The woman destined to be known worldwide as Madame Curie was born Marie Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on Nov. 7, 1867. The Sklodowskas were members of the impoverished Polish bourgeoisie, and her father struggled to support his large family as a high school teacher of physics and mathematics. He was apparently a brilliant man, and Marie learned both from his example and from his hands-on teaching, developing into a brilliant young student herself. But her mother suffered from tuberculosis and, hoping to spare her children, decided one day she could never touch them again.
Marie was five years old at the time, and it is thought that her lifelong aversion to public displays of affection sprang from being denied physical affection as a child. At age nine, she was greatly pained by her mother’s death; it was not the last time that she would lose a crucial loved one. As a young woman, Marie poured herself into her studies, which perhaps represented the one world she could control. From 1885 to 1889, she selflessly worked as a governess, sending her earnings to her older sister, Bronya, who was studying medicine in Paris.
Then, when her own turn came at the Sorbonne, she hit the books with a ferocious determination, graduating first in her class–the first woman to earn a Liciencee es Sciences Physiques. A Ph. D. , which she earned in 1903, was a foregone conclusion. Marie’s life blossomed personally and professionally when she met Pierre Curie, a brilliant young French physicist. They were married in 1895 and eventually had two daughters, Irene and Eve. Together they decided to further A. H. Becquerel’s investigation of the radioactive properties of uranium.
For the scientific world, 1898 was a turning-point year–thanks to the Curies: In July, they announced the discovery of a new radioactive element, polonium (named by Marie after her motherland); in December, they announced their discovery of radium. Their next step was to isolate both elements. Poorly equipped and underfunded, they spent the next three years doing precisely that–and in 1903 jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts. She was the first woman to win the award.
Life seemed to promise many more firsts for the Curies. They were both given prestigious positions at the Sorbonne–he as full professor, she as chief of laboratory work–but the glow of success was soon tragically extinguished. On a Paris street on April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie stepped in front of a horse-drawn carriage and was killed instantly. Confronted with the loss of her husband, best friend and indefatigable colleague, Marie Curie retreated to the laboratory, redoubling her efforts to isolate a sample of pure radium.
Successfully doing so won her a second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry, in 1911. The following year, the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute founded the Radium Institute, a long-overdue, properly funded recognition of her value to science. Thanks to Marie Curie, the medical profession finally had a potent weapon in the battle against cancer, and radiation treatment soon became common practice. The outbreak of World War One, though, posed a challenge tailormade for Curie.
After overcoming stout resistance from the French military, Curie, assisted by her daughter Irene, spearheaded the use of X-rays as a pre-operative tool in war-zone hospitals. Eventually, mobile radiological vans, nicknamed “Petite Curies,” were deployed along the Western Front. (This achievement is a key element of the film Marie Curie: More Than Meets the Eye. ) In the final year of the war, 20 Petite Curies and 200 radiological outposts took some 1,100,000 X-rays of wounded men. Yet for all of her own lifesaving contributions, Curie was undone by her past.
Despite her mother’s drastic measure, she may have contracted tuberculosis anyway; she was never robust, suffered from lung problems, and often had to tear herself away from work to rest in the French countryside or at sanitaria in Switzerland. To what degree she fatally exposed herself to radiation will never be known; certainly, she was chronically tired and her fingertips were permanently sore. In any event, the immediate cause of her death, on July 4, 1934, was listed as pernicious anemia. She was buried in the Paris plot already occupied by her beloved Pierre, with some Polish soil tossed atop her coffin by her big sister, Bronya.