114 years ago today, on June 25, 1903, Marie Curie (1867–1934), a Polish-born physicist and chemist, and one of the most famous scientists of her time, announced her discovery of radium, a new radioactive element, which was critical to the development of x-rays in surgery, and the field of radiology. Her pioneering work on radioactivity earned her the Nobel Prize in 1903 and again in 1911.
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. The daughter of a math and physics teacher, she was a top student in her secondary school, but couldn’t attend the men-only University of Warsaw. Instead, she continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” a set of underground, informal classes held in secret.
For roughly five years, Marie worked as a tutor and a governess to earn money to pay for more schooling at a higher level. She used her spare time to study, reading about physics, chemistry and math.
“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” – Marie Sklodowska Curie
In 1891, she finally made her way to Paris where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to study physics and mathematics. Marie completed her master’s degree in physics in 1893, and earned another degree in mathematics the following year. That’s when she met Pierre Curie, professor of the Sorbonne’s School of Physics. Their chemistry was undeniable and the brilliant couple was married in 1895.
The Curies worked together investigating radioactivity, building on the work of the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen and the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Marie took Becquerel’s work a few steps further, conducting her own experiments on uranium rays. She discovered that the rays remained constant, no matter the condition or form of the uranium. The rays, she theorized, came from the element’s atomic structure. This revolutionary idea created the field of atomic physics and Curie herself coined the word radioactivity to describe the phenomena.
A dedicated scientist and devoted husband, Pierre put aside his own work to help Marie with hers, and in July 1898, the pair announced the discovery of a new radioactive element, polonium (they named it after her native Poland). At the end of the year, they announced the discovery of another, radium.
In 1903, Marie defended her thesis on her work and became the first woman to receive a doctorate in France. Just five months later, she made history again when she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics. She won the prestigious honor along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, for their work on radioactivity. With their Nobel Prize win, the Curies developed an international reputation for their scientific efforts, and they used their prize money to continue their research.
In 1906, Pierre Curie’s life was cut short when he was killed in Paris after accidentally stepping in front of a horse-drawn wagon. Despite her grief, Marie, also a mother to two daughters, took over his teaching post at the Sorbonne, becoming the institution’s first female professor, and devoted herself to continuing the work that they had begun together. She received a second Nobel Prize, for Chemistry, in 1911, making her the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes.
Marie and Pierre’s research was crucial to the development of x-rays in surgery. During World War One, Marie helped to outfit ambulances with x-ray equipment, which she drove to the front lines… herself. The International Red Cross made her head of its radiological service and she held training courses for medical orderlies and doctors in the new techniques.
Despite her success, Marie continued to face great opposition from male scientists in France, and she never received significant financial benefits from her work. By the late 1920s her health was beginning to deteriorate. She died on July 4, 1934 from leukemia, caused by exposure to high-energy radiation from her research.