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Marie Skłodowska Curie

7 November 2017

The theoretical physical chemist won two Nobel Prizes for her research on radioactivity.

Marie Skłodowski Curie
Photo by Paul Thompson, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Born on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, radiochemist Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to win Nobels in two different sciences. She studied physics at the Sorbonne in Paris and worked in the lab of future Nobel laureate Gabriel Lippmann. For her thesis she decided to study a strange phenomenon discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel in uranium. In 1898 she discovered that thorium also exhibited this property, which she called radioactivity. That same year, working with her husband, Pierre Curie, Marie discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. In 1903 Marie Curie earned her PhD—and the Nobel Prize in Physics, which she shared with Pierre and Becquerel for their study of radioactivity. Three years later Pierre died in a road accident. Marie succeeded him as professor of physics at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman professor at the university. In 1911 Curie was the lone winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the isolation of radium. For the rest of her career Curie studied radioactive substances and their medical applications. Unfortunately she did not fully understand the health dangers of her research, and as a result she died of aplastic anemia in 1934. Her death came just months after her daughter Irène codiscovered new radioactive isotopes, work that would win her the chemistry Nobel the following year.

For the 150th anniversary of Curie’s birth, Physics Today asked historians Maria Rentetzi and Marilyn Ogilvie to write about Curie’s work to enact radiation protection measures in the lab and the relationships she developed with her male colleagues.

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