Maria Skłodowska-Curie: The Star Of Radioactivity

(7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934)

She broke the glass ceiling. Maria Skłodowska-Curie was the first woman professor at the Sorbonne and the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize twice. The price of her scientific achievements was huge – permanent insomnia, unbearable pain in her muscles and joints, and weight loss.

by Jan Hlebowicz


Maria Skłodowska came from a poor Polish noble family. Her father, a mathematics and physics teacher in Warsaw’s high schools, and her mother, the headmistress of one of the city’s best schools, were deeply involved in her education. According to one anecdote, when she was four years old, after watching her older sister struggle with reading, she took the book and flawlessly read the first sentence aloud. Maria also had an exceptional memory, and was able to recite any poem she had just heard in full. She graduated from junior high school with a gold medal, awarded to the most outstanding graduates. At that time, women were not permitted to attend the University of Warsaw. Maria refused to accept this limitation, so she and her sister Bronia devised a plan. Bronia, the older sister, would go to study medicine first, funded by money Maria earned from her governess’s salary. Once Bronia was established, she would financially support her sister. Maria began working in Szczuki, teaching the children of the Żórawski family, all the while dreaming of a career in research. She lamented her lack of a proper place to conduct experiments, writing, “What can I do if I don’t have a place where I can conduct experiments or do practical activities?” After eight years of diligent work, Maria told her sister it was her turn. Raised with a reverence for knowledge, she left for Paris at the age of 24 and enrolled in a science course at the Sorbonne.

Skłodowski family: Władysław and his daughters: Maria, Bronisława, Helena, 1890

A great discovery

She recalled that she devoted all her time and thoughts to her studies. “I divided my time between lectures, laboratories, and work in the library. I worked at home in the evenings, often until late at night. Everything new I saw and learned amazed me. It was like the revelation of a new world, the world of knowledge, to which I was finally given free access. In 1893, she was the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical sciences at the Sorbonne. A year later, she received another diploma, this time in mathematics, achieving the second-best result in her group. She blamed herself for not being first. Recognizing her potential, Professor Gabriel Lippmann suggested that she research the magnetic properties of various types of steel. One of the leading French experts in this field was Pierre Curie. Maria decided to meet the physicist eight years her senior who had already made several significant achievements in the field.

“I noticed the serious and pleasant expression on his face, as well as a certain appearance of neglect in his tall figure, typical of a dreamer lost in his thoughts,” she recalled of her first meeting with the scientist. Curie fell madly in love with Maria. According to the anecdote, he immediately introduced Maria to his parents and proposed at least once a week. Ultimately, the year-long relationship ended in marriage. The Curies spent their honeymoon on bicycles, staying overnight in roadside inns and spending the evenings discussing Maria’s doctorate. In her scientific work, she devoted herself to researching uranium salts, seeking to understand their unusual luminescence. She conducted her experiments in an old shed, where her husband constructed many prototypes and inventions for her, which later contributed to her success. Pierre also decided to abandon teaching and fully engage in his wife’s work.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie, 1900

In 1898, Maria Skłodowska-Curie determined that several minerals emit radiation of higher energy than uranium. “Marie Curie’s work contained two revolutionary observations: the claim that radioactivity can be measured, thus providing the opportunity to discover new elements, and that radioactivity is an ‘atomic property’,” wrote Barbara Goldsmith, biographer of the Polish Nobel Prize winner. In the next phase of research, the Curies discovered a new element, named after Maria’s homeland – polonium. Shortly afterward, they announced the existence of a second previously unknown element – radium. This breakthrough brought the Curies the Nobel Prize in Physics, and Maria’s dream came true when she defended her doctorate at the Sorbonne. “Pierre Curie’s greatest discovery was Maria Skłodowska. Her greatest discovery was radioactivity,” wrote Frederick Soddy, an outstanding chemist and Nobel Prize winner.

It turned out that radium has extraordinary properties – it produces warmth, glows spontaneously in the dark, and significantly affects living organisms. The Curies observed that everything radium comes into contact with becomes radioactive, and its rays, which can only be stopped by lead, could be used to destroy cancerous tumors. Radium was hailed as a cure for cancer, and the radium treatment method was eventually named curiotherapy. Newspapers even proclaimed: “Curie cures cancer!” Maria later regretted not naming radium “polonium.”

Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie, Vanity Fair’s cartoon, 1904


Radium-mania and Death

The Curies became famous, with even French President Émile Loubet visiting their modest laboratory. They were constantly besieged by the press and gave interviews, believing the publicity would help finance further research. The British magazine “Vanity Fair” dedicated a lengthy article to them, depicting Pierre as the Statue of Liberty, holding his laboratory notebooks in one hand and a test tube emitting light in the other. Behind him stood Maria, staring intently at the flame. Radium captured the public imagination and pop culture, with Hollywood dubbing it the “invisible ray” or “radium X.” In one film, Frankenstein, played by Boris Karloff, is exposed to excessive radiation and, as a result, falls into madness.

“Radium-mania” brought further prestigious awards for the Curies: a medal from the Royal Society of London, twelve honorary doctorates, and highly paid, prestigious lectures at many European universities. Despite these accolades, they continued to work without pause, feeling increasingly tired, depressed, and nervous. Some days, they were too weak to dress themselves. They did not connect the deaths of radium-exposed animals to their own deteriorating health. One day, “Pierre, visibly limping—due to radiation exposure that was not yet understood or considered harmful, which had caused the partial disintegration of his leg bones—entered the street just as […] a speeding and heavily loaded freight car drove out,” wrote Barbara Goldsmith. The scientist slipped and fell under the horses, ending up beneath a cart, where the left rear wheel crushed his head.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie and the President of the Republic of Poland Stanisław Wojciechowski during the foundation stone laying ceremony for the Radium Institute in Warsaw, June 1925 (photo: NAC)

After her husband’s death, Maria fell into despair. Her only solace was writing a diary in which she addressed Pierre as if he were still alive and right beside her. She accused herself, lamenting that her last words to him weren’t “full of love and affection.” Instead of finding comfort with her loved ones after the funeral, she retreated to her laboratory. In the following weeks and months, she sought refuge in her work. Her lab quickly became a leading institution in the production and certification of radium for industry, medicine, individual states and governments. By 1910, it employed 22 people, along with 20 women scientists who volunteered under Madame Curie. That same year, she became involved with Paul Langevin, her husband’s former student, an outstanding physicist and mathematician, and a married man.


A female monster?

The affair, sensationalized by the press, sparked a scandal. Maria faced accusations of adultery, was alleged to have destroyed Langevin’s marriage, and branded with derogatory terms like “Polish intriguer” and “Jew.”  “Mary’s main sin was not that she was a mistress, but that she was an emancipated woman,” Goldsmith noted. Henryk Sienkiewicz and Ignacy Jan Paderewski encouraged Maria to leave France.

The first Solvay Conference in 1911: Maria Skłodowska-Curie (seated, second from right) confers with Henri Poincaré; standing nearby are Ernest Rutherford (fourth from right), Albert Einstein (second from right), and Paul Langevin (far right)

The insults and threats hurled at Skłodowska ceased with her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. Women who had recently dragged her name through the muck now cheered her in the streets. Curie herself admitted that the Nobel ceremony made a great impression on her and encouraged her. She eagerly accepted congratulations and gave interviews to the press. She was positively surprised by the letter she received from Max Planck, the future Nobel Prize winner and creator of quantum physics. Referring directly to the “Langevin affair,” the scientist wrote: “I am also happy to think that this significant and highly deserved award that you have just been awarded will be compensation for the unpleasantness that has been scandalously inflicted on you in recent days.” She assumed the chair at the Sorbonne, affectionately dubbed “Grandma Curie” by her students. She also corresponded with and befriended leading scientists of her era, including Albert Einstein,who stated: “Of all famous people, Marie Curie is the only one who has not been corrupted by fame.”

Despite her considerable achievements and wide-ranging connections, Skłodowska was denied membership in the French Academy of Sciences due to her gender. During World War I, she risked her life by driving a car with X-ray machines near Verdun to diagnose soldiers’ injuries. She got a driving license especially for this purpose (and was one of the first women to do so) and obtained special permission from the Minister of War. The x-rays she performed, enabling proper treatment, saved thousands of soldiers from disability and death. “The ministry was fed up with this ‘monstrous woman’, as they said. They wanted her to go away. It didn’t matter if something happened to her or if she died. It was important that she no longer harassed them. Maria knew that if you wanted to achieve something, you must be stubborn and give it your all. I think that’s why she’s currently very popular in Asia, especially in Japan,” said Małgorzata Sobieszczak-Marciniak, former director of the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie in a mobile X-ray vehicle, ca. 1915

After the war, Maria founded cancer treatment institutes. But years of constant exposure to radioactive substances (she often carried test tubes containing isotopes that she kept in her desk drawer) were taking their toll on her health, and she began to fall seriously ill. Her research and scientific work resulted in permanent insomnia, muscle and joint pain, weight loss, kidney failure, and peeling skin on her hands. Her hearing and eyesight were deteriorating. Students from the Sorbonne noticed that she wrote her notes in capital letters, and the numbers she wrote on the blackboard were huge. They were surprised that she was constantly rubbing her eyes. “The thing that bothers me the most is double vision, which is why I don’t recognize people who approach me. I practice reading and writing every day, but so far, it is more difficult than walking,” she wrote. She visited Poland for the last time in 1932, attending the opening of the Radium Institute in Warsaw. She offered the facility a gram of radium from her own supply. Thanks to this, the Institute was able to start its operations.

She died of pernicious anemia. In 1995, the ashes of Maria Skłodowska-Curie and her husband Pierre were exhumed from their graves in the suburbs of Sceaux and ceremonially transferred to the French Pantheon. She became the first woman to be interred there for her remarkable achievements. “Even today, her lab notebooks and even her cookbook drive the Geiger counter crazy. Everything that belonged to her is still strongly radioactive. Yet, in some way, she is still with us. Maria wanted to bring matter to life, matter returns the favor, and Maria ‘lives,’” wrote her biographer, Laurent Lemire.


Author: Jan Hlebowicz PhD
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin