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About Marie Curie

A Nobel Prize Pioneer at the Panthéon

The ashes of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre have now been laid to rest under the famous dome of the Panthéon, in Paris, alongside the author Victor Hugo, the politician Jean Jaurès and the Resistance fighter Jean Moulin. Through her discovery of radium, Marie Curie paved the way for nuclear physics and cancer therapy. Born of Polish parents, she was a woman of science and courage, compassionate yet stubbornly determined. Her research work was to cost her her life.

curi.gif (6196 bytes)"To the fatherland's great men, in gratitude." Prior to April 21, 1995, the famous inscription on the Panthéon's ornamental front really had to be taken literally. Indeed, the crypt, where some of the nation's most distinguished personalities lay buried, did not include a single woman, that is to say a woman honoured on her own merits. [The Panthéon did, indeed, already contain the ashes of one woman, but only as the wife of the chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot.] It is an injustice which President François Mitterrand sought to put right by transferring to the Panthéon the ashes of the physicist and chemist Marie Curie, and those of her husband. Besides conferring the added value of "beings" to the term "men", this gesture enabled the nation to honour a foreigner for her contribution to the prestige of French scientific research.

Marie Curie, or rather Marya Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. At the time, the Polish capital was occupied by the Russians, who were seeking to weaken the local élite but nonetheless tolerated the burgeoning of the positivist doctrine advocated by Auguste Comte. Based on the value of experience and scientific reality, and applied to society, it was for many intellectuals the path of progress; it was to leave an indelible mark on Marya. Born into a family of teachers and brought up in an environment marked by a sense of duty and a lack of money, she led the most Spartan of lives. From the premature death of one of her sisters, and later of her mother, she drew the agnosticism that would later bolster her faith in science. As a brilliant and mature student with a rare gift of concentration, Marya harboured the dream of a scientific career, a concept inconceivable for a woman at that time. But lack of funds meant she was forced to become a private tutor. She made huge financial sacrifices so that her sister Bronia could fulfil her wish of studying medicine in Paris, nurturing the hope that the favour might be returned.

And so, in 1891, the shy Marya arrived in Paris. Ambitious and self-taught, she had but one obsession: to learn. She passed a physics degree with flying colours, and went on to sit a mathematics degree. It was then that a Polish friend introduced her to Pierre Curie, a young man, shy and introvert. In 1895, this free-thinker, acknowledged for his work on crystallography and magnetism, became her husband. One year previously, he had written to her saying how nice it would be "to spend life side by side, in the sway of our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream."

From the scientific dream...

In her pioneering way, Marie Curie decided, in 1897, to take a physics doctorate. Henri Becquerel, who was studying X-rays, had recently observed that uranium salt left an impression on a photographic plate in spite of its protective envelope. What better subject could there have been for Marie than to try and understand the effect, the energy of these uranic rays? Pierre consented. And so his frail wife set about her work, handling tons of minerals; she noted that another substance, thorium, was "radioactive", a term she herself had coined. Together, they demonstrated in a major discovery that radioactivity was not the result of a chemical reaction but a property of the element or, more specifically, of the atom. Marie then studied pitchblende, a uranic mineral in which she measured a much more intense activity than is present in uranium alone. She deduced that there were other substances besides uranium that were very radioactive, such as polonium and radium, which she discovered in 1898.

In their experiments, Pierre observed the properties of the radiation while Marie, for her part, purified the radioactive elements. Both shared the same, uncanny tenacity, which was all the more admirable given their deplorable living conditions. Their laboratory was nothing more than a miserable hangar, where in winter the temperature dropped to around six degrees. One chemist commented that "it looked more like a stable or a potato cellar". And yet, Marie admitted that "one of our pleasures was to enter our workshop at night; then, all around us, we would see the luminous silhouettes of the beakers and capsules that contained our products". Despite their difficulty at obtaining any advances or loans, Marie and Pierre Curie refused to file a patent application that would have secured them financially; in their eyes, enabling any scientist, French or foreign, to find applications for radioactivity took priority.

Pierre tested radium on his skin. It caused a burn, and then a wound: its effect on man was thus proven. Soon radium was being used to treat malign tumours: Curietherapy was born. In 1903, Marie defended her thesis. Together with Becquerel, the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of natural radioactivity. Their happiness was short lived. In 1906, Pierre, weakened by radiation and overworked, was run over by a car. Marie was forced to continue alone. She took charge of educating her two children; she took up the position which her husband had finally obtained at the Sorbonne, and thus became the first woman to be appointed professor there.

She also had to fight the prejudices of her day: hatred of foreigners and sexism which, in 1911, prevented her from entering the Academy of Science. And yet, soon after, she was honoured with a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for determining the atomic weight of radium. But her real joy was "easing human suffering". The founding of the Radium Institute by the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute in 1914 would enable her to fulfil her humanitarian wish. the humanitarian dream

But then war broke out. "We must act, act," she would say, motivating her daughter Irène to follow suit. She felt that X-rays would help to locate shrapnel and bullets, and facilitate surgery; also, that it was important not to move the wounded, whenever possible. And so she created X-ray vans. But she did not stop there, and went on to provide equipment for hospitals. The only protection at that time was a metal screen and fabric gloves. All she needed to do was convince reticent doctors and find well-trained manipulators. No sooner said than done. Marie trained 150 female manipulators.

With the war over, she went back to work in her institute, with Irène by her side. Marie ran the research laboratory while Dr Claudius Regaud headed the applied biology laboratory. Their co-operation proved harmonious, sharing as they did similar ideals and the same disinterest in financial matters. Physicians and chemists provided the radium, and physicists treated cancer patients. Marie set about collecting funds and raw materials, the price of which had soared, going as far afield as the United States; but she found it hard to accept that dark economic interests should prevail.

Marie died of leukaemia in July, 1934, exhausted and almost blinded, her fingers burnt and stigmatised by "her" dear radium. This sixty-seven-year-old woman, who, according to Dr Claudius Regaud, "under a cold exterior and the utmost reserve (...) concealed in reality an abundance of delicate and generous feelings", had been exposed to incredible levels of radiation. Other researchers after her, her daughter in particular, would also pay the price. In January, together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, Irène, who had been working in the same laboratory and with the same relentless determination as her mother, discovered artificial radioactivity, for which she, too, was awarded the Nobel Prize. Radioactivity is the starting point for cancer treatment, for the dating techniques used on ancient objects, rocks and the universe, and for molecular biology and modern genetics; it is also the source of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. The other side of the coin...

By Florence Raynal

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"Marie Curie"
by Brendan Griffin


Against a background of patriarchal dominance, industrial, cultural and scientific revolution the life of the eminent chemist and physicist Marie Curie, had its humble beginnings in Poland in 1867. At a time when social conditions were examined in Hugo's Les Miserable, when scientific advancement was held in both awe and suspicion, as expressed in H.G. Well's "The Island of Dr Moreau" 1896, when the world was racked by war and revolution and in the years when Emmaline Pankhurst was arrested for upholding women's right to vote in 1914, Marie Curie tirelessly pursued her research into radioactivity. Firstly she uncovered a new element polonium and then identified a stronger radioactive element which she named radium. As a female, her invitation to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris was remarkable indeed, but was only the beginning of a career which would include a Noble Prize both for physics and chemistry, as well as a professorial position at the Sorbonne University in Paris, making her the only female professor in the University's history at that time. Described in the New York Times as, "a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun," Curie could have been far more famous and certainly more wealthy had she chosen to patent radium, but in a statement which illustrates the foresight and generosity of spirit of the woman, she decided such action would be contrary to the scientific spirit"(Anne Steinke, 1987).

Marie Curie was remarkable as a scientist, as a public figure and as a humanitarian. What is more impressive still, is that this was all achieved with the least possible concession to personal glory or financial advancement and accomplished at a time when the constraints on a woman's freedom were powerful indeed.


Though rarely used today, the precious element of radium which Marie and Pierre Curie isolated in 1902, has been widely used this century, in the treatment of cancer and skin disorder. The Curie's refused to patent their discovery, favoring the unlimited use of any knowledge which could be life saving. 1903 Marie and Pierre shared the Noble Prize for Physics with Henry Becquerel, for the discovery of radioactivity. The 70,000 gold francs which were awarded to them were used by the Curies, to further experiments and research into their field, as well to repay the generous support of family and friends and to provide financial support for poor Polish students to continue their studies.

In 1906 Pierre was struck by a horse drawn wagon and killed instantly. Marie refused an offer from the French Government for a pension and continued to earn her living independently by further research. Marie's account of her discoveries about radioactivity, "Treatise on Radioactivity" 1910, led to her receiving her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. Marie used the money from the French Government to pay for military expenditure. She took her own gold savings to the bank to be melted down for the war effort. She even offered her gold medals, but the bank refused to accept them.

The Sorbonne University completed the Radium Institute in her honor in July 1914 and it was from here that Marie was able to work with her daughter Irene, in setting up mobile Xray, services in the battle zones of World War I. In this way she prevented an untold number of amputations, by enabling surgeons to find the precise location of bullets and shattered bones. She went further by establishing a course to instruct technicians in radiology. Her paper, "Radiology and War" showed how scientific research could save human life and suffering. She unashamedly asked for support from the most wealthy families in the community towards this aim.

Curie also supported world peace by serving on the council of the League of Nations and on its international committee on intellectual cooperation.

Curie died in Haute Savoie on July 4, 1934. The pernicious anaemia she suffered, was caused by the over exposure to radiation she had subjected herself to during her life's work. Even with her passing, her contribution may still be felt in the centres for research and palliative care set up in her name, as well in world wide advancement of her work in understanding the nature of the atom and the energy it can release.

Social Implications

Showing early signs of her independent and tenacious spirit, in 1886 Marie joined the Zorawski family as a governess, in order to save for the education of her sister Bronya and herself. 1891 she was rewarded for her efforts by being invited to reside with her newly married sister in Paris. Shortly afterwards, she found a place of her own nearer the Sorbonne University, where she would begin her studies as the University's very first female student. It was a sign of the times, that while in retrospect the University appeared to have been a great support to Curie, in enabling her work to continue, after the death of Pierre in 1906, Marie was appointed assistant professor of Physics only and was not granted the full Professorial position until 1908. Further still, in 1911 she proposed membership to the French Academy of Science and was rejected on the grounds of her sex. Though by 1922, she was elected to the French Academy of Medicine for her contribution to radiological medicine. "We salute you, a great scientist…. a patriot, who in war as in peace, has always done more than her duty," read the citation (Everett Fisher, 1994).

The Late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw the growth of the suffragette movement in Europe, towards the equal rights of women. While Curie was not actively involved , her achievements and awards were a great encouragement to the movement.

It was at this time that the first hint of the dangers of radioactivity began to become apparent. Many preparations containing radium, such as face creams and tonics did far more harm than good. Scientists who had worked in conjunction with the Curies on their research, began to make public statements about the burns, illnesses, ulcers and cancers they suffered, which they believed resulted from their exposure to radium and that this should have been guarded against. To her discredit, Curie never accepted this as a reality and for this reason, even the origins of her own illness, were never disclosed to her even at her death.

Aligned with Einstein, Curie carries the glory as well as the blame attached to ushering in the nuclear age. It is true that no one has the answer to the toxic legacy radioactive waste has left us, nor is there a justification in our times, for the total destruction of Hiroshima in 1945. Yet the work of these scientific pioneers has given the world a greater understanding of and respect for the atomic process and the dangers it engenders. Einstein's message to Roosevelt in 1939 concerning the possibility of a nuclear bomb, was always intended as a deterrent to war. Since 1945 it has had some measure of success as just that. The abuse of the technology by unsafe testing and appallingly misused expenditure, was never part of Einstein's or Curie's equation. Greater knowledge is a double-edged sword, but ignoring progress for fear of change, harbors its own intrinsic dangers.

Popular Media

A New York Times reporter wrote of Curie, "Few persons have contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of Science than that modest, self effacing woman whom the world has come to know as Marie Curie." For some one who much preferred her laboratory to "a great social place in the sun", Curie has been especially well celebrated in popular media. Curie gradually became aware of the positive effect her role as a kind of ambassador for Science, could have on educating people and furthering the scientific cause.

In 1921, American reporter Marie Meloney , persisted in attempts to interview Curie until she finally relented, once she appreciated the possibilities such public exposure could engage. Meloney was so enthralled by Curie's efforts, she appealed to the women of her country in an attempt to raise the $100,000 necessary to purchase one gram of pure radium for Curie's research and medical use. In 1925, the Polish Government opened the Radium Institute in Warsaw in Curie's honor. The women of the United States subsequently saluted her a second time, by financing the purchase of another gram of radium for the Institute's use. After this time, Curie traveled quite extensively in Europe and the United States celebrating her discoveries and articulating her cause.

Until 1927, Curie's life had been documented largely from a congenial perspective, firstly anecdotally, in the Warsaw Times. In these pages her graduation from High School with top honors in 1883 and her graduation as first in her Physics class at the Sorbonne University in 1894, were fondly recorded. In 1903, her Nobel Prize victory was widely publicized in the Parisian media, as was the tragic death of Pierre Curie on the 19th of April, 1906. Her unique appointment to the Sorbonne University was noted with enthusiasm in the Paris Times, but her second Nobel Prize was clouded by taunts in the press, of it being a sympathy award.

Curie's war efforts and gifts from America were well documented in the media of the day and her visits to America were enthusiastically followed and mostly recorded in a positive manner.1927 brought the first major public scrutiny of the radioactivity issue. From 1927-1928, newspapers headlined a court case against a clock factory from its workers, who alleged the company was liable for the illnesses they had incurred as a result of exposure to radioactive paint. The US Radium Corporation issued funds for the medical bills of the plaintiffs, as well as pensions for those affected. When Curie was questioned about the case, she rejected any association between exposure to radium and ill health and even suggested the workers needed simply, "…. to eat more raw calf's liver." It was a naïve and inappropriate statement indeed, which showed a misplaced loyalty to radium, which destroyed her health and eventually led to her death.


Documentaries and dramatizations of her life have as their common theme, praise for the selfless pursuit of alleviating human suffering, which was Curie's life's work. The Curie's fame even stretched to the commissioning of commemorative, 50 year anniversary postage stamps, celebrating the discovery of radium. Admirers and detractors aside, Curie's achievements are as numerous as they are remarkable. Perhaps accomplishments of such note, can only be brought to fruition by truly inspired individuals. There is no doubt that Curie possessed the determination as well as the vision necessary to succeed in her research and in so doing earned the admiration even of other scientific geniuses, "Marie Curie is of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted." Albert Einstein (MS Encarta, 1996).


Lafferty P. (1992) Pioneers in Science: Medicine. Sydney. Heinemann
Parker S. (1992) Science Discoveries: Marie Curie and Radium. London. Belitha.
Fisher L. E. (1994) MARIE CURIE. New York. Macmillan.
Steinke A. E. (1987) MARIE CURIE and the Discovery of Radium. New York. Barron’s Educational Series.
Tames R. (1989) LIFETIMES: MARIE CARIE. London. Franklin Watts.
Microsoft Encarta 1996 Marie Curie (1867-1934)

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