Maria Skłodowska-Curie

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Born: 7 Nov. 1867, Warsaw, Poland.
Died: 4 July 1934, Sancellemoz, France.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction
Polish history Major accomplishments
Historical assessment References


Maria Skłodowska-Curie was the greatest female scientist of all time. Born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, she moved to Paris for advanced education at the Sorbonne, where she remained for most of her career. Her major accomplishments involved the phenomenon of radioactivity, the discovery of polonium (Po) and radium (Ra), and medical applications of radioactivity. She is the only woman who won Nobel Prizes in two subjects, first in physics and second in chemistry. She was well connected with the most famous physical scientists of the early twentieth century, including Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others. Together with her husband, daughter, and two sons-in-law, the Curie clan was the greatest Nobel family of all time with five awards in three categories. The place of her birth is now a museum operated by the Polish Chemical Society.


Maria Skłodowska was born in the Nowe Miasto (new town) of Warsaw Poland in 1867. Nowe Miasto is located just north of the wall and gate into Stare Miasto (old town), the historical center of Warsaw. Maria lived the first year of her life at 16 Freta Street, then her family moved to another location in Warsaw (Kabzińska and Damska-Choina, undated). Both her parents were school teachers; her father taught physics and math at a grammar school for boys, and her mother ran a boarding school for girls at 16 Freta Street (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated). Maria was the youngest of four daughters and one son. After her mother died in 1878, the family was raised by her father.

As a youth, Maria regularly attended the nearby Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary. She was educated at a private girls boarding school, then at the public gymnasium (high school), and she graduated with a gold medal in 1883. From 1884 to 1889, she attended illegal university courses. She excelled in multiple languages as well as sociology, psychology and science. Her goal was to attend the Sorbonne in Paris, as women were not allowed to enroll in Polish universities at that time (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated).

Left: Church of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary (Kościół Nawiedzenia Najświętszej Marii Panny) in Nowe Miasto. One of the oldest churches in Warsaw dating from the fifteenth century. Right: wall, moat, and barbican (gate) on the northern side of Stare Miasto (old town) Warsaw. This gate leads directly to Freta Street. Photos by JSA.

The family could not afford to send the daughters to university in Paris, so Maria made a deal with her older sister Bronisława. First, Bronisława attended university while Maria worked to support her financially. Then when Bronsiława finished, she supported Maria. Maria became involved in student revolutionary politics and had to leave Warsaw (then under Russian rule) for Kraków (then under Austrian rule) (Nobel 1967). So, Maria worked as a governess and private tutor on the Szczuki estate between 1886 and 1889 (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated). During this period, she had a failed love affair, and returned to Warsaw in 1889. There she began work on chemical analyses in laboratories of the Museum of Industry and Agriculture.

In 1891 Maria went to Paris to study at the Faculte des Sciences at the Sorbonne (now known as Paris-Sorbonne University), where she lived with her sister, Bronisława, and husband. The Sorbonne is among the oldest universities in the world, founded in the thirteenth century, and justifiably famous. She obtained licenciate degrees in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894. There she met Pierre Curie (1859-1906), who was a French physicist, and they were married in 1895. They had two daughters, Irene and Eva. Pierre with his brother Jacques had discovered the phenomenon of piezoelectricity, and he was a colleague of Lord Kelvin who had visited his laboratory. From that point on Maria lived most of her life in Paris, although she often visited her Polish homeland.

Brief Polish history

At one time, Poland was a great country that stretched from the Baltic Sea southward almost reaching the Black Sea. Already by the sixteenth century, Poland had produced one of the most famous astronomers of all time, namely Mikołaj Kopernik, better known as Nicholas Copernicus (1453-1543). At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Commonwealth of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Poland-Lithuania) was the largest and most powerful country in north-central Europe (see 1600 map).

During the next two centuries, however, this region was partitioned by neighbors until Poland ceased to exist as an independent nation (see 1800 map), and this state of affairs continued until the turn of the twentieth century (see 1900 map). Throughout the era of foreign domination, nonetheless, Poland retained a strong sense of identity through its culture and language. It was during this turbulent period that Maria Skłodowska received her early education. Poland and France have long enjoyed close cultural and diplomatic relationships and respect for each other; thus, it is no surprise that Maria moved to Paris for her advanced education.

Following World War I, Poland emerged briefly as a fully independent nation, but again it was partitioned at the beginning of World War II (see 1939 partition). The modern outline of Poland was determined following World War II and has remained stable until today (see 2000 map). The period of Soviet/Communist domination came to an end in 1989, and Poland has emerged as a fully modern country with a dynamic economy, vibrant culture, and active scientific inquiry equal to those of many western European countries.

Centrum Nauki Kopernik (Copernicus Science Centre) is a science museum and conference center that openned in 2010. Located in Warsaw, it is the most popular attraction in all of Poland. It includes the Heavens of Copernicus planetarium. Photo by JSA.

Major accomplishments

Maria Skłodowska-Curie and her husband began their marriage by investigating the newly discovered phenomenon of radioactivity in uranium and thorium. They worked in a laboratory that was converted from an old shed (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated). They discovered two new elements, polonium (Po, named for her homeland) and radium (Ra), in 1898. In 1903 she received her doctorate degree in physical sciences. In that same year, she shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband and Henri Becquerel. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; on the Nobel certificate her name was listed as Marie Curie (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated).

Pierre Curie and Maria Skłodowska-Curie circa 1903, the year they won the Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel. Public domain from the Smithsonian Institution Archives; adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre died tragically in a traffic accident in 1906, and Maria succeeded him as head of the physics department at the Sorbonne. She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne, where she continued research on radioactivity. In 1911 she returned to Zakopane, Poland after her relationship with Paul Langevin created a scandal in Paris. Then in December 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on radium; her name was listed as Marie Sklodowska-Curie (Sobieszczak-Marciniak, undated).

Maria Skłodowska-Curie is the only woman to have won Nobel Prizes in two different subjects. She became the Director of the Curie Laboratory at the Radium Institute in Paris in 1914 and directed it until her death. During World War I, Maria and her daughter, Irene, took portable x-ray units into the battlefield to train technicians and examine wounded soldiers. She increasingly spent more time in such remedial work involving medical applications of radiation. Following the war, she continued research on polonium, actinium, and ionium at the institute.

During the period 1925-32, she established the Radium Institute in Warsaw. Her primary interest was in medical applications for treatment of cancer, but late in life began to suspect also radiation damage to her health as well as the health of radium workers. In 1929 President Hoover gave $50,000 donated by American friends of science for her to purchase radium for the institute in Warsaw (Nobel 1967). On July 4, 1934 she died in France of leukemia brought on by her prolonged exposure to radioactivity. Initially she was buried in a common grave with her husband in Sceaux. In 1995, the ashes of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon. She is the only woman and the only person not born in France so honored (WTO 2016).

Maria Skłodowska-Curie was well connected with and highly regarded by the most famous physical scientists of the early twentieth century. She attended the Solvay Conferences, which dealt with major issues in physics and chemistry and attracted the pre-eminent scientists of the day. Of the 29 participants in 1927, for example, 17 had won or would win Nobel Prizes, but Maria was the only one to receive two. Other participants included such noteworthies as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, and William Lawrence Bragg.

Participants at the fifth Solvay Conference in 1927. This has been called the most intelligent picture ever taken. Maria Skłodowska-Curie is seated third from left on the front row, the only woman in the picture. Obtained from Rare historical photos.

Historical assessment

Without question, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was the greatest female scientist the world has seen. In addition to her two Nobel Prizes, one shared with her husband and Becquerel, her daughter and two sons-in-law also received Nobel Prizes.
Irčne Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) and her husband, Frédéric Joliot (1900-1958) shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity and isotopes. Her younger daughter, Eva, was the second wife of Henry Labouisse (1904-1987), who accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF in 1965. Thus, the Curie clan was undoubtedly the greatest Nobel family of all time with five awards in three categories.

Polish 20,000 zloty banknote from 1989 featured Maria Skłodowska-Curie on the front side and the first Polish nuclear reactor, named Ewa, on the backside. From the author's collection.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie was awarded many honors during her lifetime and has received many more recognitions since. Two uranium-bearing minerals, sklodowskite and curite, were named for Maria and Pierre, and she has been featured on postage stamps of several countries. The place of her birth, 16 Freta Street, is a museum operated by the Polish Chemical Society, which she cofounded. The houses along Freta Street were completely destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, but were rebuilt in the 1950s. More recently the museum building underwent renovation (2016), and the musem displays were relocated temporarily across the street.


USSR (Russian)

All images obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum
16 Freta Street, Warsaw, Poland
The building as it appeared prior to recent renovation (left). Adapted from J. Láscar; obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Detail of Ra-Po painting on building facade (right). Adapted from B.E. Pedersen; obtained from Wikimedia Commons.
Renovation of museum building underway in 2016 (left). Temporary location of museum exhibits in another building across the street (right); entrance door on right side. Photos by JSA.

The discovery and increasing understanding of radioactive elements, led by the Curies at the turn of the twentieth century, laid the foundation for radiometric dating techniques applied to the controversial age of the Earth. By the end of the nineteenth century, Lord Kelvin's short timescale for the age of the Earth (less than 100 million years old) had been accepted by nearly all geologists. Already in the first decade of the twentieth century, the American chemist Bertram Borden Boltwood (1870-1927) developed an early version of uranium-lead dating. Some of his results exceeded two billion years in age and immediately disproved Kelvin's short timescale. This work was carried forward by Arthur Holmes (1890-1965) who extended the age of the Earth to >4 billion years, strongly supported Wegener's concept of continental drift, and first proposed convection currents in the mantle as the driving mechanism.


Return to history of geology syllabus or schedule.
GO 521 © J.S. Aber (2016).