Early Life and Education
Named as Maria Skłodowska at birth, she grew up and lived in Warsaw, Poland until the age of 24. As the daughter of a secondary-school teacher, she received a general education in a local school and received some scientific training from her father. She became involved in a students' revolutionary organization and found it prudent to leave Warsaw, then in the part of Poland dominated by Russia, for Cracow, which at that time was under the Austrian rule. She was a governess for a prominent family in Cracow. Upon her return to Warsaw, she tutored and studied at the Clandestine Floating University, and began her practical scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture run by her cousin Józef Boguski, who had served as an assistant in St. Petersburg to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev.
In 1891 she followed her elder sister Bronisława to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. where she obtained Licenciateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences. There, she met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics in 1894, and in the following year they married.
She succeeded her husband as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne, gained her Doctor of Science degree in 1903, and following the tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, she took on his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences- for the first time a woman to hold this position. Marie was also appointed Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914.
The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies in their brilliant researches and analyses, which led to the isolation of polonium (in 1898), named after the country of Marie's birth, and radium. In an unusual decision, Marie Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process so that the scientific community could continue research unhindered. Since they were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation exposure attendant on their chronic unprotected work with radioactive substances, Marie and Pierre had no idea what price they were paying for their research. In 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, Marie received her DSc from the University of Paris.
Marie Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, therapeutic properties in particular. It was under her personal direction that the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms ("cancers"), using radioactive isotopes. Marie Curie promoted actively the use of radium to alleviate suffering and during World War I, assisted by her daughter, Irene, she personally devoted herself to this remedial work.
Skłodowska–Curie was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prices. She is one of only two people who have been awarded a Nobel Price in two different fields, the other being Linus Pauling (Chemistry, Peace). Nevertheless, in 1911 the French Academy of Sciences refused to abandon its prejudice against women and she failed by two votes to be elected to membership.
In 1911, she convinced the French Government to establish a Radium Institute, now called Institut Curie. In 1929, she founded a Radium Institute (now the Maria Skłodowska–Curie Institute of Oncology) in her home town Warsaw, headed by her physician-sister Bronisława.
Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia in 1935, almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. She became the first woman that has been honored in this way.
Her laboratory is preserved at the Musée Curie. Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s (and even her cookbook) are considered too dangerous to handle. They are kept in lead-lined boxes; those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.