teach at the Sorbonnen. She adopted the French spelling of her name in France and met
her future husband, Pierre, a French physicist, who taught at the university of Paris. They
married and teamed up to conduct research on radioactivity and found that uranium ore,
or pitchblende, contained much more radioactivity than could be explained solely by the
She was the most famous woman in physics and was recognised as one of the
greatest scientists of the century and won 2 Nobel prizes, one for physics in 1903 and one
for chemistry in 1911 for isolating radium and studying its chemical properties. Even
Einstein once said of her, “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame
has not corrupted.”
As a child she always wanted to be left alone to finish her work. But after she
won the Nobel prize she could not concentrate on her work as much, as she was famous.
Her laboratory was a leaky shed with a dirt floor, but it was in this shed that she
discovered radium. She performed pioneering studies with radium and contributed to
understanding of radioactivity.
During first five years after the discovery of radioactivity, many chemists and
physicists were busy studying the new phenomenon. Marie carried out an extensive test
of all chemical elements and their compounds for radioactivity and found that thorium
emits radiation similar to that of uranium. Comparing the radioactivity of uranium ores
with that of metallic uranium, she noticed that the ores were about five times more
radioactive than would be expected from their uranium content. This indicated that the
ores must have contained small amounts of some other radioactive substances much
more active than uranium itself, but, to separate them, very large amounts of expensive
uranium ores were needed. From the Austrian government she obtained a ton of
worthless residues(at that time) from the state uranium producing plant in Joachimschal
(Bohemia) which, being deprived of uranium, still retained most of its radioactivity. She
managed to separate a substance having chemical properties similar to those of bismuth,
which she called polonium in honour of her native country. After more work another
substance similar to barium was separated and was called radium; it was two million
times more radioactive than uranium.
Sadly she died at age 67 because of leukaemia, a disease caused by exposure to
radiation, the very radium that made her famous. In 1914 she had helped found the
Radium Institute in Paris and directed it. But after she died the institute was renamed the
Curie Institute in her honor. She was a very important woman who changed the attitude
towards women’s roles in society. She also gave her life to the very thing she loved. She
gave us knowledge that we take for granted and a new look at people’s importance in the
1.(book) Biography of Physics, George Gamow. Harper & Row. 1961.
2.(website) <www.physics.purdue.edu/wip/herstory/curie.html>, WIP, 1998
3.(website) <www.curie.che.virginia.edu/scientist/curie.html>, University of Virginia,
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Chemical elements, Actinides, Nuclear fuels, Nuclear materials, Radioactivity, Radium, Uranium, Radioactive decay, Polonium, Marie Curie, Curie Institute, Uraninite
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