At that time, Marie Curie was rejected as a member of the French Academy of Sciences because she was a woman.

Marie Skłodowska Curie, better known as Marie Curie (born: Warsaw/Poland, November 7, 1867 – death: Passy/France, July 4, 1934), was a scientist who discovered the chemical elements radium and polonium. She was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize and the only one to win the prize twice (in different areas), in addition to being the first female professor at the Sorbonne University, in France.

Biography of Marie Curie

Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, at a time when the city was part of the Russian Empire. Daughter of Władysław Skłodowska, professor of physics and mathematics, and Bronisława Bogusława Skłodowska, teacher, pianist and singer, Marie had direct contact with science from an early age and education was always valued by the family.

Marie had two significant losses in her childhood: her sister died of typhus , and her mother, of tuberculosis . Despite facing depression, she was encouraged by her father to dedicate herself to her studies, graduating at the age of 15 and standing out in her class.

For standing in favor of Polish independence in Warsaw dominated by Tsarist Russia, Marie’s father was fired. To support his family, Władysław Skłodowska opened a school.

  • Life in France

Marie faced several challenges entering higher education. Despite finishing high school early, the young woman was unable to study in her hometown, as the University of Warsaw did not accept women .

Deciding to go to France, following the path taken by her sister Bronisława Duskła, Marie gave private lessons and was a governess to save money. In 1891, the Polish woman went to Paris, entered the Sorbonne University and changed her name from Maria to Marie.

Marie graduated in Physics in 1893, while her Mathematics degree came in 1894. In 1894, she met Physics professor Pierre Curie .

Marie and Pierre Curie

Pierre and Marie married in 1895 and, therefore, the scientist adopted Curie in her name, but did not accept giving up her Polish surname. Her signature then became Marie Skłodowska Curie.

Madame Curie, as she became known, was working on her doctorate (a rare thing for women at the time) when she found, in the studies by scientist Henri Becquerel on the radiation of the elements thorium and uranium, her area of ​​research and the topic for her thesis.

His studies on the radiation produced by uranium began in 1897, a time when the element was known as uranic rays, at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Marie was responsible for creating the term radioactivity when she concluded that radiation emanated from within the atom.

In 1898, Pierre joined Marie in studying radioactivity. With authorization from the School of Physics and Chemistry, they improvised a laboratory in the institution’s basement, where they studied pitchblende, an ore rich in uranium.

In 1903, Marie Curie defended her thesis on the topic “Research on radioactive substances”, work that was considered by the committee as the greatest scientific contribution of a doctoral thesis up to that time.

The year 1903 was an eventful one for Marie Curie and earned her recognition for her efforts. The Curie couple’s scientific and academic partnership with Becquerel earned the trio the Nobel Prize in Physics, making the scientist the first woman to be awarded such an honor. Also at this time, Madame Curie received the Navy Medal, an honor given by the Royal Society of London, since 1877, for recognizing discoveries in Chemistry, also being the first medal to be awarded to a female researcher.

Marie and Pierre had two daughters, Irène and Eve. Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her parents’ footsteps in research into radioactivity and won the Curie family another Nobel Prize.

  • Discovery of radium and polonium

During the Curies’ period of research into radioactivity, they discovered that two chemical elements had greater radioactivity than uranium. In 1898 , Marie announced to the French Academy of Sciences the discovery of radium and polonium (named after Poland).

The discovery of the elements radium and polonium earned Marie Curie the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911, making her the only person in the world to win two Nobel Prizes in different scientific areas .

Despite being responsible for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, Marie and Pierre did not want to patent the feat, so that other scientists could continue research into radioactivity.

Statue of Marie Curie with the element polonium, in Warsaw.  [3]
Statue of Marie Curie with the element polonium, in Warsaw.
  • Death of Pierre Curie

In 1906, Marie faced another tragedy in her life: the death of her husband. Pierre Curie died in Paris, run over by a cart. For this reason, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded only to Madame Curie, who dedicated this achievement and the rest of her research to her late partner in life and science.

  • Radio Institute

The director of the Pasteur Institute, Émile Roux, proposed the creation of the Radium Institute in 1909. The purpose of the environment was medical research against cancer and oncological treatment using radiotherapy .

Construction of the institute began in 1911 and ended in 1914. The “Institut du radium de Paris” was opened shortly before the start of the First World War and was composed of two complementary laboratories: Curie Pavilion (Physics and Chemistry), directed by Marie, and the Pasteur Laboratory (focused on radiotherapy), under the direction of Claudius Regaud.

Marie dedicated herself entirely to the First World War with her x-ray machines, nicknamed Petites Curies. Only in 1918 did Curie have the opportunity to permanently occupy her position, taking her daughter Irène to be an assistant. Irène played a fundamental role in helping soldiers in combat using radiation and had a great interest in science.

The Radium Institute was Marie Curie’s research environment until the end of her career, in 1934. Irène Curie was a researcher there until 1935. Currently, the Curie pavilion of the “Institut du radium de Paris” houses the Curie Museum.

Nobel Prize

Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, recognition for her contribution to research into radioactivity . The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared with Becquerel and Pierre Curie.

A pioneer in science, Marie won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in Chemistry, recognition for the discovery, isolation and research on the element radium. The scientist was the first person to win the prize twice and the only one to be awarded in different scientific areas (Physics and Chemistry), since Linus Pauling – who was twice awarded the Nobel Prize – was recognized in the scientific category only once. edition (Chemistry, in 1954), followed by the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1962.

With Irène Joliot-Curie’s Nobel Prize in 1935, the Curie family became the family that has won the most Nobel Prizes to date.

  • Sexism in science

Mostly male, the field of science was a hostile and challenging environment for Marie. Even with recognition for her scientific career, Curie lost the election to the French Academy of Sciences by one vote, the result of a sexist campaign at the time.

The French Academy of Sciences only started accepting women in 1979, which shows how Marie was a pioneer in entering scientific research at the end of the 19th century and for her achievements. Madame Curie took on the challenge of making space for other women, including her daughter, showing the strength that the researcher had.

Marie also tried to return to Poland, as she intended to take her knowledge to her home country, but was rejected by the university simply because she was a woman.

In 1911, Marie was the only woman to participate in the Solvay Congress. The first edition of the meeting was attended by physicists such as Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Ernest Rutherford.

Legacy of Marie Curie

  • X-ray in the First World War

Marie was instrumental in treating wounded soldiers in the First World War . Curie realized that x-rays would be important for treating gunshot wounds and fractures, so she set up a mobile x-ray service.

The scientist sought help from wealthy people and laboratories for financial assistance and equipment, in addition to training technicians to work with x-ray devices. Curie managed to install 200 radiological treatment stations in the combat zones of France and Belgium, serving more than 1 million soldiers during the First World War.

  • Radiation in cancer treatment

Marie Curie’s discoveries were very important in the treatment of cancer. The scientist collected the gas that the radium element emanated and sent the material to various hospitals around the world to treat tumors through irradiation.

Radiotherapy in Brazil

Curie played a fundamental role in the beginning of radiotherapy in Brazil. The use of radium in cancer treatment was researched for years by some Brazilian doctors and, in 1920, doctor Eduardo Borges Ribeiro da Costa discovered the methods disseminated by Marie on a trip to Europe and, returning to Belo Horizonte, decided to take action to see the increase in cancer cases in the capital of Minas Gerais.

Doctor Eduardo Borges was a specialist in removing tumors with a scalpel and sought to adopt radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer. Created in 1920, the Belo Horizonte Radium Institute was the first hospital to use radiotherapy in Brazil. The hospital unit was built at the bottom of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Belo Horizonte – currently the Federal University of Minas Gerais ( UFMG ).

Marie visited Brazil in August 1926 for a convention in Belo Horizonte, on which occasion the scientist visited the Belo Horizonte Radium Institute and donated two radium needles aimed at treating cancer. The first hospital specialized in radiotherapy, the institute began to receive people from all over Brazil.

The biggest challenge in using radiotherapy was finding the correct dosage of the radium element to treat tumors, as high levels could be harmful to patients. Marie’s visit to Brazil changed this scenario by clarifying doubts about the practice of cancer treatment.

The Radium Institute purchased radium from France for radiotherapy and had a dosage certificate signed by Marie Curie. Currently, the institution is called Hospital Borges da Costa and is an outpatient clinic for cancer patients.

Marie Curie and Irène visiting the then Radium Institute, in Belo Horizonte (1926).  [4]
Marie Curie and Irène visiting the then Radium Institute, in Belo Horizonte (1926).
  • Contribution to education

Marie Curie was the first woman to be a professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, and succeeded her husband as head of the French institution’s physics laboratory.

Brazil was one of the countries that had the opportunity to receive Curie’s teachings. In 1926, Marie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie held conferences and experiments at the then Polytechnic School of Rio de Janeiro. The scientist taught a course on the element radium at the institution. References for women from all over the world, mother and daughter were welcomed and guided by members of the Brazilian Federation for Women’s Progress.

Publication of Revista da Semana (August 21, 1926, Rio de Janeiro) about Marie and Irène's trip to Brazil.  [5]

The Curie couple, as well as their daughter and son-in-law – Irène and Jean Joliot-Curie – had an academic policy of publishing all articles and research to benefit the scientific community. However, Irène and her husband stopped publishing the studies in World War II so that the findings would not be used by the military.

Death of Marie Curie

After decades of exposure to radiation in her workplace, Marie Currie died on July 4, 1934, aged 66, at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in the city of Passy, ​​France.

There are research sources that attribute the cause of death to leukemia , while others speak of aplastic anemia . Both diseases can be acquired through prolonged exposure to chemicals and radioactive elements.

Marie is buried alongside Pierre Curie in Paris. Even after her death, Madame Curie broke taboos by being the first woman buried in the Pantheon in Paris.

Tomb of Marie and Pierre Curie at the Pantheon in Paris.  [6]
Tomb of Marie and Pierre Curie at the Pantheon in Paris.

Irene Joliot-Curie

Marie Curie’s firstborn, Irène studied at the Sorbonne University and was a nurse in the First World War, a conflict in which her mother worked using X-ray machines to treat injured soldiers.

Irène with her parents, Pierre and Marie Curie.  [7]
Irène with her parents, Pierre and Marie Curie.

Irène’s course thesis was the alpha rays of polonium, an element discovered by her parents. The scientist was a researcher at the Curie Laboratory from 1921 to 1935 and at the University of Paris and the Radium Institute between 1937 and 1956. Furthermore, she was Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research in 1936 and became a professor at the Sorbonne in 1937 .

Irène played an important role in the French resistance against the Nazis in World War II , hiding the principle of nuclear reactors and protecting scientists. The scientist was also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, the National Committee of the Union of French Women and the World Peace Council.

Marie Curie’s daughter was married to physicist Jean-Frédéric Joliot-Curie . Like her parents, Irène found a partner in her scientific career in her husband, with the Joliot-Curie couple being responsible for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

The discovery of artificial radioactivity earned Irène and Jean the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. In 1946, the couple joined the French Nuclear Energy Commission, where they remained until 1950, leaving for ideological and political reasons.

Irène and Frederic in the Radio Institute laboratory.  [8]
Irène and Frederic in the Radio Institute laboratory.

Like her mother, prolonged exposure to radioactivity weakened Irène’s body. The scientist died of leukemia in Paris, in March 1956, at the age of 58.

  • Marie Curie’s grandchildren and science

Irène Joliot-Curie left two children, Helène and Pierre. Hélène Langevin-Joliot is a nuclear physicist and professor at the University of Paris, while Pierre Joliot is a biochemist at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique. Coincidentally, Hélène also married a scientist, physicist Michel Langevin, grandson of physicist Paul Langevin, who had a relationship with Marie before Pierre.


A family dedicated to research and with a great contribution to science is rich in material to be exhibited, which is why there is the Curie Museum ( Musée Curie ) in Paris, in the place where the Radium Institute operated, where Marie Curie worked.