Few women in history have done as much for women in science as Marie Curie. Decades ahead of her time, she pioneered groundbreaking research, broke gender barriers, set records, and dedicated her life to her work.
Keep reading to learn more about this incredible scientist, and how she continues to inspire young girls dreaming of working in STEM today.
Who is Marie Curie?
Marie Curie is best known for her scientific research on radioactivity.
Her Early Life
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867. She was born in Warsaw, Poland, and was the youngest of five children. Her parents were both teachers, and the family faced financial difficulties.
From a young age, Marie displayed an incredible mind and a prodigious memory. At age 16, she won a gold medal for the completion of her secondary education at the Russian Lycee. But after her mother passed away, had her father lost his savings thanks to a bad investment, Marie began working as a governess.
In her free time, she continued learning and studying.
Going to University
Marie's future would change in 1891 when her sister offered her a place to stay in Paris so that she could attend university. She jumped at the opportunity, moving to Paris that year.
There, she attended Sorbonne University. She studied physics and mathematics, two subjects that she had found a passion for years earlier.
In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie. Pierre was a scientist working in Paris. They were married in 1895, and Marie chose to adopt the French spelling of her name at the same time that she took his last name. She would go by Marie for the rest of her life and is now remembered as Marie Curie.
Her Professional Work
After getting married, Marie and her new husband both went to work as researchers at the School of Chemistry and Physics, located in Paris. It was here that they would launch the research project that they would become known for.
They began studying invisible rays given off by uranium. This was a brand new phenomenon that had only recently been discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel. The Curies' research was groundbreaking for its time.
While Professor Henri had shown that rays could pass through solid matter and photographic film, and cause air to conduct electricity, the Curies took his discovery one step further.
It was Marie who noticed that a mineral called pitchblende, which contains uranium ore, was more radioactive than the uranium that came from it.
Marie wondered what else was causing the high radioactive reading that she was finding in the pitchblende. Through her research, she became convinced that she had found a new chemical element, even though other researchers at that time doubted her.
Together with Pierre, Marie began working to figure out what the new element could be. Over the next several years, the Curies conducted test after test. In the end, they discovered two chemical elements, Polonium named after Marie's native Poland, and radium.
In 1898, they published their findings, including their discovery of radium. It would take three more years to isolate radium and get her first sample.
Winning the Nobel Prize
Just a year after Marie was finally able to isolate radium and generate a sample, she and Pierre, along with Professor Henri Becquerel, won the Novel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity. That same year, Marie would also pass her thesis, earning a doctorate degree in Physics.
In 1906, tragedy struck when Pierre was killed in an accident. Despite facing heartbreak, Marie continued with her work. She took over Pierre's place as Professor at Sorbonne, continuing both his lecturing and her own research in his absence.
Her hard work and determination paid off. In 1911, she won her second Nobel Prize. This time, she won the prize in chemistry for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. Not only was Marie the first female to win a Nobel Prize, but she is also currently the only woman to have won two. But with more women feeling empowered to enter the field of STEM, this is a record that could well be broken by a young woman already alive today!
Sorbonne University built the very first radium institute and dedicated a laboratory specifically for Marie Curie to study and teach about radioactivity.
When WWI broke out, Marie went to work. She developed a portable x-ray unit that could be used on the battlefront. In 1914, alongside her daughter, she took to the frontlines and traveled around with her X-ray machine, called the "Petits Curies," and used it to aid wounded soldiers.
Marie Curie's Legacy
Marie Curie passed away in 1934 at the age of 66, likely as a result of radiation exposure, a danger that wasn't fully recognized or acknowledged at the time. But her legacy lives on today.
Not only did Marie develop groundbreaking research that continues to be used by scientists today, but she was also a leader in breaking expectations of women in the workplace and in science. She broke gender expectations decades before they became a topic of debate.
Marie's life and work continue to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams even in the face of adversity.
Following in Marie Curie's Footsteps
If you have a young girl in your life with a passion for science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, let the legacy of Marie Curie be her—and your—inspiration!
Almost 100 years after Marie's death, women continue to face hurdles and obstacles in the male-dominated field of science. Studies show that female students in STEM are 23 percent more likely to drop their studies than male students. But it doesn't have to be this way!
By encouraging young girls and women to follow their passions for science, tech, mathematics, and engineering, we can bridge the gender gap. If you have an aspiring female scientist in your life, check out our Rocket Girl packages to see how they can help inspire her to one day make her own scientific contribution!