This seventh of November commemorates the birth of legendary scientist Marie Curie (born Maria Salomea Skłodowska) 152 years ago. With her husband, Pierre, the Polish-born Frenchwoman pioneered the study of radioactivity until her death in 1934. Today, she is recognized throughout the world not only for her groundbreaking Nobel Prize-winning discoveries but also for having boldly broken many gender barriers during her lifetime.
Curie became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from a French university, as well as the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. Not only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person (man or woman) ever to win the award twice and for achievements in two distinct scientific fields.
While Curie’s major accomplishments may be well known, here are several surprising facts about her personal and professional life that may not be.
She worked out of a shack
It may come as a surprise to know that Curie and Pierre conducted the bulk of the research and experimentation which led to the discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium in what was described by the respected German chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald, as “a cross between a stable and a potato shed.” In fact, when he was first shown the premises, he assumed that it was “a practical joke.” Even after the couple had won the Nobel Prize for their discoveries, Pierre died never having set foot in the new laboratory that the University of Paris had promised to build them.
Nonetheless, Curie would fondly recall their time together in the leaky, drafty shack despite the fact that, in order to extract and isolate the radioactive elements, she often spent entire days stirring boiling cauldrons of uranium-rich pitchblende until “broken with fatigue”. By the time she and Pierre eventually submitted their discoveries for professional consideration, Curie had personally gone through multiple tons of uranium-rich slag in this manner.
She was originally ignored by the Nobel Prize nominating committee
In 1903, members of the French Academy of Sciences wrote a letter to the Swedish Academy in which they nominated the collective discoveries in the field of radioactivity made by Marie and Pierre Curie, as well as their contemporary Henri Becquerel, for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Yet, in a sign of the times and its prevailing sexist attitudes, no recognition of Curie's contributions was offered, nor was there even any mention of her name. Thankfully, a sympathetic member of the nominating committee, a professor of mathematics at Stockholm University College named Gösta Mittage-Leffler, wrote a letter to Pierre warning him of the glaring omission. Pierre, in turn, wrote the committee insisting that he and Curie be “considered together . . . with respect to our research on radioactive bodies.”
Eventually, the wording of the official nomination was amended. Later that year, thanks to a combination of her accomplishments and the combined efforts of her husband and Mittage-Leffler, Curie became the first woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize.
She refused to cash in on her discoveries
After discovering Radium in 1898, Curie and Pierre balked at the opportunity to pursue a patent for it and to profit from its production, despite the fact that they had barely enough money to procure the uranium slag they needed in order to extract the element. On the contrary, the Curies generously shared the isolated product of Marie's difficult labors with fellow researchers and openly distributed the secrets of the process needed for its production with interested industrial parties.
During the ‘Radium Boom’ that followed, factories sprang up in the United States dedicated to supplying the element not only to the scientific community but also to the curious and gullible public. Though not yet fully understood, the glowing green material captivated consumers and found its way into everything from toothpaste to sexual enhancement products. By the 1920s, the price of a single gram of the element reached $100,000 and Curie could not afford to buy enough of the very thing she, herself, had discovered in order to continue her research.
Nonetheless, she had no regrets. “Radium is an element, it belongs to the people,” she told American journalist Missy Maloney during a trip to the United States in 1921. “Radium was not to enrich anyone.”
Einstein encouraged her during one of the worst years of her life
Albert Einstein and Curie first met in Brussels at the prestigious Solvay Conference in 1911. This invite-only event brought together the world’s leading scientists in the field of physics, and Curie was the only woman out of its 24 members. Einstein was so impressed by Curie, that he came to her defense later that year when she became embroiled in controversy and the media frenzy that surrounded it.
By this time, France had reached the peak of its rising sexism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism that defined the years preceding the First World War. Curie’s nomination to the French Academy of Sciences was rejected, and many suspected that biases against her gender and immigrant roots were to blame. Furthermore, it came to light that she had been involved in a romantic relationship with her married colleague, Paul Langevin, though he was estranged from his wife at the time.
Curie was labeled a traitor and a homewrecker and was accused of riding the coattails of her deceased husband (Pierre had died in 1906 from a road accident) rather than having accomplished anything based on her own merits. Though she had just been awarded a second Nobel Prize, the nominating committee now sought to discourage Curie from traveling to Stockholm to accept it so as to avoid a scandal. With her personal and professional life in disarray, she sank into a deep depression and retreated (as best she could) from the public eye.
Around this time, Curie received a letter from Einstein in which he described his admiration for her, as well as offered his heart-felt advice on how to handle the events as they unfolded. “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty,” he wrote, “and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance . . .” As for the frenzy of newspaper articles attacking her, Einstein encouraged Curie “to simply not read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.”
There is little doubt that the kindness shown by her respected colleague was encouraging. Soon enough, she recovered, reemerged and, despite the discouragement, courageously went to Stockholm to accept her second Nobel Prize.
She personally provided medical aid to French soldiers during World War I
When World War I broke out in 1914, Curie was forced to put her research and the opening of her new Radium institute on hold due to the threat of a possible German occupation of Paris. After personally delivering her stash of the valuable element to the safety of a bank vault in Bordeaux, she set about using her expertise in the field of radioactivity in order to aid the French war effort.
Over the course of the next four years, Curie helped equip and operate more than twenty ambulances (known as “Little Curies”) and hundreds of field hospitals with primitive x-ray machines so as to assist surgeons with the location and removal of shrapnel and bullets from the bodies of wounded soldiers. Not only did she personally instruct and supervise young women in the operation of the equipment, but she even drove and operated one such ambulance herself, despite the danger of venturing too close to the fighting on the front lines.
By the end of the war, it was estimated that Curie’s x-ray equipment, as well as the Radon gas syringes she designed to sterilize wounds, may have saved the lives of a million soldiers. Yet, when the French government later sought to award her the country’s most distinguished honor, la Légion d'honneur, she declined. In another display of selflessness at the outset of the conflict, Curie had even tried to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French National Bank, but they refused.
She had no idea of the dangers of radioactivity
Today, more than 100 years after the Curies’ discovery of Radium, even the public is kept well aware of the potential dangers associated with the exposure of the human body to radioactive elements. Yet, from the very first years during which the scientists and their contemporaries were pioneering the study of radioactivity until the mid-1940s, little was concretely understood about both short and long-term health effects.
Pierre liked to keep a sample in his pocket so he could demonstrate its glowing and heating properties to the curious, and even once strapped a vial of the stuff to his bare arm for ten hours in order to study the curious way it painlessly burned his skin. Curie, in turn, kept a sample at home next to her bed as a nightlight. Diligent researchers, the Curies spent nearly every day in the confines of their improvised laboratory, with various radioactive materials strewn about their workspaces. After regularly handling Radium samples, both were said to have had developed unsteady hands, as well as cracked and scarred fingers.
Though the life of Pierre was tragically cut short in 1906, at the time of his death he was suffering from constant pain and fatigue. Curie, too, complained of similar symptoms until succumbing to advanced leukemia in 1934. At no point did either consider the possibility that their very discovery was the cause of their pain and Curie's eventual death. In fact, all the couple's laboratory notes and many of their personal belongings are still so radioactive today that they cannot safely be viewed or studied.
Her daughter also won the Nobel Prize
In the case of Marie and Pierre Curie’s eldest daughter, Irène, it can safely be said that the apple did not fall far from the tree. Following in her parents’ sizable footsteps, Irène enrolled at the Faculty of Science in Paris. However, the outbreak of the First World War interrupted her studies. She joined her mother and began working as a nurse radiographer, operating x-ray machines to assist with the treatment of soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
By 1925, Irène had received her doctorate, having joined her mother in the field of the study of radioactivity. Ten years later, she and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the breakthroughs they had made in the synthesis of new radioactive elements. Though it had been Curie's pleasure to have witnessed her daughter and son-in-law’s successful research, she did not live to see them win the award.
The Curie family legacy is both poignant and appropriately accomplished. Irène and Frédéric Joliot had two children of their own, named Helene and Pierre, in honor of their incredible grandparents whose deaths were tragically premature. In turn, Curie's grandchildren would both go on to distinguish themselves in the field of science as well. Helene became a nuclear physicist and, at 88 years old, still maintains a seat on the advisory board to the French government. Pierre would go on to become a preeminent biologist.