Marie Curie: The Nobel-winning scientist destroyed by her own life’s work

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published November 6, 2018

Key Takeaways

Marie Curie (Marie Salomea Sklodowska) was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland. The list of her accomplishments is broad and varied, and includes the discovery of two elements—radium and polonium, and two Nobel Prizes—in physics and in chemistry. Curie was also renowned for overcoming the many gender barriers in academia, the scientific community, and life in general, that colored her lifetime.

Because her father could not afford to send her to university—and also because higher education wasn’t made available to girls in Poland at the time—Curie began work as a tutor and governess. She was able to financially support her sister, financing her study of medicine in Paris.

In November 1891, Curie was finally able to join her sister in Paris, where she studied chemistry, mathematics, and physics at Sorbonne University. After many financial and personal hardships, Curie finished her master’s degree in chemistry in 1894. She received industrial funding to study the composition and magnetic properties of steel, and soon after began work on her PhD in physics.

In 1895, she married Pierre Curie, a professor in physics, an industrial scientist, and an inventor, who had discovered piezoelectricity—the electricity that results when mechanical stress is applied to certain solids—at the age of 21. He was also an expert in magnetism, and had discovered the Curie point—the effect of temperature change on the properties of a magnet.

After Wilhelm Roentgen’s seminal discovery of x-rays in 1895 and Henri Becquerel’s discovery that rays given off by uranium could penetrate metal, Curie began studying uranium. She found that uranium rays cause an electrical charge in the air, allowing the air to conduct electricity.

She also discovered that the rays emitted by uranium are dictated by its quantity and not its chemical composition; and that pitchblende and torbernite—uranium minerals—had greater effects on conducting the electrical charge in the air than uranium did. This led her to theorize that these minerals contained a different chemical element not found in uranium that was more active than uranium. Finally, she discovered that thorium emits rays in the same way uranium does.

After these findings, Curie began her scientific collaboration with her husband. Together, they discovered two new chemical elements—polonium, which is 300 times more radioactive than uranium, and radium, several million times more radioactive than uranium.

Interestingly, Curie and her husband did much of the research leading to their groundbreaking discoveries in a dilapidated shack, tirelessly stirring cauldrons filled with pitchblende for their research.

Together, the Curies also discovered that the compounds in radium were luminous, making it a potential heat source capable of producing heat continually without a chemical reaction. Curie and her husband coined the term “radioactivity” to describe this characteristic.

Unfortunately, the Curies had no idea of the dangers inherent in exposure to radioactive elements. In fact, her husband carried a sample of radium in his pocket, so he could show people how it glowed and emitted heat. Curie herself kept a sample of radium next to her bed as a nightlight.

Today, their laboratory notes and personal belongings are still so radioactive that they cannot be safely viewed or studied.

Two Nobel Prizes

In 1903, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, which she shared with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, when she was awarded the prize in Physics for her discoveries in radiation. But at first, the nominating committee did not include Curie, an omission largely due to the sexist attitudes of the time. It was only upon the urging of her husband and a member of the nominating committee that they finally conceded and included Curie.

In 1911, Curie also received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium, after she successfully isolated a pure sample of radium, becoming the first and only person to win a Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry.

Curie learned that the rays emitted by radioactive elements could treat tumors, and founded the Radium Institute—now known as the Curie Institute—to explore the possibilities of radiation medicine. Since then, three of the institute’s researchers have won Nobel Prizes, including her daughter Irene, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 with her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie.

On July 4, 1934, Curie died of aplastic anemia, probably caused by her almost lifelong exposure to radioactivity. She was—and continues to be—one of the most famous scientists of all time.


McHugh, B. “Marie Curie: 7 Facts on the Groundbreaking Scientist.” Accessed November 5, 2018.

Marie Curie. Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. Accessed November 5, 2018.

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