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May 23 2020 95

Marie Skłodowska Curie, Physicist and Chemist Who is the Only Woman to Have Won the Nobel Prize Twice

Marie Skłodowska Curie was a Polish woman who became a naturalized-French citizen. She was a chemist and physicist who won the Nobel Prizes due to her work. She was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw in the Kingdom of Poland and was named Maria Salomea Skłodowska. Both her parents were teachers. Her father, Wladyslaw, was a math and physics instructor. Her mother, Bronislawa, died of Tuberculosis when Curie was only ten years old. She was part of the Curie family, which is known to have won five Nobel Prizes. She was a pioneer in the research on radioactivity. Curie is the first woman ever to bag the Nobel Prize. She also won it twice, becoming the first person to win the Prize twice and the only woman to do so.

Born in the then Kingdom of Poland, Curie went to university at Flying University in Warsaw. That is where she started her training as a scientist. She then followed her elder sister, Bronisława, to Paris in 1891 to study at the University of Paris. At the university, Curie studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics. To raise money for her upkeep, Curie worked as a tutor in the evenings and studied during the day. She earned her master’s degree in physics in 1893 and started working at an industrial lab of Professor Gabriel Lippmann, a Franco-Luxembourgish physicist and inventor. She received her degree in mathematics in 1894. 

Skłodowska got married on July 26, 1895 to physicist Pierre Curie. The two met through Skłodowska’s colleague, who had heard that she was looking for lab space to conduct her research in steel and their magnetic properties. The colleague knew that Pierre could help her find space and introduced them. The two went on to become a dynamic scientific duo who worked together to achieve success. After becoming close and getting married, they were blessed with two daughters,  Irène (1897) and Ève (1904). Irène won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their work with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, in the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Marie discovered radioactivity, and she and her husband discovered radioactive elements polonium and radium as the two were working with pitchblende. Conducting experiments on uranium rays, she discovered that the rays were constant in every condition or form. This was following her fascination with Henri Becquerel’s work on uranium casting off of weaker rays than the X-rays. Her idea was that the rays originated from the element’s atomic structure. She and her husband continued the research working with mineral pitchblende and they discovered a new radioactive element in 1898. The element was named polonium. In 1902, they also discovered radium. Marie supported the use of portable X-ray machines during World War 1, which increased her popularity. Marie won her first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, along with her husband and physicist Henri Becquerel. This was because of their work in radioactivity. The second Nobel Prize was in Chemistry, which Marie won in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium. Because of her discoveries, the world began studies into the use of radioactive isotopes for the treatment of neoplasms. She also founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw. The two centers are still among the biggest medical research centers to date. 

Marie died in 1934 at the age of 66 at a sanatorium in Sancellemoz, France. She died of aplastic anemia, which is believed to have been caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.

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