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Maria Skłodowska-Curie

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw as the youngest of 5 children. Both of her parents were teachers and instilled in their children a sense of the value of learning. Maria's early years were marked by the death of her sister Zofia (typhus) and, 2 years later, the death of her mother (tuberculosis). These events caused her to give up her Roman Catholic religion and become an agnostic. From childhood Skłodowska showed an exceptional memory and work ethic, and was known to neglect food and sleep in order to study. At age of 16 she graduated from a Russian liceum at the top of her class, winning a gold medal on completion of her secondary education there.


Because she was female, and because of Russian reprisals following the Polish 1863 uprising against Tsarist Russia, she was denied admission to a regular university. Maria had to take work as a teacher while attending Warsaw's illegal Polish Floating University. At age 18 she took a post as a governess. From her earnings she supported her elder sister Bronisława, who was studying medicine in Paris, on the understanding that Bronisława would in turn later help Maria get an education. Eventually in 1891 Maria went to join her sister in Paris, where she studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. (Later, in 1909, she would become that University's first female professor). In 1894 she obtained her master's degree in mathematics. In 1903, under the supervision of Henri Becquerel, she received her DSc from the University of Paris, becoming the first woman in France to complete a doctorate.


At the University of Paris, also, she met and married Pierre Curie - an instructor in the School of Physics and Chemistry. Eventually they studied radioactive materials, particularly pitchblende, the ore from which uranium was extracted. By April 1898, Skłodowska-Curie deduced that pitchblende must contain traces of an unknown substance far more radioactive than uranium.


In 1898, Pierre and Marie together published an article announcing the existence of an element which they named polonium, in honour of her native Poland, then still partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria. It was Marie’s hope that naming the element after her native country would bring world attention to its lack of independence. Polonium may have been the first chemical element named to highlight a political question. Soon they announced the existence of a second element, which they named radium for its intense radioactivity - a word that they coined. Over the course of several years of unceasing work in the most difficult physical conditions, they processed several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive substances and eventually isolating the chloride salts. Polonium was not yet isolated at this time.


In 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel." Maria was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Eight years later, she received the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element".


Skłodowska-Curie was the first person to win or share 2 Nobel Prizes. She is one of only two people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different fields, the other being Linus Pauling (Chemistry, Peace), but she remains the only woman to have won 2 Nobel Prizes, and the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in two different science fields. Nevertheless, the French Academy of Sciences refused to abandon its prejudice against women, and she failed by one vote to be elected to membership. It would be her doctoral student, Marguerite Perey, who would be the first woman elected to the Academy - in 1962, over half a century after Pierre Curie's 1905 election.


During World War I, Skłodowska-Curie pushed for the use of mobile radiography units, which came to be popularly known as petites Curies ("Little Curies"), for the treatment of wounded soldiers. These units were powered using tubes of radium emanation, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon. Skłodowska-Curie personally provided the tubes, derived from the radium she purified.


After World War I, in 1921 and again in 1929, Skłodowska-Curie toured the United States, where she was welcomed triumphantly, to raise funds for research on radium. These distractions from her scientific labors, and the attendant publicity, caused her much discomfort but provided resources for her work. Her second American tour succeeded in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute, founded in 1925, with her sister Bronisława as director. In her later years, Skłodowska-Curie headed the Pasteur Institute and a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the University of Paris.


Her death in 1934 was from aplastic anemia, almost certainly due to exposure to radiation, as the damaging effects of ionising radiation were not yet known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed with no safety measures. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the pretty blue-green light the substances gave off in the dark. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, where Pierre lay, but 60 years later, in 1995, in honour of their work, the remains of both were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris. Her laboratory is preserved in the Musée Curie.


The Curies' elder daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 for discovering that aluminium could be radioactive and emit neutrons when bombarded with alpha rays. The younger daughter, Ève Curie, wrote the biography, Madame Curie, after her mother's death.


As one of the most famous female scientists to date, Marie Curie has been an icon in the scientific world and has inspired many tributes and recognitions. In 1995, she was the first and only woman laid to rest under the famous dome of the Pantheon, in Paris, on her own merits, alongside her husband. The curie (symbol Ci), a unit of radioactivity, is named in her and Pierre's honour, as is the element with atomic number 96 - curium. 3 radioactive minerals are named after the Curies: curite, sklodowskite, and cuprosklodowskite. In 2007, the Pierre Curie Paris Métro station was renamed the "Pierre et Marie Curie" station.

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