Madame Curie Discoverer of Radium Originally named Marja Sklodowska, Marie Curie was born in Warsaw on Nov. 7, 1867. Her father taught high school physics. In 1891 she went to Paris (where she changed her name to Marie) and enrolled in the Sorbonne. Two years later she passed the examination for her degree in physics, ranking in first place.

She met Pierre Curie in 1894, and they married in 1895. Marie Curie was interested in the recent discoveries of radiation. Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered X rays in 1895/ ~ 1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel had discovered that the element uranium gives off similar invisible radiations. Curie thus began studying uranium radiations, and, using piezoelectric techniques devised by her husband, carefully measured the radiations in pitchblende, an ore containing uranium. When she found that the radiations from the ore were more intense than those from uranium itself, she realized that unknown elements, :.Jas. more radioactive than uranium, must be present. Marie Curie was the first to use the term radioactive to describe elements that give off radiations as their nuclei break down.

Pierre Curie ended his own work on magnetism to join his wife’s research, and in 1898 the Curies announced their discovery of two new elements: polonium (named by Marie in honor of Poland) and radium. During the next four years the Curies, working in a leaky wooden shed, processed a ton of pitchblende, laboriously isolating from it a fraction of a gram of radium. They shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel for the discovery of radioactive elements. Marie Curie was the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize. In 1904 Pierre Curie was appointed professor of physics at the University of Paris, and in 1905 he was named a member of the French Academy. Such positions were not then commonly held by women, and Marie was not similarly recognized.

Pierre’s life ended on April 19, 1906, when he was run over by a horse-drawn cart. His wife took over his classes and continued her own research In 1911 she received an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her work on radium and radium compounds. She became head of the Paris Institute of Radium in 1914 and helped found the Curie Institute. Marie Curie’s final illness was diagnosed as pernicious anemia, caused by overexposure to radiation. She died in Haute Savoie on July 4, 1934.

The Curies had two daughters, one of whom was also a Nobel Prize winner. Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband, Frederic received the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.