Answer to Question #7134 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Historical Issues/Applications

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:


What did Marie Curie do to become famous and what experiments did she do?


Marie Sklowdowska Curie (1867-1934) was one of the first scientists to study radioactivity and over the course of her lifetime made many important discoveries. Together with her husband Pierre, in 1898, she discovered two new radioactive chemical elements. The first she named polonium in honor of her native land, Poland. The second was radium. 

To fully establish and verify the existence of radium, it was necessary to obtain a pure sample of the new element. Thus she continued her research and through arduous effort under very difficult circumstances and with limited means was able to separate a tiny but sufficient amount of radium from tons of pitchblende ore and prove to the scientific community's satisfaction the existence of this new element.

Her research with radioactivity was the subject of her thesis, and in 1903 she was awarded the degree of doctor of science from the University of Paris. She was the first woman in France to earn a doctorate. This was one of many firsts that she achieved. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, sharing the 1903 prize in physics with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel who had discovered radioactivity in 1896. She received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911 and became the first person to ever receive two Nobel awards and one of two to receive awards in two different fields. She was the first woman professor at the University of Paris, having been appointed to her husband's chair after his tragic accidental death in 1906.

On a humanitarian level, she promoted the medical uses of radium and x rays, actions which contributed greatly to the benefit of mankind, and she raised funds to support additional research on radium and radioactivity.

Her numerous and extraordinary accomplishments are exceptionally noteworthy, all the more so when it is realized that they were made at a time when women were virtually foreclosed from careers in science and greatly discriminated against, as evidenced by the failure of the French Academy of Sciences to elect her to membership despite her numerous other honors, including two Nobel Prizes.

Further information about the work and life of this exceptional individual can be obtained from the many biographies written about her, most notably the one by her daughter, Eve Curie, simply titled Madame Curie. It is available from Amazon. A more recent and broader view of her scientific work is contained in the book by Naomi Pasachoff, Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity, published in 1996 by Oxford University Press (ISBN # 978-0195120116).
Ron Kathren, CHP

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