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Curie Marie .

posted Mar 5, 2015, 3:35 PM by Upali Salpadoru   [ updated Jul 2, 2022, 12:32 AM ]

Family of Nobles .   

Marie Curie....(Mother) 


   "Mother of Physics".

Fig.1 Madam Marie Sklodowska Curie

Date of Birth:-  November 7th 1867.         Country:- Poland

  Marie may be considered as the most successful human being that ever trudged the Earth.  

  Yet she received bouquets and brickbats in equal measure.  She claimed two Nobel Prizes, sharing one with her husband Pierre Curie and Henry Becquerel for physics in 1903 and another for chemistry in 1911. Her daughter Irene shared the Nobel Prize with her husband Joliot Frederick in 1935.

  Then she heard, “Go back to Poland. You are Jewish.”  


  Bronya and Marie Sklodowska were two daughters of a rationalist, physics teacher in Poland. Their mother was a Catholic pianist. They had the elementary education in a Russian school and science lessons from her father. Although the two sisters excelled in studies, they were not allowed to enter the ‘men only’ University in Warsaw. They could not afford to enter a foreign University.

1885 Age 18Yrs.

  The two sisters devised a simple plan to solve the problem. Marie would work as a governess and send money for her elder sister to study medicine in France.  Once Bronya had completed the course she would spend for her younger sister. The plan worked beautifully.

1891 Age 24Yrs.

  Bronya completed her studies, got married and invited Marie to live with them in Paris.

  Six year break, had changed her outlook from Physics to Nursery rhymes. Yet  strong persuasion of the sister, made her join Sorbonne. She rented out an attic and frugally managed her expenses with an allowance from Bronya. Burning midnight oil, in freezing cold due to poor heating, often forgetting her food, she crammed up the lecture notes.

1893 Age 26Yrs.

As a result she graduated at the top of her batch. Sorbonne offered her a teaching post; first lady tutor there.

A society offered her a contract to study the magnetic properties of steel.  For this she needed lab facilities.

1894  Age 27Yrs.

Pierre Curie, was in charge of all Industrial School laboratories at the time.  He was a confirmed bachelor dreaming of crystals and magnets. Then young Marie entered his laboratory as a sparkling crystal.

Once they started work, each one admired the ways and the skills of the other.

1895  Age 28Yrs.

Pierre requested Marie to forget becoming a teacher in Poland but to continue research in France. Marie encouraged Pierre to complete his doctorate.

Fig.2 On their honeymoon.

Plans worked wonderfully and they tied the knot, outside the church.

1897  Age 30 Yrs.

Marie completed her project on steel.  Then she gave birth to their first daughter, Irene in September. Marie decided to work for her doctorate and Pierre’s father agreed to look after the child, She was the first woman in the entire world to have attempted a doctorate.

Recently discovered strange rays; Becquerel Rays was her subject of interest. She had the advantage of using  special instruments, devised by her husband and his brother for measurements.

She investigated the emanations from each and every known element and coined the word radioactivity for this phenomenon. The materials that give off rays she named as radioactive materials.  Other than Uranium, only Thorium had exhibited this property.

When she was using metallic ores, she found ‘pitchblende’ to be highly active. Then an inexplicable problem cropped up.

Some samples of Uranium ore were more radioactive than the pure Uranium extracted out of that’. 

What could be the inference?  Pierre dropped crystallography and joined his wife in search of a solution. In the course of investigations, they learned a lot about 'radiation'.

They are:

  • Radiation does not depend on external factors such as temperature, pressure or light.
  • Radiation is proportional to the Uranium atoms present in the sample but independent of their chemical combinations. Radiation cannot be a chemical property.


1898  Age 31Yrs.

The above mentioned findings would have been ample for her to get a doctorate, but she did not stop there. More than the qualification, she wanted to solve the mystery.

Marie wrote, “The result of our experiment proved that there were … radioactive elements in pitchblende, but that their proportion did not reach even a millionth per cent.”

Curies carried out this arduous task in an abandoned shed in their spare time. Marie has said, “I had to spend a whole day mixing a boiling mass with a heavy iron rod nearly as large as myself.   ……... I would be broken with fatigue at the day’s end…The feeling of discouragement that sometimes came after some unsuccessful toil did not last” 

After processing a few tons of ore they obtained a fairly concentrated solution of Uranium chlorideAs they went on removing the Uranium salt, the remnants became more radioactive, confirming their assumption that a new element must be there.

Sometimes Marie and Pierre visited the work site at night, “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” 

1902  Age 35Yrs.

In April  they identified  two radioactive elements, and named them as Polonium   and Radium. The first name in honour of his country of birth.

The curies extracted only one decigram of almost pure Radium chloride. Marie subsequently obtained their properties including the atomic mass unit. All doubts of some scientists vanished  by the comment on her thesis, “the greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis”.

1903  Age 36Yrs.

When Marie got the Doctorate, Paul Langevin, their family friend, organized a party. Ernest Rutherford, who was also a guest reports, “Pierre took a small tube from his pocket, partly coated with zinc sulphide and contained a dilute solution of Radium chloride. The crowd stared in wonder at the spectacle of illuminating the surrounding without a chemical reaction. Pierre’s fingers were scarred and they were trembling”.

Fig.2 Pierre Curie.

Pierre often carried a radioactive sample in his pocket, while Marie kept a little radium salt by her bed that shone in the darkness. At a lecture in London Pierre had suggested how Radium could be used to cure cancer. He showed a burnt mark in his hand as proof of the ability of Radium to kill cells. They had no idea that the radioactivity was gradually poisoning them.  

Help came from many quarters to extract the new elements.  Marie had written, “I deeply appreciated the privilege of realizing that our discovery had become a benefit to mankind ,…. . This was indeed a splendid reward for our years of hard toil”

The names of Henry Becquerel and Pierre Curie were proposed by the French Scientists for the  Physics Nobel Prize.  Pierre wrote to them, “I very much wish to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our research on radioactive bodies.”  As a result, Marie became the first lady recipient of a Noble Prize.

1906  Age 39Yrs.

Pierre, on his way to the library slipped, fell down and a horse drawn carriage ran over his head. Marie who was left alone with her two daughters Irene 9 and Eva 2. She reflects, “The death of my husband was a national misfortune. It was largely under the influence of this emotion that the Faculty of Sciences of Paris decided to offer me the chair, which my husband had occupied. …….. The honour that now came to me was deeply painful under the cruel circumstances”.

"My husband and I were so closely united by our affection and our common work that we passed nearly all of our time together.”.

1910  Age 43Yrs.

Madame Curie was nominated for election to the Academy of Sciences. She couldn’t get the required support. Majority view was, “ Pierre's research had given her a free ride. She came from Poland, though she was formally a Catholic, her name Sklodowska reveals that she might be of Jewish origin.”  

Her brilliance was superseded by ultra nationalist attitudes.

Soon the press started a campaign to cast doubt on her morals.

Paul Langevin, lifelong family friend and a colleague of hers had had marital problems for some time. One newspaper directly accused Madame Curie for the situation.  Papers and a part of the public kept on saying:

Marie is an alien, a polish woman, a researcher escalated by our scientists who had stolen an honest French Woman’s husband”. Some even reiterated the French revolution cry:

"The Republic does not need any scientists".

Marie’s friends backed her up. But the slanderous campaign snow balled. One paper published some letters supposed to have been written by Marie to Langevin. There was no proof of the accusations. But the protesters were furious.

Marguerite Borel , an outstanding author reported, “A crowd around her house was shouting,  ‘Go home to Poland’. A stone hit the house. We managed to get Marie and the children out and took them to our residence”.

Marguerite’s father who was a dean at Sorbonne has said, ‘I have done everything for her, I have supported her candidature to the Académie, but I cannot hold back the flood now engulfing her’  

Marguerete’s reply was‘If you give in to that idiotic nationalist movement and insist that Marie should leave France, you will never see me again’". 

In the meantime, Madame Curie  received a letter from Arrhenius, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences to state that she would not attend the award ceremony and to declare that she did not want to accept the Prize until she was proven not guilty.

She promptly replied that the prize had been awarded for the discovery of Polonium and Radium and slander concerning her private life should not mar the appreciation of the discovery. Langevin also wrote a long letter to Arrhenius explaining what was behind the smear campaign.

Marie delivered her Nobel Lecture undeterred on December 11th expounding Radioactivity and her research. She declared that she regarded this award too as a tribute to Pierre Curie. 

Soon afterwards she had to be hospitalized. After recovery she travelled to England and stayed with a friend, for a year for recuperation. Langevin and his wife reached a settlement.  Marie's name was not dragged in.

1914  Age 47Yrs.

When the First World War commenced, Marie sent Irene, 17 and Eve 10 to Brittany.  She left Paris carrying her treasure of Radium sealed in a 20 kg lead container. At Bordeaux she slept in the station with her luggage by the bed side. Next day she left the bag in a bank vault and took the next train back to Paris. During the war she laboriously worked to equip mobile X- ray units. She trained young women to use X rays to detect metal splinters in the flesh. Irene 19 was also among them. All of them got paid by massive doses of radiation.

1918  Age 51Yrs.

After the war Curie Radioactive Institute was opened without much help from the government. In the USA Radium was manufactured industrially, making use of the know how, freely given to them by the Curies.  As she could not afford to buy the stuff with funds available she had to do a lot of fund raising.

When Missy Maloney a journalist friend, learned that the Radium Institute in Paris had only a wee bit of radium, while USA had more than 50 grams Missy said, “My!  Somebody should provide the stuff for you to continue research?” 

 “But Who? “. 

"The women of America,” exclaimed Missy.

She organised a gigantic fund raising campaign to buy radium for the Radium Institute.  She met the editors of all the Newspapers and got their word not to publish anything harmful to the campaign. Then she fed the media with Madam Curie’s incredible achievements.

Marie became enormously popular and the fund swelled up.  Marie reluctantly agreed and received a gift of one gram of Radium from the President Warren Harding. “It will be of the greatest value for my Institute” wrote Marie.

France too, then probably feeling ashamed of their own behaviour organized a gala performance at the Paris Opera. “An Ode to Madame Curie” was read in the presence of many prominent people.

“After being dragged through the mud ten years before, she had become a modern Jeanne d’Arc”, someone commented.


She became seriously ill and died due to Radium poisoning.



André Langevin, Paul Langevin's son, wrote, "Is it not rather natural that friendship and mutual admiration several years after Pierre's death could develop step by step into a passion and a relationship?"

Marie Curie lived to know that  her daughter and the son in law becoming scientists of repute, but unfortunately she could not live to see those becoming Nobel Laureates as she died.  

Langevins and Curies got matrimonially united in the third generation