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Marie Curie
The First Woman Nobel Laureate
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

 

In science we must be interested in things, not in persons

Marie Curie

The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend. She was a woman; she belonged to an oppressed nation; she was poor; she was beautiful. A powerful vocation summoned her from her motherland, Poland, to study in Paris, where she lived through years of poverty and solitude. There she met a man whose genius was akin to hers. She married him; their happiness was unique. By the most desperate and arid effort they discovered a magic element, radium. This discovery not only gave birth to a new science and a new philosophy: it provided mankind with the means of treating a dreadful disease.

Eve Curie in Madame Curie by her Daughter
(translated by Vincent Sheean)


Marie Curie was the first to use the term `radioactivity’. Through her discovery of radium, Marie paved the way for nuclear physics and cancer therapy. She was the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate degree (1902). She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In 1903 the Nobel Prize for physics was jointly awarded to Marie, her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906) and Henri Becquerel (1852-1902) for the discovery of radioactivity. She was the first woman to be appointed as lecturer and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1906). She was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes. In 1911 she was awarded the second Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery and isolation of pure radium and radium components. She was the first mother-Nobel laureate of a daughter -Nobel Laureate.

Marie Curie (her original name was Marya Sklodowska) was born on November 07, 1867 in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. She was the fifth and the last child of her parents Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowska. At the time of her birth, Poland had not been an independent country. It had been divided up among Austria, Prussia and Russia. Warsaw was in the part of Poland that was under the control of Russia. Czar Alexander II, the then Ruler of Russia, hoped to stamp out Polish nationalism by keeping the people ignorant of their culture and language. It is said that when the Czar was assassinated by revolutionary students in 1881, Marie and her best friend Kazia celebrated by dancing around the desks in their classroom.

After the birth of Marie, her family’s fortune deteriorated. Her birth led her mother to resign her position as a head of a school, where the family had resided until then. They moved to a boys’ high school, where her father taught mathematics and physics. However, the Russian supervisor in charge of the school fired him for his pro-Polish sentiments. And subsequently he was forced into a series of progressively lower academic posts. Her mother after fighting for five years against tuberculosis died at the age of 42 in May 1878. At the time Marie Curie was 10 years old. In 1873 Sklodowski lost his job. He was replaced by a Russian teacher. At about the same time her father lost most of his savings through an unwise investment in a scheme promoted by a brother-in-law. Sklodowksi never forgave himself for losing the family savings in a bad investment. However, his children honoured him for nurturing them emotionally and intellectually. He read classics of literature to his children. He also exposed to the scientific apparatus he had once used teaching physics in school but now he had kept them in home as Russian authorities removed laboratory instruction from the Polish curriculum. Marie Curie wrote : “I easily learned mathematics and physics, as for as these sciences were taken in consideration in the school. I found in this ready help from my father, who loved science… unhappily, he had no laboratory and could not perform experiments.

Marie did very well in her school studies. She was awarded a Gold medal at her high school graduation in 1883. However, her joy was overshadowed by the fact that she had to shake the hand of the grandmaster (of course a Russian) of education in Russian Poland. After finishing her school education she suffered from depression. Her father persuaded her to spend a year with cousins in the country. This was the only year in which she lived a carefree life.

While she was very good student in school but in her early days but she did not show any startling characteristic to indicate that one day she would become the most famous woman scientist in the world. To quote her daughter Eve Curie who wrote a marvelous biography of Marie : “I have attempted to show Marya Sklodovska, child and adolescent, in her studies and at play. She was healthy, honest, sensitive and gay. She had a loving heart. She was, as her teachers said,” remarkably gifted”; she was a brilliant student. But on the whole no startling characteristic distinguished her from the children who grew up with her : nothing had indicated her genius.”

Marie had a brilliant aptitude for study and a great thirst for knowledge. However, as being a woman, as mentioned earlier, she had no hope for advanced study in Poland of those days. So she along with her sister Bronya started attending the Floating University. The name `Floating University’ derived from the fact it was an illegal night school and its classes met in changing locations. This was to evade the watchful eyes of the Russian authorities. The Floating University was founded by students who hoped that their grass-roots educational movement would lead to eventual Polish liberation. To quote Marie Curie: “It was one of those groups of Polish youth who believed that the hope of their country lay in a great effort to develop the intellectual and moral strength of the nation…We agreed among ourselves to give evening courses, each one teaching what he knew best”.


It was obvious that the education given by the Floating University could not be matched the education provided by any major European university which admitted women. However, Marie became familiar with progressive thought and also with new developments in the sciences. Both Marie and her sister nurtured a hope of going to Paris and study at the Sorbonne University. However, their father was not in a position to send them to Paris for higher studies. Bronya was earning some money by giving private tuition. Marie also tried to earn some money by private tuition but without much success. Both the sisters realized that individually they would not able to earn enough money to enable them to go to Paris. So they decided that one of them will go first by pulling their resources together. But then they had to decide who would go first. Marie asked her sister to go first. Bronya replied :

“Why should I be the first to go ? Why not the other way round ? You are so gifted – probably more gifted than I am. You would succeed very quickly. Why should I go ?”

However, Marie had her own reason which seemed more practical. She argued :

“Oh, Bronya, don’t be stupid ! Because you are twenty and I am seventeen. Because you’ve been waiting for hundreds of years and I’ve got lots of time. That’s what father thinks too, it is only natural that the elder should go first. When you have your practice you can bury me in gold – in fact, I count on it. We’re doing something intelligent at last, something that will work…”

To earn money Marie decided to work as governess. Her first stint as a governess was quite unpleasant. Describing her experience she wrote to her cousin Henrietta Michalovska : “Since we separated my existence has been that of a prisoner. As you know I found a place with the B——’s, a family of lawyers. I shouldn’t like my worst enemy in such a hell ... It was one of those rich houses where they speak French when there is company - a chimney sweeper’s kind of French - where they don’t pay their bills for six months, and where they fling money out of the window even though they economise pettily on oil for the lamps. They have five servants. They pose as liberals and, in reality, they are sunk in the darkest stupidity. And last of all, although they speak in the most sugary tones, slander and scandal rage through their talk - slander which leaves not a rag on anybody... I learned to know the human race a little better by being there. I learned that the characters described in novels really do exist, and that one must not enter into contact with people who have been demoralised by wealth.” (emphasis not in original).

In 1886 she went to take up the job as a governess in a village which was 100 kilometers away from Warsaw. Her salary was 500 rubles a year. It seemed Marie liked the job here, as evident from her letter to Henrietta written on February 03, 1886 : “I have now been with M. and Mme Z . for one month : so I have had time to acclimatize myself in the new post. Up to now all have gone well. The Z.s are excellent people. I have made friends with their eldest daughter, Bronka, which contributes to the pleasantness of my life. As for my pupil, Andzia, who will soon be ten, she is an obedient child, but very disorderly and spoilt. Still, one cannot require perfection….”

She established friendly relation with the family to such an extent that they supported Marie when she decided to teach some of the peasant children to read and write in Polish. It may be noted that such an activity was strictly prohibited in Poland. While working here she fell in love with the eldest son of the family, a mathematics student at the Warsaw University and they decided to marry. But her employers, the parents of the boy, absolutely refused to allow it. Though she felt humiliated at the turn of events she stayed in her post till her contract was over. This is because she knew her responsibility. She had to send money to her sister in Paris.

In mid- 1889 Marie came back to Warsaw. She had got an appointment in the house of some rich industrialist. After finishing this assignment she started living with her father. She again joined the Floating University. During this time she had also an opportunity for entering a laboratory for the first time. It was in an institute called “The Museum of Industry and Agriculture” which was teaching science to young Poles. At the time it was directed by her cousin Joseph Boguski. The name of the institute was to mislead the Russian authorities. A museum would not arouse suspicion. Commenting her experience Marie wrote : “I had little time for work in this laboratory. I could generally get there only in the evening after dinner, or on Sunday, and I was left to myself. I tried to reproduce various experiments described in the treatise on physics or chemistry, and the results were sometimes unexpected. From time to time a little unhoped for success would come to encourage me, and at other times, I sank into despair because of the accidents or failures due to my inexperience. But on the whole, even though I learned, to my cost, that progress in such matters is neither rapid nor easy, I developed my taste for experimental research during these first trials.”

Finally the moment, for which she was waiting, arrived. In November 1891 she set off for Paris. She had just turned 24. She travelled in the cheapest class on the three -day journey by rail. She enrolled at the Sarbonne University. She had to struggle hard in her studies. After finishing school she had been away from her studies for six years. She was mostly self- taught and so there were inheritable gaps in her knowledge. Moreover, though she had good knowledge of French but it was not the same technical French spoken by her fellow students and professors at the Sorbonne University.

At first she lived in the home of her sister, Bronya, who married another Polish patriot, Casimir Dluski, whom she had met in Medical school. The Dluskis’ home, however, was an hour’s journey by horse -drawn bus from the university. So Marie had to waste two hours a day of valuable working time. Moreover, the Dluski apartment was a meeting place for Poles, full of distraction from work. The young doctor was frequently called out to his patients in the middle of the night which meant disturbance of sleep for others. In the absence of visitors Casimir played the piano which was also a source of distraction for Marie from her studies. So within few months Marie moved to the Latin Quarter, the artists’ and students’ neighbourhood, close to the university. She had to struggle a lot. There was no comfort for her. To quote her daughter Eve curie :

“All the rooms Marie was to inhabit were alike in discomfort and cheapness of rent. The first was situated in a poorly furnished house where students, doctors and officers of the neighbourhood garrison lived. Later on the girl, in search of absolute calm, was to take an attic like a servant’s room at the top of a middle-class house. For fifteen or twenty francs a month she found a tiny nook which was lit from a loop-hole giving directly on the slope of the roof. Through this skylight appeared a small square of the sky. There was no heat, no lighting, no water… No service, of course : even one hour of cleaning a day would have overweighed the expense side of the budget. Transportation costs were suppressed : Marie went to the Sorbonne on foot in all weathers. Coal was kept down to a minimum : one or two sacks of “lumps” for the winter, which the girl brought from the merchant on the corner and hoisted up the steep stairs herself to the sixth floor, bucketful by bucketful, stopping at each floor to breathe. Lights were at minimum : as soon as night fell, the student took refuge in that blessed asylum called the Library of Sainte-Genevieve, where the gas was lighted and it was warm. Seated at one of the big rectangular tables with her head in her hands, a poor Polish girl could work until they closed the doors at ten O’ clock. From then on all that was needed was enough oil to keep the light going in her room until two in the morning. Then, with her eyes reddened by fatigue, Marie left her books and threw herself on the bed.”

Marie was obsessed by her dreams. She was harassed by poverty. But she was proud of living alone and independently in a foreign country. She wanted to achieve something and she had so much confidence in herself that she knew that she would achieve the target one day. In a letter written during this period to her brother, Marie wrote:
“It is difficult for me to tell about my life in detail; it is so monotonous and, in fact, so uninteresting. Nevertheless I have no feeling of uniformity and I regret only one thing, which is that the days are so short and that they pass so quickly. One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done, and if one didn’t like the work it would be discouraging.

I want you to pass your doctor’s thesis ... it seems that life is not easy for any of us. But what of that ? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained. Perhaps everything will turn out very well, at the moment when we least expect it ...”

Irrespective of tremendous hardships Marie not only completed in 1893 her master degree in physical science but stood first. For her spectacular success she was awarded an Alexandrovitch Scholarship, worth 600 rubles, when she came to Warsaw for the summer. The scholarship was meant for an outstanding Polish student wishing to work abroad. The scholarship enabled her to return Paris and take the master degree examination in mathematics in 1894 after one more year of study. This time she stood second. It may be noted that Marie after getting her first paid employment returned her scholarship money 600 rubles to the Alexandrovitch Foundation so that they could use it to give another young student the same opportunity she had enjoyed.

At Sorbonne Marie had the opportunity to hear some of the very well-known physicists and mathematicians like Marcel Brillouin, Paul Painleve, Gabriel Lippmann and Paul Appell.

Before completing her mathematics degree Marie was commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to do a study, relating magnetic properties of different steels to their chemical composition. For this work she needed a laboratory where she could do the work. One of her acquaintances, a Polish physicist, M. Kovalski, Professor of Physics in the University of Fribourg, who was visiting Paris at that time suggested that Pierre Curie might be able to assist her. Pierre, who had done pioneering research on magnetism, was Laboratory Chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. So Marie met Pierre, a meeting that would change not only their individual lives but also the course of science. With Pierre’s assistance Marie could find rudimentary lab space at the Municipal School.

When Marie met Pierre, he was 35 years, eight years older then Marie. Though Pierre was an established physicist, he was an outsider in the French scientific community. He was a dreamer, an idealist, whose sole aim in life was to devote his entire life in the pursuit of science. He was totally indifferent to recognition. The Municipal school of Industrial Physics, which he was heading, trained engineers. His research work concerned with crystals and the magnetic properties of bodies at different temperatures. With his brother he had discovered piezoelectricity, which means that difference in electrical potential is seen when mechanical stresses are applied on certain crystals, including quartz.

Marie, too was an idealist. And like Pierre she had also an urge to pursue science single-mindedly. Pierre and Marie immediately discovered an intellectual affinity, which was very soon transformed into deeper feelings. Initially Marie had no plans to settle in France. On being asked by Piere whether she was going to remain in France permanently Marie replied : “Certainly not. This summer, if I succeed in my master’s examination, I shall go back to Warsaw. I should like to come back here in the autumn, but I don’t know whether I shall have the means to do so. Later on I shall be a teacher in Poland; I shall try to be useful. Poles have no right to abandon their country.” After her success in her mathematics examination Marie returned to Warsaw for a vacation. She was not sure whether she would return to Paris or not.


Pierre wrote her frequently. He argued strongly that by leaving Paris for good she would be abandoning not just him, but a promising career in science. In one of his letters Pierre wrote : “We have promised each other haven’t we ! to be at least great friends. If you will only not change your mind ! For there are no promises that are binding ; such things cannot be ordered at will.

It would be a fine thing, just the same, in which I hardly dare believe, to pass our lives near each other, hypnotised by our dreams : your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.

Of all those dreams the last is, I believe, the only legitimate one. I meant by that we are powerless to change the social order and, even if were not, we should not know what to do : in taking action, no matter in what direction, we should never be sure of not doing more harm than good, by retarding some inevitable evolution. From the scientific point of view, on the contrary, we may hope to do something ; the ground is solider here, and any discovery that we may make, however small, will remain acquired knowledge.”

Marie came back to Paris and in July 1895 she married Pierre. In 1896, Marie passed her teacher’s diploma, coming first in her group. Their daughter, Irene, the future Nobel Laureate, was born in September 1897. Pierre persuaded the authorities for allowing Marie to work in the School’s laboratory.

In 1897 Marie decided to take a physics doctorate. Her choice of a thesis topic was influenced by two recent discoveries by other scientists. In December 1895 Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) had discovered a kind of ray that could travel through solid wood or flesh and yield photographs of living people’s bones. Roentgen, who became the first Nobel Laureate in physics, dubbed these mysterious rays X-rays, with X standing for unknown.

In 1896 Antonine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), showed that uranium compounds, even if they were kept in the dark, emitted rays that would fog a photographic plate. This was an accidental discovery. He was trying to find out whether the new radiation discovered by Roentgen could have a connection with fluorescence. The scientific community initially ignored Bacquerel’s intriguing finding. Marie decided to make a systematic investigation of the mysterious uranium rays for her doctorate degree. As the topic was quite new she did not have long bibliography of published papers to read. Thus she was able to begin experimental work on them immediately. She had an excellent aid at her disposal, an electrometer for the measurement of weak electrical current. This new kind of electrometer was invented by Pierre Curie and his brother Jacques. It was based on piezoelectric effect. This device was very useful as she decided to determine the intensity of the radiation of uranium compounds by measuring the conductivity of the air exposed to the action of the rays.

While working on this topic she discovered that thorium gives off the same rays as uranium. Thus she proved that uranium was not the only radioactive element. She also demonstrated that the strength of the radiation did not depend on the compound that was being studied. It depended only on the amount of uranium or thorium present in the sample. This was a very surprising result. Because as we know different compounds of the same element have very different chemical and physical properties. But in case radiation given off by uranium and thorium it mattered only how much uranium or thorium a compound contained. Based on her findings Marie concluded that the ability to radiate did not depend on the arrangement of the atoms in the molecules but it must be linked to the interior of the uranium itself and not to its interaction with something else. It had to be an atomic property. And from a conceptual point of view it is her most important contribution to the development of physics. That radioactivity was an atomic phenomenon was demonstrated by Rutherford and his pupils. After these discoveries Marie decided to study the natural ores that contain thorium and uranium. She found that two uranium minerals, pitchblende and chalcocite, were more active than uranium itself so she hypothesized that a new element that was considerably more active than uranium was present in small amounts in these ores.

Pierre, after being fascinated with new vistas that were opening up from Marie’s research, gave up his own research into crystals and symmetry in nature and joined Marie in her project. They found that the fractions containing bismuth or barium showed strongest activity. By the end of June 1898 they found a substance which was 300 times more strongly active than uranium. In this research paper announcing their findings they wrote : “We thus believe that the substances that we have extracted from pitchblende contain a metal never known before, akin to bismuth in its analytic properties. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we suggest that it should be called polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us.” The term `radioactivity’ was first used in this paper read on December 26, 1898. They announced the existence of an additional very active substance that behaved chemically almost like pure barium. They suggested the name `radium’ for the new element.

In their joint work Pierre observed the properties of the radiation while Marie, for her part, purified the radioactive elements. It turned out that in order to extract even tiny traces of radium one would require to process tonnes of the ore, pitchblende. Moreover Curies would require to buy this costly raw material. Pitchblende was expensive because uranium salts produced from it was used in industry to make glazes. But luckily for Curies the residue of the ore after the uranium had been extracted was almost worthless and could be brought cheaply. Being persuaded by Professor Edward Suess (1831-1914) and the Academy of Science of Vienna, the Austrian government which was the proprietor of the state factory, presented a ton of residue to the Curies. And what is more if they require more they could obtain it at the mine on the best terms. However, they had to pay for its transportation from Austria to Paris. They processed it in a dilapidated shed. While describing about the shed Eve Curie wrote : “The Faculty of Medicine had formerly used the place as a dissecting room, but for a long time now it had not even been considered fit for a mortuary. There was no floor and an uncertain layer of bitumen covered the earth. It was furnished with some worn kitchen tables, a blackboard which had landed there for no known reason, and an old cast iron stove with a rusty pipe.

A workman would not willingly have worked in such a place : Marie and Pierre, nevertheless, resigned themselves to it. The shed had one advantage : it was so untempting, so miserable, that nobody thought of refusing them the use of it”. Marie and Pierre were really grateful to the Director of the institute for allowing them to use it. Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), who traveled from Berlim to Paris to see how they worked, wrote : “At my earnest request, I was shown the laboratory where radium had been discovered shortly before. It was a cross between a stable and a potato cellar, and if I had not seen the work table and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was played a practical joke.”

After struggling under the most adverse circumstances, Marie finally isolated almost pure radium chloride. She had just obtained one tenth of a gram. She took it to the French chemist Eugene Demarcay (1852-1904), who had first identified the new elements spectroscopically. He now had enough to determine its atomic weight, which he calculated as 225.93. Marie defended her doctoral thesis on June 15, 1903. Among the three members of the Examination committee were two future Nobel Laureates – Gabriel Lippman (1845-1921) and Ferdinand Frederic Henri Moissan (1852-1907). The Committee was of the opinion that the findings represented the greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis. The same year Marie and Pierre were awarded half the Nobel Prize in physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” The other half went to Becquerel for his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity. The announcement of 1903 Nobel Prize for physics aroused tremendous curiosity of the press and the public. Earlier only the Prizes for Literature and the Peace used to be widely covered by the press. The Prize in science were not given publicity because they were considered all too esoteric to be able to interest the general public. After getting the prize Marie wrote : “We have been given half of the Nobel Prize. I do not know exactly what that represents : I believe it is about seventy thousand francs for us, it is a huge sum. I don’t know when we shall get the money, perhaps only when we go to Stockholm. We are obliged to lecture there during the six months following December 10th.

We did not go the ceremonial meeting because it was so complicated to arrange. I did not feel strong enough to undertake such a long journey (forty-eight hours without stopping, and more if one stops along the way) in such an inclement season, in a cold country and without being able to stay there more than three or four days : We could not, without great difficulty, interrupt our courses for a long period.

We are inundated with letters and with visits from photographers and journalists. One would like to dig into the ground somewhere to find a little peace. We have received a proposal from America to go there and give a series of lectures on our work. They ask us how much we want. Whatever the sums may, we intend to refuse.”

In 1914 Marie helped found the Radium Institute. Throughout the first World War Marie devoted herself to the development of the use of X-ray radiography. She trained army’s radiologist nurses at the Radium Institute, at what is now know as the Curie Institute. She equipped more than 20 vans that acted as mobile field hospitals and about 200 fixed installations with X-ray apparatus. She obtained funds from charitable institutions such as the Red Cross and adopted X-ray equipment to make portable radiology units. She persuaded rich women to donate cars to carry those instruments. Marie travelled with one of the cars herself operating the X-ray equipment at field hospitals to locate shell fragments in the bodies of wounded soldiers. Her elder daughter Irene helped her in her effort. Together they trained 150 other radiographers. The total number of men examined by these installation exceeded a million. After the end of the war, Marie undertook a campaign to raise funds for the Radium Institute. She was persuaded by Marie Maloney, an American journalist, to tour the United States for publicising the project in 1921. Meloney herself campaigned to raise funds from American women to purchase a gram of radium for Marie. The ten United States’ President Warren G. Harding presented her the radium thus purchased.

On April 19, 1906 Pierre while hurrying to cross a road he was run over by a horse-drawn wagon with a load of military uniforms, weighing some six tons. He was killed instantly. The top of his skull was crushed by the left rear wheel of the vehicle.

After Pierre’s death, Marie was appointed as a professor at the Sorbonne University. She was the first woman to be appointed at Sarbonne. Marie continued to produce several decigrams of radium chloride. And finally with Andre Debierne, she isolated radium in metallic form. In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry `in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element’. The discovery and isolation of radium is regarded as the greatest event in chemistry since the discovery of oxygen. The fact that an element could be transmuted into another element, revolutionised chemistry and signified a new epoch. Some people have questioned the decision of the Nobel Committee awarding Marie a second Nobel Prize in chemistry. According to them, the second award was also given for the same discovery, for which Marie and her husband Pierre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.

Her alleged love affair with Paul Langeven, her colleague at Sorbonne and her husband’s collaborator scandalized France. It shook the University world in Paris and the French Government at the highest level. It made headlines on the first pages of newspapers. Her situation in Paris became impossible. She became a prisoner in her own house. Svante Arrhenius, a senior member of the Swedish Academy Sciences, wrote to Marie suggesting that she should not come to Stockholm to receive her second Nobel Prize. In fact Arrhenies pointed out that if the Swedish Academy knew the full details of the affair it would not have awarded her the Prize. However, Marie made it a point to attend the function. She insisted that her private life should not be linked to her scientific works. In her Nobel lecture delivered on December 11 in Stockholm, she declared that she also regarded this prize as a tribute to Pierre Curie. She said :

“Before approaching the subject of the lecture, I wish to recall that the discovery of radium and that of polonium were made by Pierre Curie in common with me. We also owe to Pierre Curie in the domain of radioactivity, some fundamental studies which he carried out either alone or in common with me or in collaboration with his pupils.

The chemicals work which had as its aim the isolation of radium in the state of pure salt and its characterisation as a new element was carried out especially by me, but is intimately linked with the work in common. I therefore believe I shall interpret exactly the Academy’s thought in admitting that the high distinction bestowed upon me is motivated by this work in common and this constitutes a homage to the memory of Pierre Curie”

On July 4, 1934 Marie died of leukemia. She was 67. The leukemia was caused by her long exposure to hard radiation.

In April 1995 Marie and Pierre Curie’s remains were enshrined under the famous dome of the pantheon in Paris alongside the author Victor Hugo, the politican Jean Jaures and the Resistance fighter Jean Moulin. The Pantheon is the memorial to the nation’s great men”. Here some of the France’s most distinguished personalities lay buried. Marie was the first woman to be honoured on her own merit.

It may be noted here though Marie and Pierre worked under the most adverse circumstances they refused to consider taking a patent as being incompatible with their view of the role of researchers. If they had taken a patent it would have facilitated their research and spared their health.

We would like to end this article by quoting what Curie had to say for making a better world : “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for an own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”


For Further Reading :

1. Eve Curie, Madame Curie, Paris Gallimard, 1938. In English, Doubleday, New York : Doubleday

2. Marie Curie, Pierre Curie and Autobiographical Notes, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923.

3. Elisabeth Crawford, The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution, The Science Prizes 1901-1915, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. 1984.

4. Rosalynd Pflaum, Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and Her World, New York : Doubleday, 1989.

5. Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life, New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995.

6. Robert Reid, Marie Curie, London : William Collins Sons & Co Ltd 1974.

7. John Gribbin & Mary Gribbin, Curie in 90 Minutes. Hyderabad : Universities Press (India) Limited, 1997.

Marie Curie
Pierre Curie
Henri Becquerel
Gabriel Lippnann
Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen
Edward Suess
Eugene Demarcay
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald
Frederic Henri Moissan
Warrer G. Hardig
Svante Arrhenius
Victor Huge
Heen Jaures
Jean Moulin
Irene Joliot Curie