Few physicists throughout history, male or female, can match up to the greatness of Marie Curie. Besides her revolutionary, pioneering research into radiation, she also discovered the pathways to technologies such as chemotherapy and nuclear weaponry. If that wasn’t enough, she was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes - at a time when women were not taken seriously in the scientific field.
Maria Sklodowska was born on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Her family had been involved with acts of Polish patriotism during a time where the Russians controlled the area, and the family had thus lost all of their wealth and property. As a young woman she studied at the clandestine Floating University, and acted as a tutor to Polish women in factories.
Once she had moved to Paris to study physics, she met Pierre Curie. The two fell in love, and were married - creating arguably the greatest scientific partnership of all time. She worked towards earning her Ph.D by studying radioactive materials, a recent discovery by Henri Becquerel. At this time, the couple was effectively broke - and both worked as full-time teachers. They worked in a slipshod, homemade laboratory that they built in an old shed. Although they couldn’t afford assistants, proper supplies or even food at times - the couple still made outstanding discoveries. The couple discovered two new elements, Radium and Polonium. Marie, during this time, coined the term ‘radioactivity,’ and was so selfless that she didn’t patent her ideas. She didn’t want other scientists to deal with copyright issues, so the left her discoveries in the public domain, an uncommon act at the time.
In 1903, Marie Curie cleaned up - earning both her Ph.D and the Nobel Prize. She became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and once she was awarded the Nobel in Chemistry in 1911 she became the first person, regardless of gender, to win two Nobels in two different fields. To this very day, Madame Curie remains the only person to win the Prize in two different sciences. Later, in 1935 - her daughter Irene would win the Prize as well.
In 1906, tragedy struck Marie when Pierre died from a horse-drawn carriage accident. Marie took over his chair at the Sarbonne Academy in Paris, thus becoming its first female professor. When World War I broke up, she donated her gold Nobel Prizes to be melted down to support the war effort, and hopped in a mobile radiation therapy truck. She used gamma rays to help alleviate the pain of wounded soldiers, thus essentially beginning the process of chemotherapy.
After the war, Curie realized that working with nuclear materials was hazardous to her health, but at this point she wasn’t phased by the discovery. In fact, the Curie (Ci) has become the standard unit of radiation. She warned others against working with gamma rays without appropriate precautions, but she continued her own research. Marie Curie died on the 4th of July, 1934 - she was 66.