Marie Curie


Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867, Maria Sklodowska would become one of the greatest scientists of her era. After emigrating to France, Marie (as she was known there) would work with and eventually marry another scientist, Pierre Curie, with whom she would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research on radioactivity. Over a decade later, she would be awarded a second Nobel Prize for discovering the elements radium and polonium (named for her country of birth). Join Active Minds as we examine the remarkable life of Marie Curie.

Key Lecture Points

  • Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867 at a time when Poland was an occupied part of the Russian Empire.  Her parents were Polish nationalists, both of them esteemed educators, who suffered financially and professionally for their advocacy for Polish sovereignty.  Known as “Manya” as a child, her difficult upbringing was compounded by the loss of an older sister and her mother when she was young.
  • Despite these challenges, Maria demonstrated a keen intellect and academic capability, supported at home by her father, a secondary school teacher of physics and mathematics. Restricted from pursuing her academic interests because of her parents’ difficulties and her gender, Maria continued her pursuits via an underground school run by Polish nationalists.
  • By the age of 24, Maria had saved enough money to move to Paris to attend the Sorbonne where she came to be known as Marie.  She met a fellow scientist, Pierre Curie whom she married soon thereafter.  They would have two children together and would work together to change the scientific world.
  • A physicist and chemist, the discoveries of Marie Curie profoundly impacted science and the world.  Curie discovered the new elements of polonium and radium which changed the conventional scientific wisdom of the nature of atoms. She also coined the term “radioactivity” along with new understandings of its usefulness and power.  
  • For these efforts, she would earn a Doctorate from the Sorbonne and the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (the first woman to achieve either of these accolades).  After the tragic death of her husband, Marie would continue her path-breaking work, earning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, making her the first and still only person to win Nobel prizes in different scientific categories.
  • Curie’s decades of experimentation in radiation came at an expense. Throughout her adult life she suffered from the physical effects of radiation exposure.  She died in 1934 at the age of 66.
  • Operating in a late 19th - early 20th century world dominated by men, Marie Curie’s accomplishments as a woman in science are all the more remarkable.  Throughout her life she fought against overt prejudice that sought to deny her proper recognition for her work. In 1995, 61 years after her death, Marie Curie became the first woman to be entombed in the Paris Panthéon on her own merits.

Discussion Questions

  • How do you think her childhood shaped Marie Curie’s life?
  • How did Marie Curie’s discoveries shape the modern world?
  • Did the realm of science become more welcoming to women because of Marie Curie’s revolutionary discoveries?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Cantor, Jillian. Half Life: A Novel. Harper Perennial, 2021. 416 pages. A work of fiction, Cantor’s novel envisions what Maria Sklodowka’s life (and the world as a whole) would have looked like if her love for Zazimirz Zorawski had resulted in the marriage she aspired to before moving to Paris and changing the world with her scientific discoveries.
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  • Emling, Shelley.  Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. 256 pages.  Emling draws on personal letters to show how Marie influenced her two daughters while also allowing them to forge their own paths.
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  • Redniss, Lauren. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. Dey Street Books, 2015. 208 pages.  A visual biography of the remarkable life of Marie Curie.
    Click here to order