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Marie Curie was a Polish-born scientist and the only scientist to win a Nobel Prize in two disciplines. She is often described as the most inspirational woman in science. She spent many years making incredible discoveries about the nature of radioactivity and discovered two elements, polonium and radium.

Nobel Prize Winner: Marie Curie Make Your Own

Marie Curie

Marie Skłodowska Curie was a Polish-born scientist who carried out ground breaking research in radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win twice. She is still the only person to win the award in two sciences (chemistry and physics) and the first female professor at the University of Paris.

Marie left Poland to go to Paris in 1891 to start a degree at the University of Paris. There, Marie met Pierre Curie whom she would eventually marry and work with for many years. She attempted to return to Poland and teach at the University of Warsaw, but she was rejected because she was a woman. She returned to Paris to start working at the University of Paris.

Henri Becquerel had discovered that uranium salts emitted rays that seemed to be similar to the newly discovered X-rays. Curie became interested in this new phenomenon and spent many years studying it. Curie found that the newly discovered element thorium was radioactive. She thought that the energy came from the atoms themselves, not from molecules that make up the substances. She started gaining samples of different uranium and thorium minerals.

While studying a uranium mineral, known as pitchblende, she noted that it was four times as radioactive as uranium itself. From this, she hypothesized that the minerals contained other radioactive substances than just uranium. This started a search by Curie for other substances that emitted these rays. During this search, Marie along with her husband Pierre discovered two new elements, Polonium and Radium. Polonium was discovered in 1898 and she named it after her home country, Poland. At the time, Poland wasn’t an independent country, she hoped that the naming of the element may help bring attention to the plight of her home country. Five months later they discovered another element which they called radium. During the course of this research they coined the term radioactivity.

She died in 1934 from a disease now believed to be caused by exposure to the ionizing radiation from the materials she worked with through her life. The 96th element of the periodic table is named curium and there are two ‘Curie’ Institutes in Paris and Warsaw that still carry out groundbreaking research into the uses of radiation in medicine. The archaic unit for radioactivity activity is named the ‘curie (Ci)’ after the couple, although now the modern SI unit, the becquerel (Bq), is more commonly used.

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Curie’s Significant Accomplishments

  • Coining the term 'radioactivity'
  • Discovery of Polonium and Radium
  • Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physics
    • The first woman to win a Nobel Prize
    • The first person to win two Nobel Prizes
    • Only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields

Marie Curie Quotes

“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.”

“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”

“All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”

Learn more about people who have influenced history in our Picture Encyclopedia!
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