Marie Curie is a woman of many outstanding firsts. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Eight years later, she became the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, her two wins also cemented her as the only person to have ever won the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields — physics and chemistry.
Curie Goes To College
When she turned 17, Marie Curie and her sister Bronya both dreamed of going to college. Sadly, the University of Warsaw did not admit women at the time. In order for them to be able to pursue a higher education, they had to go abroad, but their father was too poor to pay for even one, let alone multiple university educations.
So the sisters hatched a plan.
Bronya would depart for medical school in Paris first, which Curie would pay for by serving as a governess in the Polish countryside, where room and board were free. Then, once Bronya’s medical practice found solid footing, Curie would live with her sister and attend university herself.
In November 1891, at age 24, Curie took a train to Paris and signed her name as “Marie” instead of “Manya” when she enrolled at the Sorbonne, to fit in with her new French surroundings.
Unsurprisingly, Marie Curie excelled in her studies and soon launched to the top of her class. She was awarded the Alexandrovitch Scholarship for Polish students studying abroad and earned a degree in physics in 1893 and another in mathematics the following year.
Toward the end of her stint at the Sorbonne, Curie received a research grant to study the magnetic properties and chemical composition of steel. The project paired her with another researcher named Pierre Curie. The two had an instant attraction that was ingrained in their love of science and soon Pierre began courting her to marry him.
“It would…be a beautiful thing,” he wrote to her, “to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”
They were married in the summer 1895 in a civil service attended by family and friends. Despite it being her wedding day, Curie remained her practical self, choosing to don a blue woolen dress that she would be able to wear in the laboratory after her honeymoon, which she and Pierre spent riding bicycles in the French countryside.
Her union with Pierre would prove beneficial to both her private life and her professional work as a scientist. She was fascinated by German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays as well as Henri Becquerel’s discovery that uranium emitted radiation, or what he dubbed “Becquerel rays.” He believed that the more uranium — and uranium alone — a substance contained, the more rays it would emit.
Becquerel’s discovery was important, but Curie would build on it and discover something extraordinary.
After her marriage, Marie Curie retained her ambitions as a researcher and continued to spend hours in the laboratory, often working alongside her husband. However, when she became pregnant with their first child, Curie was forced to step back from her work due to a difficult pregnancy. It put a lull in her research preparation for her doctoral thesis.
The Curies welcomed their first daughter, Irène, in 1897. When her mother-in-law died weeks after Irène’s birth, her father-in-law, Eugene, stepped in to look after his grandchild while Marie and Pierre continued their work in the lab.
Curie’s unwavering dedication to her work continued even after the birth of their second child, Ève. By this time, she was already used to being chastised by her colleagues — who were mostly men — because they believed she should spend more time taking care of her children instead of continuing her groundbreaking research.
But being a woman of science at a time where women were not considered to be great thinkers simply because of their biology, Curie had learned to tune it out. She kept her head down and worked closer to what would be the breakthrough of a lifetime.
Marie Curie’s Breakthrough
In April 1898, Curie discovered that Becquerel rays weren’t unique to uranium. After testing how every known element affected the electrical conductivity of the air around it, she found that thorium, too, emitted Becquerel rays.
This discovery was monumental: It meant that this feature of materials — which Curie called “radioactivity” — originated from within an atom. Just a year prior, English physicist J.J. Thomson had discovered that atoms — previously thought to be the smallest particles in existence — contained even smaller particles called electrons. But no one had applied this knowledge or considered the massive power that atoms could hold.
Curie’s discoveries literally changed the field of science.
But Madame Curie — which people often called her — didn’t stop there. Still determined to unearth the hidden elements she had sniffed out, the Curies conducted larger experiments using pitchblende, a mineral containing dozens of different types of materials, to discover heretofore unknown elements.
In July 1898, the couple named the previously undiscovered radioactive element “polonium” after Curie’s home country of Poland.
That December, the Curies successfully extracted pure “radium,” a second radioactive element they had been able to isolate and named after “radius,” the Latin term for “rays.”
In 1903, 36-year-old Marie and Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel, were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to dissecting “radiation phenomena.” The Nobel committee had almost excluded Marie Curie from the list of honorees because she was a woman. They could not wrap their minds around the fact that a woman could be intelligent enough to contribute anything meaningful to science.
Had it not been for Pierre, who fervently defended his wife’s work, Curie would have been denied her deserved Nobel. The myth that she was merely a assistant to Pierre and Becquerel in the breakthrough persisted despite evidence to the contrary, an example of the pervasive misogyny she faced until her death.
Not only was Madame Curie’s discovery in radioactivity significant for researchers and humankind, it was also a tremendous milestone for women scientists, proving that intellect and hard work had little to do with gender.
After becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she went on to accomplish more great things. That same year, she became the first woman in France to earn her doctorate. According to the professors who reviewed her doctoral thesis, the paper was a greater contribution to science than any other thesis they’d ever read.
While Pierre received a full professorship from the Sorbonne, Marie got nothing. So he hired her to head the laboratory; for the first time, Curie would be paid to do research.
Unfortunately, her spell of great achievements was tainted by the sudden death of her husband after he was hit by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906. Marie Curie was devastated.
On the Sunday after Pierre’s funeral, Curie escaped to the laboratory, the one place she believed she would find solace. But that did not ease her pain. In her diary, Curie described the emptiness of the room which she had so often shared with her late husband.
In lieu of accepting a widow’s pension, Marie Curie went on to take Pierre’s place as a professor of general physics at the Sorbonne, making her the first woman to serve in that role. Again, she was almost denied the position because of her gender.
Madame Curie faced rampant misogyny even after she had already accomplished what many men could only dream of. In January of 1911, she was denied membership in the French Academy of Sciences, which contained the greatest minds in the country. It was because she was Polish, the Academy believed she was Jewish (which she wasn’t), and as Academy member Emile Hilaire Amagat put it, “women cannot be part of the Institute of France.”
Later that year, Curie was selected to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her research on radium and polonium. But she was almost disinvited from the award ceremony. Mere days before she was to accept her prize in Stockholm, the tabloids published scathing articles about her affair with a younger former student of her husband’s, Paul Langevin.
He was married — very unhappily — with four children, so he and Curie rented a secret apartment together. French newspapers published overly sentimental articles sympathizing with Langevin’s poor wife, who had known about the affair for a long time, and painting Curie as a homewrecker.
Mrs. Langevin scheduled a divorce and custody trial in December 1911, right when Curie was set to travel to Sweden to accept her Nobel. “We must do everything that we can to avoid a scandal and try, in my opinion, to prevent Madame Curie from coming,” said one member of the Nobel committee. “I beg you to stay in France,” another member wrote to Curie.
But Curie didn’t waver, and even Albert Einstein wrote a letter to her expressing outrage at her treatment in the press. She wrote back to the committee: “I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life. I cannot accept…that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”
And so, in 1911, Marie Curie was awarded with another Nobel, making her the only person who has ever won Nobel Prizes in two separate fields.