Marie Curie: A Woman of Firsts

Marie Curie was one of the most influential women of all time. She was born Maria Sklodowksa in Poland on November 7, 1867, the daughter of two well-known teachers. Her father was a teacher of mathematics and physics. When she was 12, her mother died from tuberculosis.

Marie spent her childhood attending various schools. In 1884, she made an agreement with her older sister: she would get a job and support her sister through medical school if her sister would do the same thing for her in two years. The next few years were filled with hard work and heartbreak: she worked as a governess, began studying science, and fell in love with Kazimierz Zorawski only to have him reject her. In 1891, she went to Paris to join her sister. She studied during the day and worked at night and obtained a degree in physics in 1893 and a degree in mathematics in 1894.

She met Pierre Curie, an instructor at the Schools of Physics and Chemistry, that same year. The two of them worked to study the magnetic properties of steels and when she left for Warsaw for the summer, their feelings grew. In July 1895, they were married. The pair spent their life with each other in their laboratory.

In 1869, she began studying uranium rays. She invented a device called the Curie electrometer and discovered that radiation was not the outcome of interactions between molecules but rather, it came from the atom itself. This discovery was the most important she would ever make. She continued her experiments with Pierre and in December 1898, the pair announced the discovery of an element that they named “radium” because of its intense radioactivity, a word the pair coined. A year earlier, Curie gave birth to a daughter, Irene.

In 1903, Curie received her DSc from the University of Paris and that same year, she and Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radiation. A year later, she gave birth to a second daughter, Eve. Pierre was killed in 1906 and Curie continued her work. She took her husband’s chair at the Sorbonne physics department. In 1911, she received another Nobel Prize, this one for Chemistry.

Her later years were spent touring other countries and visiting various laboratories. She died on July 4, 1934 in eastern France. She died from aplastic anemia that was no doubt a direct result of her prolonged exposure to radiation.

Marie Curie was also the first woman to accomplish many things:

  1. She was the very first person to use the term “radioactivity.”
  2. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, along with her husband, for the discovery of radioactivity.
  3. She was the first woman in the whole of Europe to receive a doctorate of science.
  4. She was the first female head of Laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris as well as the first female lecturer and professor.
  5. She was the first woman Nobel Prize winner to have her daughter also win a Novel Prize after her (daughter Irene won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935).
  6. She was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes (her second was awarded for Chemistry in 1911).
  7. She was the first woman to be buried under the famous dome of the Pantheon in Paris because of something she accomplished (not because her husband was there).

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