Marie Curie, née Skłodowska, was a Polish physcist and chemist, fêted as one of the most brilliant minds ever. Although her life was marked by regular tragedy and oppression, as a Pole and as a woman, she triumphed in the end, gaining a remarkable two Nobel Prizes.
One of only four people to receive two Nobel Prizes, and the only woman. She came from a family which in total had accumulated five Nobel Prizes.
Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903 (shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel).
Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911.
First female president of the University of Paris.
Entombed in the Panthéon, Paris (first woman on own merit).
Theory of Radioactivity: Curie also invented the term.
Radioactivity and new elements: the Curies isolated radioactive isotopes, and discovered two elements: polonium and radium.
Treatment of neoplasms using radioactive isotopes.
Marie's early life in a Poland under Russian domination was hard. She lost her mother and sister to disease. Being a woman, she was unable to follow her brilliant father directly into academia, but instead joined a clandestine university, the 'Flying (or Floating) University'. She left Poland for Paris in 1891, after many years of struggling to gain acceptance as an academic.
In Paris, she gradually established herself, gaining two degrees, and, still unable to return to Poland because she could find a post at university as a woman, she met and married Pierre Curie (who was killed in a road accident in 1906), a professor of Physics and Chemistry. Although a brilliant scientist, it is often said that his greatest discovery was Marie Skłodowska.
At a time when matter was considered to be indivisible, her intuition about the emission of radiation from atoms was an enormously important breakthrough. Marie named her first discovery of a new chemical element, polonium (1898), after her home country.
She adapted her discoveries to X-ray machines, which she employed in mobile hospitals during World War One. Marie Curie died in 1934, aged 66, from aplastic anemia, caused by her exposure to radiation during her many years of experimentation.
(Biographies of famous scientists no. 28)
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