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Marie Curie

Biography of Marie Curie


Marie Curie made science her profession, “because I wanted to, she said, because I liked research”. She undoubtedly believed in the positive role of science in the evolution of society and she measured the strength of the symbol that she herself represented for women.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934)


The fifth child of a family of patriotic and very cultivated teachers, Maria Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, in a part of Poland then under the domination of the Russian Empire. Raised in a family where education is of great importance, she succeeded brilliantly in high school, and dreams of studying science. But in Warsaw, at the time, universities were not open to women. The only way for a young Polish woman who wishes to pursue higher education is therefore to go abroad. Her older sister Bronia has the same desire, and wants to study medicine. The two sisters thus conclude a pact and choose to come and study in France by combining their efforts. Maria is placed as a preceptor in a family for several years to help her sister who left for Paris and to build up savings for her future studies.

Marie arrived in Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne in October 1891. Aware of her shortcomings, she immersed herself in studies and decided to do a first year again. The teachings fascinate her, she sometimes works beyond her strength. In 1893, she obtained a license in physical sciences with honors, and in 1894, a license in mathematical sciences with high honors. She intends to return to teach in Poland as soon as her two licenses have been acquired, but obtaining, in early 1894, a small contract financed by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry (SEIN) to measure the magnetic properties of different steels. leads him to meet Pierre Curie.

Marie Curie

© Photo Curie Museum in Warsaw. Source: Musée Curie (coll. ACJC)

Wladislaw Sklodowski, the father of Maria Sklodowska (Marie Curie), surrounded by his daughters in 1890. From left to right: Maria, Bronia, Helena.

Eight years his senior, professor at the municipal school of industrial physics and chemistry of the city of Paris, Pierre Curie is already a physicist recognized for his work on piezoelectricity , symmetry and magnetism. Their meeting changes the course of their lives. They married on July 26, 1895.

During this period, Marie wrote to her friend Kazia “When you receive this letter, your Mania will have changed its name. When you receive this letter, write to me: Madame Curie. School of Physics and Chemistry, 42, rue Lhomond. This is my name from now on ”

After the birth of a first daughter, Irene, Marie undertook a doctoral thesis in physics on “uranium rays” discovered by Henri Becquerel. The quantitative method developed by Pierre enables him to establish the atomic character of uranium radiation and to broaden his research. The surprising results obtained for uranium minerals suggest to them that these contain an unknown element.

Pierre and Marie Curie therefore work together. In July and December 1898 they discovered not one, but two new elements, polonium and radium. The spontaneous radiation of these elements, their radioactivity according to the term introduced by Marie Curie, is of the same nature as that of uranium, but much more intense. The Curies shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel. That same year, in June, Marie Curie defended her doctoral thesis in physical sciences. She presents the discovery of polonium and radium and the work she has done since: the separation of a pure radium salt from tonnes of pitchblende residue and the measurement of the atomic mass of this element. In 1904, Pierre became professor at the Sorbonne, holder of a chair in physics specially created for him. Marie was then appointed head of work for the Curie laboratory attached to this chair. A few months later, their second daughter Eve was born.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie died in a traffic accident. The Faculty of Sciences entrusts the succession of Pierre to Marie Curie. Marie Curie is appointed director of the laboratory and in charge of Pierre's course. The first scientific course at the Sorbonne, on November 5, 1906, was an event attended by students, journalists and the curious. In 1908, Marie Curie was appointed titular professor of the chair of Pierre, which had just been declared vacant. She is the first female university professor in France.

In 1907 and 1908, she organized a teaching cooperative with colleagues. Irene and a dozen of her friends will remember Marie's concrete physics lessons.

In January 1911, she presented her candidacy for the Academy of Sciences and was not elected (the Academy would not welcome a woman into its ranks until half a century later). In November of that same year, her relationship with Paul Langevin revealed in the press unleashed a violent xenophobic campaign against her. A second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, was awarded to him in December.

At the beginning of 1912 Marie Curie gave a negative response to the proposal to continue her research in Poland and to take charge of the Institute which had just been created there. She finally sees the start of construction in Paris of a radium institute. The buildings were almost completed in July 1914.

Pierre and Marie Curie in the "discovery shed" around December 1903.

Façade of the Radium Institute, Curie pavilion, in the 1920s.

Marie Curie devoted the four years of the war to the development of fixed or mobile radiology and to the training of nurses specializing in the use of X-ray equipment. She was helped by her eldest daughter and three other women. Within the Red Cross and the National Patronage for the Wounded, Marie Curie manages to equip 18 radiological cars. These vehicles, later nicknamed the "small Curies" by Eve Curie in the biography she dedicated to her mother, were added to the army vehicles, and more than a million wounded benefited from a proven technique. for locating projectiles.

The lack of resources, in a country ruined by war, slows down the resumption of research on radioactivity at the Radium Institute. Marie Curie received, in 1920, an American journalist, Mrs Meloney. Fascinated by the person of Marie Curie, she decides to launch a subscription among American women. Marie Curie, accompanied by Irene and Eve, went to the United States in May-June 1921 to receive a gram of radium, numerous instruments and large sums of money. This trip has a considerable impact. That same year, the creation of the Fondation Curie opened a period of development in the use of radiation for the treatment of cancer. Marie was elected to the Academy of Medicine as a free member in 1922, without having been a candidate "in recognition of a new medication:" brachytherapy ". The post-war years were for Marie Curie years of work, but also of fulfillment. She agrees to use the prestige of her name to defend the values she believes in. In particular, it provides unfailing support for Jean Perrin's efforts for scientific research. From 1922, it became involved in the work of the “International Commission on Intellectual Co-operation” set up by the League of Nations, for science and for peace. She travels to give lectures or provide assistance, particularly to Poland. She died of pernicious anemia on July 4, 1934. The ashes of Marie and Pierre Curie were transferred to the Pantheon on April 20, 1995.

Marie Curie in her laboratory

"In life, nothing is to be feared, everything is to be understood."

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