Marie Curie (1867–1934)
Physicist and chemist
Marya Salomea Sklodowska was born on 7 November 1867 to two teachers as the youngest of five children. After attending private schools and a public grammar school in her home town, Sklodowska received the top school leaver's certificate in her class in 1883. She worked as a private tutor from 1884 to 1889.
Studies in France
As women were not allowed to study in Poland, she moved to Paris in 1891 to join her sister Bronia, whose medical degree she had helped fund. She enrolled at the Sorbonne for a degree in physics, which she completed with top marks in 1893 followed by the second best marks in mathematics in 1894.
Marriage with Pierre Curie
Earlier that year, she had met physicist Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1895. One year later, she passed the examination entitling her to teach at secondary schools for girls – once again, with top marks. In the autumn of 1897, she gave birth to her first daughter, Irène, who would eventually follow in her parents' scientific footsteps.
Discovery of Radioactivity
At the end of that year, she embarked on a PhD under physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel, researching uranium's natural radiation, which Becquerel had discovered in 1896. In 1898, she and her husband stumbled across two previously unknown radiating elements, which the couple named radium and polonium. They referred to the radiation as radioactivity. In the first half of 1903, Marie Curie completed her PhD with her dissertation "Recherches sur les substances radioactives". At the end of 1903, she, her husband and her PhD supervisor Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Teaching at the Sorbonne
The following autumn, the Sorbonne established a chair for general physics for Pierre Curie. Marie was appointed as head of scientific projects at the laboratory. In December 1904, the Curies' second daughter, Ève, was born. When Pierre Curie was killed in a road accident in 1906, his widow was given his teaching duties and made head of the laboratory. Two years later, she was also offered her husband’s vacant chair.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
In the meantime, the increased medical use of radium required precise and comparable measured data. In honour of Marie Curie, the introduced unit of mass for radium would be called "curies" until it was eventually replaced by the unit "becquerel" in 1985. On behalf of the International Radium Standard Commission, Marie Curie isolated pure radium, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. Shortly beforehand, however, the French press had blown up her affair with the married physicist Paul Langevin into a public scandal, which not only jeopardised her nomination for the Nobel Prize, but also overshadowed the rest of her life, despite her subsequent scientific successes.
First World War and illness
During the First World War, aided by her daughter Irène, Marie Curie devised a mobile X-ray station to examine wounded soldiers, even driving one of these vehicles to the front herself. After the war, she continued conducting research with her daughter at the Sorbonne’s Radium Institute until 1927, which she had been running since 1914. From 1922 she also spent twelve years as a committed member of the newly founded League of Nations’ International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation. She died of leukaemia at a sanatorium in Haute-Savoie on 4 July 1934 as the result of decades of working with radioactive substances unprotected.
Excerpt from the transcript of a letter from Marie Curie to Pierre Weiss (1865–1940), a physics professor at ETH Zurich, offering her opinion of Albert Einstein, 17 November 1911 (ETH-Bibliothek, ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 304:1101).
Marie Curie had met and been impressed by Albert Einstein at the first International Physics Conference organised by the major Belgian industrialist Ernst Solvay in Brussels from 29 October to 3 November 1911. Einstein had been attracting so much attention in the academic world with his spectacular work on theoretical physics that ETH Zurich was contemplating appointing its former troublesome student as a full professor of physics. To get the ball rolling, Marie Curie, among others, was asked for her opinion of Einstein. The hope was that a favourable assessment from a two-time Nobel Prize-winner would go down well with the Swiss National Council, which had the final say. In the autumn of 1913 (Einstein had actually joined ETH Zurich, but was already on the move again to take up a more convenient position in Berlin), Marie Curie travelled to Switzerland and went hiking in the Engadin with her colleague.
Transcripts of various letters from Marie Curie are kept in author Carl Seelig's Einstein Collection (external link) in the ETH Zurich University Archive. Publications by and on Marie Curie can be located and borrowed via ETH Library's Search Portal (external link).