The Story of Marie Curie

Sam Turchetta
February 27, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Marie Curie Thesis. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Marie Curie was born on November 7 1867. Marie's father, Wladyslaw Sklodowski, was a physics and mathematics teacher, both fields she ended up pursuing her whole life. Her father would bring home the laboratory equipment to teach his whole family, including Marie. This led to all the children being gifted students with a passion for learning; however, her family had always been financially burdened due to the political instability in Poland. This led to them having to support themselves through the universities they would attend.

Marie Curie attended the University of Paris, where her passion grew for mathematics, physics, and chemistry. She worked hard, and tutored, to give herself the opportunity to learn as much as possible in university and pay the bills. Finally, after she attained her degree she was able to move onto her secondary studies and was given fellowship to extend her knowledge in a laboratory for her.

With the support of her husband and brother, she was able to focus on specific topics. When Henri Becquerel discovered Uranium gave out rays with penetrating power she decided to focus on how the Uranium spontaneously made a source of energy, internally. [1]

Theory of Radioactivity

The theory of Radioactivity grew from Marie Curie's hypothesis that the radiation was not created from the interaction of Uranium with other molecules, instead that the Uranium was creating the energy, independently from any outside influences. With her continued persistence to discover the active elements she found that thorium was also radioactive. On top of this, in 1898, she discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. The discovery of radium has, for example, helped current society in the treatment of prostate cancer (around 165,000 men in the US are diagnosed with and treated for this type of cancer every year). Polonium she named for her home country and radium was based on "ray." She was able to discover the elements due to finding two Uranium minerals that were far more radioactive than her findings of the radioactivity of Uranium. She concluded that there were different, more active, elements within the mineral. This led to the breakthrough for Marie Curie. She was constantly working to publish all her work and produce findings as quickly as possible because her work ethic would not allow for anything less. This led to her leading the field for many years in her studies. Although this was groundbreaking for the growing market place for radium, the Curie's profited little from this achievement, apart from the attention received for her work. [1]


Eventually, in 1903 Marie Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics from the Royal Swedish academy of Sciences (Fig. 1 shows a picture of the forever remembered thesis that earned her both her Nobel prizes). She was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in any field. This was due to all of her commitment to her work and physics, but also the committee had a member, Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, who was a larger supporter of women working in the sciences. This led to the committee awarding the Nobel Prize to her, Pierre Curie, her husband, and Henri Baecquerel for the joint effort on the radiation phenomena.

Marie Curie was awarded a second Nobel Prize in honor of her work at the Radium Institute, where she was able to isolate radium. The lab at the institution was created for her to continue her work after her husband had been killed. She wanted to continue with her groundbreaking research to honor the legacy of her husband, Pierre. This second Nobel Prize for her work was remarkable due to the fact that she was the first person, man or woman, to win Nobel Prizes in different fields. Her works were so impactful that the whole concept of radioactivity was first discovered by her, with the combination of physics and chemistry. She will forever have set a precedent as to how to combine two fields and excel in doing so. [2]

During World War I, Marie Curie focused on how her scientific studies could best help the wounded soldiers on the battle field. This led to her setting up mobile radiology units for the military to use on the battle fronts. Also, she created hollow needles, which used radium to sterilize infected soldiers wounds. All of her contributions were estimated to be used on over a million soldiers. Due to her commitment to this humanitarian Marie Curie was unable to continue all of her research during the war. Instead she was committed to helping all the soldiers and donated as much as she could to help the French. She became a star internationally, being honored in many countries, but she never received any honors for her work from the French. In the end, her scientific work and humanitarian efforts will live on forever. She was the first woman to ever be buried in The Pantheon, in Paris, a resting place for distinguished French citizens to be buried.

© Sam Turchetta. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] E. Curie, Madame Curie (Andesite Press, 2015).

[2] H. Langevin-Joliot "Radium, Marie Curie and Modern Science," Radiat. Res. 150, Suppl., S3 (1998).