Today is the birthday of the French-Polish scientist who changed our understanding of physics, Marie Curie, born Marja Sklodowska into a family of teachers in Warsaw (1867). Both her parents were nationalists at a time when Poland was under Russian rule, and her father was repeatedly fired and demoted from teaching positions over his loyalties. To help with the growing financial strain, the family took in boarders, and when Marie was just eight, her older sister caught typhus and died. Just three years later, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father continued raising the kids himself, reading the classics and teaching what science he could to them at night, and they each excelled in school.
Marie and her sister were hungry for higher learning, but women were banned from the university, so for a time, they attended a revolutionary illegal night school called “The Floating University,” which constantly switched locations to avoid the Russian authorities. Determined to get a proper education, the two sisters made a pact to take turns funding each other’s schooling. Marie took work for three years as a governess on a sugar beet plantation, while she funded Bronya to study medicine in Paris. She filled the lonely hours away from home trying to teach herself math and science whenever possible. When she finally got her own chance to study at the Sorbonne in France, Marie traveled fourth class with her own chair on the train, and found an apartment in the Latin Quarter. She kept warm by wearing every piece of clothing she owned and would get so engrossed in study that she often fainted for lack of food. Within a few years, she graduated top of her class in physics and math.
Looking for lab space, Marie was put in touch with a pioneering researcher named Pierre Curie. Their professional relationship soon turned romantic, and the two were married in July 1895 in a simple ceremony, bicycling across France for their honeymoon. Always economical, Marie said: “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark, so that I can put it on afterwards and go to the laboratory.” The couple settled in France, but Marie still held strong feelings for Poland. When she got her first significant paycheck for her research, she used it to repay a scholarship she had received so that another Polish girl might have the chance to study as she had.
Marie was intrigued by the recent discovery of X-rays by a German physicist. While X-rays were getting all the attention of the scientific community, a peripheral discovery of uranium rays wasn’t. Marie made this the focus of her research. Her discoveries would soon shake up the very foundation of scientific understanding by revealing that atoms, which had been believed to be indivisible, could radiate even smaller particles, electrifying the air around them. Teaming up with her husband, Marie also successfully isolated the elements polonium (which she named for her native Poland) and radium. She coined the term “radioactivity” to describe the property of emitting rays and believed it held great promise in the treatment of cancer. During World War I, she established hundreds of X-ray stations throughout France, and created mobile units for ambulances to use on the front, sometimes driving them herself.
Though known for her humility, she became the most celebrated woman scientist of the 20th century. Albert Einstein said of her, “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.” She died of pernicious anemia in 1934, probably due to high levels of radioactive exposure she had received. More than a hundred years after her lab work, her journals are still too radioactive to handle, and are kept in a lead vault.
Marie Curie said: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is […] also a child placed before natural phenomena that impress him like a fairy tale. […] We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific discovery can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, [or] gearings …”"