Billions of people have lived on the planet Earth since the
Nobel prizes first began to be awarded. Only a few thousand have ever won one.
Far fewer have won two. And only one person of all those billions has won two
Nobel prizes in two different sciences. That person was the Polish-French
physicist Marie Curie.
She was born Maria Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867. Poland was
then part of the Russian empire and for generations her family had been part of
the struggle for Polish independence. They had suffered for it and could not
afford to give their children the best education then available. Maria’s
favourite subjects – physics, chemistry and mathematics – made it even harder
for her, because they were thought of as subjects for boys, not girls.
But her intelligence and hard work enabled her to overcome
all these difficulties and in 1891 she travelled to France to complete her
training at the University of Paris. France changed her life in two ways, one
minor, one major. She began to call herself Marie and she met the man who would
later become her husband, the scientist Pierre Curie. They would collaborate on
work that would make them both world-famous, but also lead to Marie’s premature
death from cancer.
After she married Pierre in 1895, Marie began to investigate
the then mysterious properties of the element uranium. It had been discovered
that uranium emitted rays that, like X-rays, could affect photographic plates.
In other words, uranium was radioactive and she conducting some of the earliest
research into this little understood phenomenon. She discovered that another
element, thorium, was also radioactive and Pierre joined her in the research.
Together they processed literally tons of uranium ore to discover two more
radioactive elements: first polonium, which she named after her homeland, and
then the even more radioactive radium.
In 1903, she and Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize for
Physics with Pierre’s countryman Henri Becquerel, who had first discovered the
radioactivity of uranium. But no-one at the time realized that radiation was
harmful in powerful or prolonged doses. Marie and Pierre had been soaking their
bodies in dangerous rays, but Pierre did not live long enough for the effects
to become apparent. In 1906 this pioneer of the modern age was killed in a very
old-fashioned way: he was run over by a horse-drawn vehicle while crossing the
Marie’s life from then on would sometimes be difficult. Many
in the French public and media were suspicious of her as a foreigner, but she
was helped by her second Nobel prize, this time for Chemistry in 1911, and by
the work she did for the French army during the First World War. She organized
mobile X-ray units for wounded soldiers, helping save countless lives. Her fame
was now immense, but she was never changed by it: she lived as modestly and
quietly as ever, devoting herself to her research and to causes like Polish
independence and international cooperation in science.
By now Irène and Ève, the two daughters she had had with
Pierre, were fully grown and able to help their mother in her work. Irène
followed her into science, studying at the Curie Institute in Paris, and would
also win a Nobel prize with her husband. That was in 1935, a year after her
mother’s death from a condition called aplastic anaemia. The illness was almost
certainly caused by Marie’s work with radium and other radioactive elements.
Even the notes she made during her work now have to be kept in lead-lined boxes
and scholars who want to study them have to wear protective clothing.
Her premature death ended what had never been an easy life,
but her intelligence, hard work and modesty still make her one of the most
admirable scientists in history. Marie Curie was a giant of science who
eventually paid with her life for helping to unlock the secrets of
radioactivity. Marie Curie cancer charity is named after her, which is why her
name is famous today to many people who do not know anything about her life or
achievements. Radiation can cause cancer but also help to cure it and her work
also contributed hugely to medicine. Goodness and greatness don’t always go
together, but Marie Curie combined the two in a way that will continue to
inspire for centuries to come.