Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radioactivity

Mary Caballero
March 19, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Marie Curie in her late 30s. of her husband, Pierre. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) -

Marie Curie, shown in Fig. 1, devoted her life to her research and her family. She discovered two new elements, radium and polonium, and was the first women to win a Nobel Prize. She is also the only woman to win two Nobel prizes in different fields, namely chemistry and physics.

Early Life and Education

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867 to a family of seven. She was a bright student who excelled in physics and math, like her father, who was a math and physics professor. [1] After secondary school, Curie hoped to further her education. While a brilliant and curious student, the University of Warsaw only admitted men and Curie was therefore unable to attend. Curie's sister, Bronya, also hoped to attend additional schooling. As such, they each worked to put the other through school, taking turns on who studied and who worked. In 1891, after Bronya finished school, Curie moved to Paris. There, she attended Sorbonne to study physics and mathematics. After years of schooling, Curie began her life and research in Paris.

Research and Radioactivity

Curie received a commission to conduct research post graduation, and found lab space with Pierre Curie, a friend of a colleague. He was also a professor at Sorbonne. The Curies were married two years later. At the start of their relationship, Pierre and Marie worked on separate project, but after the birth of their first child, Pierre began to conduct research with Marie on x-rays and uranium. Curie was studying uranium rays, when she made the claim the rays were not dependent on the uranium's form, but on its atomic structure. Her theory created a new field of study, atomic physics, and Marie herself coined the phrase "radioactivity." She defined radioactivity at the time to be this activity of rays to be dependent on uranium's atomic structure, the number of atoms of uranium. Marie and Pierre spent time working with pitchblende. Pitchblende is a mineral that is the crystallized form of uranium oxide, and is about 70 percent uranium. (Also used in 1789 in the discovery of uranium). Marie and Pierre discovered not only polonium, but also radium, through their work with pitchblende. In 1903, Marie Curie and her husband won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on radioactivity. She was the first woman ever to receive a Nobel Prize. Just three years after winning the Nobel Prize, Pierre was killed in an accident. Despite being a single mother of two and a widow, Marie Curie continued her research as well as teaching, as she took over Pierre's teaching position at Sorbonne. In 1911, Curie won her second Nobel Peace prize in chemistry.


Marie Curie not only made huge contributions to the fields of physics and chemistry, but also to the world of medicine. Curie had studied x-rays and x-ray machines in her past research and upon the start of World War I in 1914, she made advances in this field. [2] Curie worked on the X-ray machine discovered by German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895. She used her newly discovered element, radium, to be the gamma ray source on x-ray machines. This allowed for more accurate and stronger x-rays. She also created smaller and portable x-ray machines that could be used by medics in the field. IN this way she saved many lives and supported the war effort through her work.


In the 1920s, Curie's health began to deteriorate rapidly. While now, it is common knowledge of the noxious nature of radium and the affect radioactivity has on the human body. But, Marie was not aware of this knowledge. It is said that in her lab, Marie would carry tubes of radium in her pockets. Therefore, the unknown danger of her actions as well as years of close contact with radioactive material, it is no surprise Marie Curie suffered from leukemia late in her life. This high-energy radiation took its toll, and on July 4, 1934, Marie Curie passed away. Her legacy lived on through her eldest daughter Irene. Irene Curie studied in her parent's Radium Institute. She, as well as her husband, was later awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery for artificial radioactivity.

© Mary Caballero. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] N. Pasachoff, Marie Curie: And the Science of Radioactivity (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[2] M. Ogilvie, Marie Curie: A Biography (Greenwood Press, 2004).