Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry

, Volume 400, Issue 6, pp 1547–1554

Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867–1934)—her life and discoveries


    • Faculty of ChemistryUniversity of Gdańsk
Feature Article

DOI: 10.1007/s00216-011-4771-3

Cite this article as:
Skwarzec, B. Anal Bioanal Chem (2011) 400: 1547. doi:10.1007/s00216-011-4771-3

Maria Skłodowska-Curie “Life is not easy for any of us. But so what? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted with something and that this thing must be achieved.”

Albert Einstein “Marie Curie is, of all the famous people, the one whom fame has not corrupted.”

Maria Skłodowska—her family and education

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on 7 November 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronisława and Władysław Skłodowski. Maria’s older siblings were Zofia (born 1862), Józef (1863), Bronisława (1865), and Helena (1866). Maria’s grandfather Józef Skłodowski had been a respected teacher in Lublin [4]. Her father Władysław Skłodowski taught Mathematics and Physics, subjects that Maria was to pursue, and he also was the director of two Warsaw high schools for boys, in addition to lodging boys in the family home [28]. Her mother, Bronisława, operated a prestigious Warsaw boarding school for girls. She suffered from tuberculosis and died when Maria was twelve. Maria’s father was an atheist and her mother a devout Catholic [15]. Two years earlier, Maria’s oldest sibling, Zofia, had died of typhus. The deaths of her mother and sister caused Maria to give up Catholicism and become agnostic [30]. When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding school that her mother had operated when she had been well; next Maria attended a junior high school for girls, from which she graduated with the gold medal on 12 June 1883 [7]. She spent the following year in the countryside with her father’s relatives, and later with her father in Warsaw, where she did some tutoring. On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family had lost their property and fortunes because of their patriotic involvement in the Polish national uprisings. This condemned each subsequent generation, including Maria’s and her siblings’ to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life [4]. At the end of the 1880s, Maria was engaged in clandestine patriotic activity of Polish youth teaching peasant children the Polish language, history, and algebra, under danger of being sent into exile in Siberia, because Russia ruled this part of Poland at the time. Maria made an agreement with her sister, Bronisława, that she would give her financial assistance during Bronisława’s medical studies in Paris, in exchange for similar assistance two years later [15]. In connection with this, Maria took a position as a governess: first with a lawyer’s family in Kraków, then for two years in Ciechanów with a landed family, the Żórawskis, who were relatives of her father. While working for them, she fell in love with their son, Kazimierz Żórawski, who felt the same for her [7]. His parents, however, rejected the idea of his marrying the penniless relative and Kazimierz was unable to defy them. As a result of this, Maria lost her position as the governess [28]. She found another job with the Fuchs family in Sopot, on the Baltic Sea coast, where she spent the next year, all the time financially assisting her sister [4]. At the beginning of 1890, Bronisława, a few months after she married Kazimierz Dłuski, invited Maria to join them in Paris [15]. Maria declined because she could not afford the university tuition and was still counting on marrying Kazimierz Żórawski. She returned home to her father in Warsaw where she remained until the fall of 1891 [4]. She tutored, studied at the clandestine Floating University, and began her practical scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture at Krakowskie Przedmieście 66, near Warsaw’s Old Town. The laboratory was run by her cousin Józef Boguski, who had been an assistant in St Petersburg to the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev [30]. In October 1891, at her sister’s insistence and after receiving a letter from Żórawski, in which he definitively broke off his relationship with her, she decided to go to France after all. Maria’s loss of the relationship with Żórawski was tragic for both of them. He soon earned a doctorate and pursued an academic career as a mathematician, becoming a professor and then rector of Kraków University and the president of the Warsaw Learned Society (Societas Scientiarum Varsaviensis). Yet as an old man and a Mathematics professor at the Warsaw Polytechnic, he would sit contemplatively in front the statue of Maria Skłodowska which had been erected in 1935 at the Radium Institute she had founded in 1932 [4].

Maria Skłodowska in Paris

In November 1891, Maria went to Paris and she quickly found shelter with her sister Bonisława and brother-in-law Kazimierz Dłuski before renting a primitive garret [30] and proceeding with her studies in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris). Skłodowska studied during the day and tutored in the evenings, barely earning her keep [7]. On 28 July 1893, she was awarded a degree in Physics and began work in an industrial laboratory at Lippman’s. Meanwhile she continued studying at the Sorbonne and in July 1894 earned a degree in Mathematics. After three years she had passed, brilliantly, examinations in Physics and Mathematics [4, 7].

Maria Skłodowska and Pierre Curie—collaboration and marriage

In 1894, Maria met Pierre Curie. He was 35 years old, eight years older than she and was an internationally known physicist. He was an instructor in the School of Physics and Chemistry, the Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville Paris (ESPCI) [15]. Pierre with his brother Jacques had discovered piezoelectricity, demonstrating that a difference in electrical potential is seen when mechanical stresses are applied to some crystals, including quartz [5, 6]. These crystals are now used in microphones, electronic equipment, and clocks. Persuaded by his father and by Maria, Pierre submitted his doctoral thesis in 1895 [7]. It involved various types of magnetism, and identified the connection between temperature and magnetism that is now known as Curie’s Law [8]. On 26 July 1895, Maria Skłodowska and Pierre Curie married, and thereafter the two physicists hardly ever left their laboratory. Maria had found a new love, a partner, and a scientific collaborator on whom she could rely [7]. Their first daughter Irène was born on 12 September 1897, and the second one, Ève, on 6 December 1904 [4]. Maria Skłodowska began her scientific career in Paris with the investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Skłodowska and Curie together [7]. Her departure for the summer to Warsaw only enhanced their strong feelings for each other [15]. She was still laboring under the illusion that she would be able to return to Poland and work in her chosen field of study. When she was denied a place at Kraków University merely because she was a woman, she returned to Paris [4]. Pierre had managed to arrange that Maria should be allowed to work in the school’s laboratory, and in 1897, she concluded a number of investigations into the magnetic properties of steel on behalf of an industrial association [33]. Deciding after a time to go on to do research, Maria looked around for a subject for a doctoral thesis [7].

Radiation and radioactivity

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power. He demonstrated that this radiation, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy, but seemed to arise spontaneously from uranium itself [13]. Becquerel himself made specific observations, for instance that gases through which the rays passed became conductors of electricity, but he soon left this field. Becquerel had, in fact, discovered radioactivity but Skłodowska–Curie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis. She used a clever technique to investigate samples. Fifteen years earlier, her husband Pierre and his brother Jacques had invented the electrometer, a sensitive device for measuring electrical charges. Using the Curie electrometer, she discovered that thorium gives off the same rays as uranium and uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity [7]. Using this technique, her first discovery was that the activity of uranium compounds depended only on the quantity of uranium present. She had shown that radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules, but must come from an atom itself. In scientific terms, this was the most important single piece of work that she conducted [30]. Skłodowska–Curie’s systematic studies had included two uranium minerals, pitchblende and torbernite (also known as chalcolite). Her electrometer showed that pitchblende was four times as active as uranium itself, and chalcolite twice as active [4]. She concluded that, if her earlier results relating the quantity of uranium to its activity were correct, then these two minerals must contain small quantities of some other substance that was far more active than uranium itself [37]. The idea (writes [30]) was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband, to ensure there was no chance whatsoever of any ambiguity [7]. It is likely that already at this early stage of her career she realized that many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of original work in the field in which she was involved [30]. In her systematic search for other substances beside uranium salts that emitted radiation, Skłodowska–Curie found that the element thorium, likewise, was radioactive. She was acutely aware of the importance of promptly publishing her discoveries and thus establishing her primacy [34]. Had not Becquerel, two years earlier, presented his discovery to the Académie des Sciences, the day after he made it, the credit for the discovery of radioactivity, and even the Nobel Prize, would have gone to Silvanus Thompson (Professor of Physics at the City and Guilds Technical College in Finsbury, UK. Thompson repeated Röntgen’s experiments on the day after the discovery was announced in the UK and subsequently gave the first public demonstration of the new rays at the Clinical Society of London on 30 March 1896) instead. Skłodowska–Curie chose the same rapid means of publication. Her paper, giving a brief and simple account of her work, was presented for her to the Académie on 12 April 1898 by her former professor, Gabriel Lippmann [7, 37]. Even so, just as S. Thompson had been beaten by Becquerel, so was Skłodowska–Curie in the race to publicize her discovery that thorium gives off rays in the same way as uranium. Three weeks earlier, Gerhard Schmidt had published his own findings in Berlin [31].

At that time, however, no one else in the world of Physics had noticed what Skłodowska–Curie recorded in her paper, her description of how much greater the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite were than that of uranium itself: “The fact is very remarkable, and leads to the belief that these minerals may contain an element which is much more active than uranium.” She later would recall how she felt “a passionate desire to verify this hypothesis as rapidly as possible” [4, 30]. Pierre Curie was sure that what she had discovered was not just a spontaneous effect. He was so intrigued that he decided to drop his work on crystals temporarily and to join her in her research. On 14 April 1898, they optimistically weighed out a 100 gram sample of pitchblende and ground it with a pestle and mortar ([7]. They did not realize at the time that what they had been searching for was present in such minute quantities that they eventually would have to process tons of the ore [26]. They were also unaware of the dangerous effects of radiation exposure in their work with radioactive substances; Skłodowska–Curie and her husband had no idea what price they would pay due to the effect of their research on their health [4].

Polonium and radium discoveries

Maria and Pierre Curie continued systematic chemical analysis studies of uranium ores and discovered that strong activity came with the fraction containing bismuth or barium [25, 27]. When Maria continued her analysis of the bismuth fractions, she found that every time she managed to take away an amount of bismuth, a residue with greater activity was left. At the end of June 1898, they had a substance that was about 300 times more active than uranium [7]. In their work published on July 18, Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre wrote: “We thus believe that the substance that we have extracted from pitchblende contains a metal never known before, akin to bismuth in its analytic properties. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we suggest that it should be called polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us” [9, 37]. She discussed the radioactive nature of polonium in the paper and concluded that radioactivity is material emission [32]. After another few months of work, on 26 December 1898, the Curies and Bémont announced the existence of another element, which they named “radium” for its intense radioactivity— a word that they coined [10]. The discovery of radium was confirmed by spectroscopic analysis of barium chloride salt [13]. Pitchblende is a complex mineral and the chemical separation of its constituents was an arduous task. The discovery of polonium had been relatively easy; chemically it resembles the element bismuth, and polonium was the only bismuth-like substance in the ore. Radium, however, was more elusive [7]. It is closely related, chemically, to barium, and pitchblende contains both elements. By 1898–1899 Maria Skłodowska-Curie had obtained traces of radium, but appreciable quantities, uncontaminated with barium, still were beyond reach [35]. In subsequent years she undertook the arduous task of separating radium salt by differential crystallization [16, 17]. From a ton of pitchblende, one-tenth of a gram of radium chloride was separated in 1902 [18]. In an unusual decision, Maria Skłodowska–Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process, so that the scientific community could do research unhindered [30]. Henri Becquerel discovered radiation, but the discovery of radium initiated scientific discussion about a new opinion on the atomic structure. Maria and Pierre Curie formulated a hypothesis about the atomic transformation of polonium and radium and reached the conclusion that the ability to radiate did not depend on the arrangement of atoms in a molecule [11, 12, 16]. Maria drew the conclusion that it must be linked to the interior of the atom itself; this discovery was absolutely revolutionary [15].

Maria’s doctoral thesis

From 1900 Maria had a part-time teaching post at the Ècole Normale Superieur de Sevres for Girls [4]. After thousands of crystallizations she finally isolated one decigram of almost pure radium chloride and had determined radium’s atomic weight as 225. She presented the finding of this work in her doctoral thesis. On 25 of June 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, Maria was awarded her DSc from the University of Paris for her thesis entitled “Recherches sur les substances radioactives” [28].

The examination committee: Gabriel Lippmann, Henri Moissan, and Edmond Bouty, expressed the opinion that the findings represented the greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis [4].

Radiological health problem

Maria and Pierre Curie were invited to the Royal Institution in London, and Pierre, before the crowded auditorium, showed how radium rapidly affected photographic plates wrapped in paper, how the substance gave off heat; in the semi-darkness he demonstrated the spectacular light effect. He described medical tests which involved wrapping a sample of radium salts in a thin rubber covering which he had bound to his arm for ten hours. He then studied the resulting wound, which day by day increasingly came to resemble a burn. After 52 days, a permanent grey scar appeared. Pierre realized the possibility of radium being used in the treatment of cancers. Pierre’s scarred hands shook so much that once he happened to spill a little of the preparation and fifty years later the presence of radioactivity was discovered on the premises and the particular surface had to be cleaned [4, 7].

Nobel prizes

In 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Maria Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel [4].” Skłodowska–Curie and her husband were unable to go to Stockholm to receive the prize in person, but they shared its financial proceeds with needy acquaintances, including students [30]. As a result of the Nobel Prize, Maria and Pierre Curie suddenly became internationally famous. On 1 October 1904, the Sorbonne gave Pierre a professorship and permitted him to establish his own laboratory, in which Skłodowska–Curie became the director of research. On 19 April 1906, Pierre was killed in a street accident, he was run over by a horse-drawn wagon near the Pont Nuef in Paris [4]. Maria was devastated by the death of her husband, she was left alone with two daughters, Irène aged 9 and Ève aged 2. Maria noted that, as of that moment she suddenly had become “an incurably and wretchedly lonely person” [7]. She was appointed to succeed Pierre as the head of the laboratory, being undoubtedly the most suitable person, and to be responsible for his teaching duties. On 13 May 1906, the Sorbonne Physics department decided to retain the chair that had been created for Pierre Curie and they entrusted it to Skłodowska–Curie together with full authority over the laboratory. This allowed her to emerge from Pierre’s shadow [28]. On 16 November 1908, Maria was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, and in her exhausting work regime she sought a new meaning in her life [25]. She went on to produce four decigrams of very pure radium chloride and determined radium’s precise atomic weight as 226,45 ± 0.5 (now 226.025) [19]. Finally, in collaboration with Debierne, she was able to isolate radium in the metallic form [22]. At the same time Maria prepared new methods to determine small amounts of radium by measurement of radon [20, 23]. On September 1910, the International Radiological Congress in Brussels invited Maria Curie to prepare international radium standards. In the next year Mme Curie delivered 21.99 mg of pure radium chloride to the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Sevres [24]. For Maria Curie, the proposal from the Radiological Congress created a new unit of radioactivity, the Curie (1 Ci is equilibrium with activity 1 g of radium). In 1911, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The citation by the Nobel Committee was, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of Chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium; by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element” [4]. Maria’s Nobel lecture on December 11 in Stockholm should be read in the light of what she had gone through. She made it clear by her choice of words what were unequivocally her contributions in collaboration with Pierre. She spoke of the field of research which, “I have called radioactivity” and “my hypothesis that radioactivity is an atomic property,” but without detracting from his contributions. She declared that she also regarded this Prize as a tribute to Pierre Curie [7]. The French government funded the building of a private Radium Institute (Institut du Radium, now the Institut Curie), which was built in 1914 and at which research in chemistry, physics, and medicine was conducted [4]).

Some researchers have questioned whether Maria deserved the Prize for Chemistry in 1911 [27]. They have claimed that the discoveries of radium and polonium were part of the reason for the Prize in 1903, even though this was not stated explicitly [15]. Maria was said to have been awarded the Prize again for the same discovery, the award possibly being an expression of sympathy for reasons that will be mentioned later [7]. Actually, however, the citation for the Prize in 1903 was worded deliberately with a view to a future Prize in Chemistry. Chemists considered that the discovery and isolation of radium was the greatest event in chemistry since the discovery of oxygen. For the first time in history it was shown that an element could be transmuted into another element, and that revolutionized chemistry and signified a new epoch [15].

Skłodowska–Curie was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes. She is one of only two people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different fields, the other person being Linus Pauling (for chemistry and for peace). Two Nobel Prizes have also been awarded to John Bardeen in Physics (1956 and 1972) and Frederick Sanger in Chemistry (1958 and 1981).

Rejected by the Academy

Despite the second Nobel Prize and an invitation to the first Solvay Conference with the world’s leading physicists, including Einstein, Poincaré, and Planck, 1911 became a dark year in Maria’s life [15]. In two smear campaigns she was to experience the chauvinism of the French press. The first campaign was started on 16 November 1910, when, in an article in Le Figaro, it became known that she was willing to be nominated for election to l’Académie des Sciences [4]. Examples of factors other than merit influencing election to the academy did exist, but Maria herself and her eminent research colleagues seemed to have considered that with her exceptionally brilliant scientific merits, her election was a foregone conclusion. As it turned out, it was not only merit that was the deciding factor. The dark underlying currents of anti-Semitism, prejudice against women, xenophobia, and even anti-scientific attitudes that existed in French society came welling up to the surface [15]. Normally the election was of no interest to the press. The most rabid paper was the ultra-nationalistic and anti-Semitic L’Action Française, which was led by Léon Daudet, the son of the writer Alphonse Daudet. Dreyfus had obtained redress for the wrongs done to him in 1906 and had been decorated with the Legion of Honor, but in the eyes of the groups who had been against him during his trial, he was still guilty, was still “the Jewish traitor.” [4, 30]. The pro-Dreyfus groups who had supported his cause were suspect and the scientists who were supporting Maria were among them. Jokes in bad taste alternated with outrageous accusations. It was said that in her career, Pierre’s research had given her a free ride. She came from Poland, though admittedly she was formally a Catholic but her name Sklodowska indicated that she might be of Jewish origin, and so on. A week before the election, an alternative candidate, Édouard Branly, was proposed. The vote on January 23 1911 was taken in the presence of journalists, photographers, and hordes of the curious. The election took place in a tumultuous atmosphere. In the first round Maria lost by one vote, in the second by two. In all, fifty-eight votes were cast [15]. A Nobel Prize in 1903 and support from prominent researchers such as Jean Perrin, Henri Poincaré, Paul Appell, and the permanent secretary of the Académie, Gaston Darboux, were not sufficient to make the Académie open its doors. This event attracted international attention and indignation. It deeply wounded both Maria and indeed Édouard Branly too, himself a well-merited researcher [4].

The Langevin Affair

However, Maria’s tribulations were not at an end. When, at the beginning of November 1911, Maria went to Belgium, being invited with the world’s most eminent physicists to attend the first Solvay Conference, she received a message that a new campaign had started in the press. Now it was a matter of her private life and her relations with her colleague Paul Langevin, who had also been invited to the conference [30]. He had had marital problems for several years and had moved from his suburban home to a small apartment in Paris. Maria was depicted as the reason. Both were described in slanderous terms. The scandal developed dramatically. Maria standing up in her own defense managed to force an apology from the newspaper Le Temps [15]. The same day she received word from Stockholm that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry [4]. However, the very newspapers that made her a legend when she received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, now completely ignored the fact that she had been awarded the Prize in Chemistry or merely reported it in a few words on an inside page. The Langevin scandal escalated into a serious affair that shook the university world in Paris and the French government at the highest level. Day after day Maria had to run the gauntlet in the newspapers: an alien, a Polish woman, a researcher supported by our French scientists, had come and stolen an honest French woman’s husband [15]. Henri Poincaré’s cousin, Raymond Poincaré, a senior lawyer who was to become President of France in a few years time, was engaged as advisor. But the scandal kept up its impetus with headlines on the first pages such as “Madame Curie, can she still remain a professor at the Sorbonne?” With her daughters Maria stayed at Sceaux where she was practically a prisoner in her own home. The drama culminated on the morning of 23 November when extracts from letters were published in the newspaper L’Oeuvre [38]. There was no proof of the accusations made against Maria and the authenticity of the letters could be questioned but in the heated atmosphere there were few who thought clearly [14].

First World War

In 1914, Maria was in the process of beginning to lead one of the departments in the Radium Institute established jointly by the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute. In August 1914, Germany invaded France and Maria took her two daughters, Irène aged 17 and Ève aged 10, to Brittany for safety. She had another reason for her journey—with her went a heavy, 20 kg lead container in which she had placed her valuable radium, which she left there before returning to Bordeaux [15]. During the war Maria, with the help of her daughter Irène, pushed for the use of mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies (“Little Curies”), for the treatment of wounded soldiers and she was engaged intensively in equipping more than 20 vans that acted as mobile field hospitals and about 200 fixed installations with X-ray apparatus [7]. At the Radium Institute she prepared tiny glass tubes containing a radioactive gas (radon) that comes from minerals containing radium. Hospital doctors inserted the tiny tubes into patients at spots where the radiation would destroy diseased tissue [4]. Maria trained young women in simple X-ray technology, she herself drove one of the vans and took an active part in locating metal splinters. Sometimes she found she had to give the doctors lessons in elementary geometry. Irène, when 18, became involved, and in the primitive conditions both of them were exposed to large doses of radiation. In 1918, The Radium Institute, the staff of which Irène had joined, began to operate in earnest, and it was to become a universal centre for nuclear physics and chemistry. Maria Curie, from 7 February 1922, a member of the Academy of Medicine, devoted her research to the study of the chemistry of radioactive substances and the medical applications of these substances [4].

Maria in the USA

In 1921, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, accompanied by two her daughters, was welcomed triumphantly when she toured the United States to raise funds for research on radium. These distractions from her scientific labors and the attendant publicity caused her much discomfort but provided resources much needed for her work. The prominent American female journalist Marie Maloney organized further collections for one gram of radium for an institute which Maria had helped found in Warsaw [15]. Thanks to the press coverage, Maria became enormously popular in America, and everyone seemed to want to meet her—the great Madame Curie. During her second American tour in 1929 President Warren Harding presented her with a gram of radium bought as the results of a collection by American women. This radium was successful in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute, founded in 1925 with her sister, Bronisława, as director [4].

The last years of Maria’s life

In her later years, Maria Skłodowska-Curie headed the Pasteur Institute and a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the University of Paris. She continued to do research on radioactivity, but her main focus shifted to running the Radium Institute. She made the Institute a center for measuring the radium content of various products used by doctors and others. She also made it a world center for research, carefully selecting several dozen scientists and keeping up with the progress of each. Her researchers made many discoveries [4]. In the last ten years of her life, Maria had the joy of seeing her daughter Irène and her son-in-law Frédéric Joliot carry out successful research in the laboratory. She lived to see their discovery of artificial radioactivity [21], but not to hear that they had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it in 1935. Maria Skłodowska–Curie visited Poland for the last time in the spring of 1934 and, only a few of months later, she died on 4 July 1934 at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, eastern France, from aplastic anemia (leukemia), almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were not then known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed, without proper safety measures. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue–green light that the substances gave off in the dark [7]. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre [4].


Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie’s pioneering research was again brought to the fore when on April 20 1995, their bodies were taken from their place of burial at Sceaux, just outside Paris, and in a solemn ceremony were laid to rest under the mighty dome of the Panthéon. Maria Curie thus became the first woman to be accorded this mark of honor on her own merit. It was François Mitterrand, President of France who took this initiative, as he said “in order to finally respect the equality of women and men before the law and in reality” (“pour respecter enfin....l’égalité des femmes et des hommes dans le droit comme dans les faits”) [29]. In point of fact—as the press pointed out—this initiative was symbolic three times over. Maria Skłodowska-Curie was a woman, she was an immigrant and she had to a high degree that helped increase the prestige of France in the scientific world [15].

Maria’s discoveries and her legend

The physical and social aspects of the work of the Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie contributed substantially to shaping the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Maria’s new discoveries were revolutionary [15]. Although admittedly the world did not decay, what they nevertheless did was in the classical, deterministic view of the world. Radioactive decay, that heat is given off from an invisible and apparently inexhaustible source, that radioactive elements are transformed into new elements just as in the ancient dreams of alchemists of the possibility of making gold, all these things contravened the most entrenched principles of classical physics. For radioactivity to be understood, the development of quantum mechanics was required. But it should be noted that the birth of quantum mechanics was not initiated by the study of radioactivity but by Max Planck’s study of radiation from a black body in 1900 [15]. It was an old field that was not the object of the same interest and publicity as the new spectacular discoveries. It was not until 1928, more than a quarter of a century later, that the type of radioactivity that is called alpha-decay was explained theoretically. It is an example of the tunnel effect in quantum mechanics. Cornell University Professor L. Pearce Williams observes: “The result of the Curies’ work was epoch-making. Radium’s radioactivity was so great that it could not be ignored. It seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics. On the experimental level the discovery of radium provided men like Ernest Rutherford with sources of radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the atom. As a result of Rutherford’s experiments with alpha radiation, the nuclear atom was first postulated. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked” [26]. If the work of Maria Skłodowska–Curie helped overturn established ideas in physics and chemistry, it has had an equally profound effect in the social sphere. To attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way because she was a woman, in both her native and her adoptive country [14]. She was ahead of her time, emancipated, independent, and in addition uncorrupted. Albert Einstein is reported to have remarked that she was probably the only person who was not corrupted by the fame that she had won.

From the most famous of all women scientists, Maria Skłodowska-Curie is notable for her many firsts [15]:
  • She was the first to use the term “radioactivity” for this phenomenon. She was the first woman in Europe to receive her doctorate of science.

  • In 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics. The award, jointly awarded to Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henri Becquerel, was for the discovery of radioactivity.

  • She was also the first female lecturer, professor, and head of Laboratory at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1906).

  • In 1911, she won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize (this time in chemistry) for her discovery and isolation of pure radium and radium components. She was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes.

  • She was the first mother-Nobel Prize Laureate of a daughter-Nobel Prize Laureate. Her oldest daughter Irène Joliot-Curie also won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1935).

  • She is the first woman who has been laid to rest under the famous dome of the Pantheon in Paris for her own merits.

  • She received 15 gold medals, 19 degrees, and other honors.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s work initiated the birth of quite new branches of science, which are now called radiochemistry, radiation chemistry, radioanalytical methods etc.

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© Springer-Verlag 2011