Founder of Radiation Chemistry
Her many years of arduous research earned her two Nobel Prizes and a reputation as a scientist of rare insight and dedication.
Curie was born Marya Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland, which was then under Russian domination. In 1891, after attending an underground school run by Polish nationalists, she enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she earned degrees in physics and mathematics. In 1895 she married Pierre Curie, a French physicist, with whom she collaborated on much of her subsequent research.
In the late 1890s, Curie became interested in the 1896 discovery, by ANTOINEHENRI BECQUEREL, that the element uranium emits energy, a phenomenon that no one could explain. She began testing other elements for energy emission, and at first concluded that only uranium and thorium had this property, which she called “radioactivity.” In 1898, after completing the tedious analysis of numerous ore samples, Curie isolated an unknown radioactive element and named it polonium after her homeland. Six months later, she discovered another and called it radium.
Curie became the first woman to earn a Nobel Prize when, in 1903, the prize for physics was awarded jointly to her and her husband and to Becquerel for their discovery of radioactivity. In 1906 Pierre Curie died, and Curie took over her husband’s teaching position at the Sorbonne. In 1909 she was appointed codirector of a newly founded branch of the Sorbonne, the Institut du Radium, dedicated to the study of radioactivity. In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in the field of chemistry, for her discovery of radium and polonium.
By 1920 Curie’s health was deteriorating because of leukemia, more than likely caused by exposure to radiation, and on July 4, 1934, she died at a nursing home in the French Alps.
Marie Curie’s Legacy
Curie founded the study of radioactivity; which played a key role in the advancement of nuclear physics and led to the development of valuable technological applications.
Curie entered the field of chemistry at a time when her colleagues were making swift progress toward a description of the properties and structure of the atom. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, scientists relinquished the longheld belief that atoms were indivisible units and began to suggest that atoms might consist of smaller particles. The discovery of radioactivity by Becquerel and the Curies was one of the key experimental results that confirmed this suggestion. Their studies told them that the nucleus of a radioactive atom emits heat and subatomic particles when it breaks apart, transforming the atom into different components. Curie coined the term “disintegration” to describe this loss of particles, and the term “transmutation” to describe the transformation. Other discoveries and theories soon followed. In 1911 ERNST RUTHERFORD described the atom for the first time as a heavy nucleus circled by electrons. In 1913 NIELS BOHR used quantum theory (introduced in 1900 by MAX PLANCK) to theorize that electrons orbit the nucleus in distinct energy levels. The field of nuclear physics was thus born.
Radioactivity gave scientists the opportunity to explore the potential benefits of a naturally occurring phenomenon and to harness its energy. Physicians use radioactivity to destroy cancer cells and sterilize medical equipment; genetics researchers use radioactivity to identify genes. Carbon dating, which is used to determine the age of ancient organic remains, relies on the radioactive decay of carbon14, and radioactive uranium fuels nuclear power plants.
Curie also left a scientific legacy in her daughter, Irène Joliot Curie, who produced and identified artificial radioactivity and studied its byproducts. She received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry jointly with her husband Frédéric Joliot in 1935.
Marie Curie – 18671934