About Marie Curie
Marie Curie's story is one of firsts. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first (and only) woman to win Nobel Prizes in two fields, and the only person, man or woman, to do so.
Marie was born on November 7, 1867, and grew up in Warsaw, Poland, with her parents and five siblings. Both her parents were teachers and it was helpful that Marie’s father, Wladyslaw, taught physics and mathematics—two things Marie would become very good at. Her father would bring home scientific tools he used in the classroom and show them to Maria and her siblings.
When Marie was 9 years old, her mother died from tuberculosis, a major disease at that time. Marie cried so much that she became depressed (this is when a person becomes very sad). When her older sister Zosia died from typhus (a different disease), Marie and her siblings would pretend to be genius doctors that had a found a cure. This led to Marie and her sister Bronya’s plan to study medicine.
After Marie finished “gymnasium” (kind of like a high school), she wasn’t allowed to go to university because she was a woman. Universities in Poland were still all-male schools. This didn’t stop Marie. She and Bronya starting going to the Flying University, a secret school for women.
Still, this wasn’t enough for the sisters. They wanted to study in Paris, France. So the two sisters made an agreement. Marie would stay behind in Poland, where she would work as a governess (kind of like a nanny who also taught the children) to pay for Bronya’s medical schooling in Paris. When Bronya was done, she would do the same thing for Marie.
Marie had to work for five years as a governess. In her free time she studied everything she could get her hands on: physics, chemistry, and math.
Marie's Two Loves
Finally, in 1891, Marie moved to Paris, and this is where things really started to happen. She was able to attend the University of Paris, and graduated with degrees in physics and mathematics.
Her dedication had a downside though. Because she was poor and spent long hours studying, her health suffered. Often, all she had to eat was buttered bread and tea. But this didn’t matter to Marie; she was determined to do whatever it took to be a scientist.
She loved science so much that after university she began working in a laboratory. That’s where she met the other love of her life, Pierre Curie. They began working together and would go on to make some amazing and important discoveries in chemistry and physics.
In the late 1890s X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen, and a year later another physicist discovered that uranium salts emitted something that acted like X-rays. Marie was fascinated by these new discoveries and she spent her time trying to understand how things like X-rays worked.
Marie and Pierre discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. She named polonium after her native Poland and radium after the Latin word for “ray.” She also came up with the word “radioactivity.” The couple was the first to describe the effects that radium had on tumor-forming cells. These discoveries are still important today as a way to treat people with cancer.
Curie’s discoveries made her famous, and three years later she was the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Pierre for their research on radium.
Sadly, a few years later Pierre was killed in an accident on the streets of Paris. Marie was devastated, but she kept working, in part to honor the memory of her husband. She became the first woman professor at the University of Paris, and helped establish the Curie Institute. In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. During World War I, she helped the Red Cross build a fleet of mobile X-ray vehicles, called “petites Curies” (French for “little Curies”) that would help treat over a million soldiers during the war.
Marie was a woman who let nothing stand in her way, and her dedication to her science has had a major impact on physics, chemistry, and medicine for more than 100 years. Her name is now on museums and subway stops, and, in 2011, both France and Poland named it the Year of Marie Curie. It’s a good bet she’s the first chemist or physicist to have a year named after her.