The Curies: When Marie met Pierre

Famous scientist, Marie Curie, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her ground-breaking research, including the discovery of radium.

Perhaps more well-known today than her husband, the equally brilliant scientist Pierre Curie, she left behind her legacy of the Marie Curie cancer charity.

When Marie met Pierre, they came together through a shared love of science and it was really a marriage of minds. She was at first reluctant to marry, as she felt her work came first. However, once she accepted his proposal, they spent their marriage working on scientific discoveries together.

They won a Nobel Prize in Physics jointly in 1903 with physicist Henri Becquerel. Then, Marie went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. She was the first person and the only woman to win the award twice in two different fields.

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Marie’s early life
Born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, in November 1867, she was the fifth child of teachers Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowska. Her father taught maths and physics. At the time, Poland was trying to regain its independence from Russia and the family lost their property and money during the national uprisings.

When the Russian leadership banned laboratory teaching in schools, Wladyslaw took his equipment home and taught his children how to use it, sparking Marie’s early interest. As a child, she suffered the loss of her mother to tuberculosis in 1878.

Marie was an exceptional student and graduated from school at 15 with a gold medal. She fell ill on leaving school and spent a year recuperating in the countryside. She planned on going on to higher education but wasn’t permitted to enrol because she was female.

After attending the underground Flying University (a Polish institution that accepted women), she became a governess, but went to Paris to continue her studies. Changing her name to Marie on arriving in France in 1891, she studied at Sorbonne University and passed her higher degrees, before beginning her scientific work.

Pierre was born in Paris in May 1859 to doctor Eugene Curie and his wife Sophie-Claire. Educated by his father, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and geometry. After enrolling for university at 16, he obtained his Licence ès Sciences at 18, but was unable to proceed to his doctorate due to a lack of funds.

Instead, he worked in the laboratory of French engineer and teacher Jean-Gustave Bourbouze, at the Faculty of Science of Paris, while preparing for his Bachelor of Science degree. Pierre carried out research with his older brother, Jacques.

They discovered piezoelectricity – the energy generated by compressing crystals. This type of crystal oscillator is still used in almost all digital electronic circuits today. Pierre also researched magnetism and defined the Curie scale, used to measure a substance’s radioactivity.

First meeting
Pierre and Marie had a mutual friend, Polish physicist Józef Wierusz-Kowalski, who researched mathematics and natural sciences at the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland. He later established the university’s physics department.

He introduced Pierre and Marie in 1894, when they were aged 35 and 27 respectively. Kowalski had tutored Marie as a student. He had known her in Poland and had sponsored her studies in Warsaw. After finding her somewhere to stay when she moved to Paris, he helped her to win a place at Sorbonne University.

Pierre was smitten with Marie from the outset. He came to think of her as his muse and was fascinated by her incredible intelligence. She was equally fascinated by Pierre, who was eight years her senior.

She remembered entering a room and seeing him standing in the recess of a French window, looking out on to a balcony. She recalled, “He seemed to me very young, though he was, at that time, 35 years old.”

Immediately struck by his “open expression” and the “suggestion of detachment” in his attitude, she described his speech as “slow and deliberate” and his smile as being “grave and youthful” at the same time. She said everything about him “inspired confidence”.

Pierre began to woo Marie and wrote a letter to her, saying what a “beautiful thing” it would be – but something he “dare not hope” – if they could spend their life together, “hypnotised” by their “humanitarian and scientific dreams”.

He had proposed to Marie within a year, but at first she refused, as she felt her career as a scientist should come first and she was planning to return to Poland to work. However, her plans to go to Kraków University fell through, because women were not admitted there.

Married life
Pierre convinced her to stay in Paris and they were married at a civil ceremony in Sceaux on 26th July 1895. The bride had only one dress, a dark blue one, which doubled as a lab coat, so she wore it for the ceremony. “I have no dress except the one I wear every day,” she said.

They went on a bicycle tour of the French countryside for their honeymoon and enjoyed a happy marriage, having two daughters, Irene in 1897 and Eve in 1904.

Working together in the laboratory throughout their married life, in 1903 they won the Noble Prize for physics together, along with Becquerel, for their joint research into radiation. Marie was not included in the original nomination, but Pierre complained and insisted her name was added.

Health risks
They took risks with their health in their research and both experienced radium burns. Exposed to extensive doses of radiation, they experienced radiation sickness, but carried on regardless, working at the Sorbonne, where Pierre was a professor.

Sadly, tragedy struck on 19th April 1906, when Pierre was knocked down by a horse-drawn vehicle while crossing the Rue Dauphine in Paris. It was reported he had slipped on the wet street and died instantly from a fractured skull, at the age of 46.

Marie was devastated but honoured her husband by succeeding him as a professor at the Sorbonne on 13th May. She created a world-class laboratory as a tribute and was the university’s first female professor, winning her second Nobel Prize in 1911.

Family of scientists
Their daughter Irene became an esteemed scientist herself and followed in her mother’s footsteps by winning a joint Nobel Prize in chemistry, with husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. The Curies are the family with the most Nobel Prizes to date.

Eve Curie became a respected journalist and writer in the United States and worked for UNICEF, helping mothers and children in developing countries. Sadly, Marie died in July 1934, aged 66, from the effects of her exposure to radiation.

Overturning established ideas in physics and chemistry, the Curies’ work is recognised as shaping the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. A poll carried out by New Scientist in 2009 saw Marie voted the “most inspirational woman in science”.

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