Biography

Maria Skłodowska Curie was born in Warsaw on 7th November 1867 as a daughter of a physics teacher. She graduated from secondary school in Warsaw with a gold medal and worked as a teacher for eight years. She completed her initial training for experimental research in chemistry and physics in the laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw. In 1891-95, she studied at the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, obtaining there the BSc title in physics and mathematics. She met her future husband Pierre Curie at Prof Kowalski’s home. Having married in 1895, she obtained French citizenship. Her first research paper, published in May 1898, drew the attention of the scientific world to the Becquerel radiation.

Two months later, following arduous work to isolate the sought substance from uraninite, the Curies reported discovering a new radioactive element: „Some ores containing uranium and thorium (uraninite, torbernite, uranite) are very active in terms of emitting Becquerel radiation. In the previous study, one of us demonstrated that their activity is even stronger than the activity of uranium and thorium, and speculated that this fact should be attributed to a different and unusually active substance which is contained in these ores in very minuscule amounts […] We suspect that the body we isolated from the uraninite contains a yet unknown metal similar to bismuth in its chemical properties. If the existence of this metal is confirmed, we propose to name it ‘polonium’ after the homeland of one of us.” 1897 brought new discoveries. In 1903 Becquerel and the Curies received a Nobel Prize in physics. Following the premature and tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, Maria Skłodowska Curie continued the research on her own. In 1911, she received her second Noble Prize, this time in chemistry.

Besides scientific research, Maria Skłodowska Curie was also committed to various organisational activities and social work. She helped establish the Radiology Laboratory at the Warsaw Scientific Society. Her unyielding efforts led to the Radium Institute in Paris having been established in 1912, where she managed a section for studying the physical and chemical properties of radioactive bodies, and set up also a biology section. During the First World War she organized – as the head of the radiology service at the Ministry of Military – around 200 new or improved radiology stations and equipped in her own laboratory 20 mobile X-ray units which she provided to the military. Upon her initiative, France’s first radiology section was founded at the school of nurses in Paris (1916). By the end of the war, 150 radiology laboratory assistants were trained under her tutelage. She also established the Radiation Therapy Section in the Radium Institute (1916). She conducted radiology training for American medicine students deployed to the war front in Europe. She continued to give similar courses for the first two years after the war, training young radiologists from all over Europe. Her daughter Irena prove to be enormous help in these activities. Following the First World War, a research/treatment outpost of the Radium Institute was being established in the capital of the newly re-established Poland. The outpost was opened in 1931, with Maria Skłodowska Curie attending the ceremony. In 1947, the facility opened its branches in Gliwice, and in 1951 – in Cracow.

In effect of her long-term work with radium, Maria Curie-Skłodowska became one of the first victims of the radiation sickness. As can be inferred from the available documentation, on 4th July 1934 she died from acute aleukemic leukaemia combined with pancytopenia acquired from a long-term exposure to ionizing radiation.


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