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Marie Curie

Born: November 7, 1867 
Died: July 4, 1934 (age: 66) 
Nationality: Polish-French 
Education: Degrees in Physics and Math 
Occupation: Discoverer, Scientist 
Best Known For: Work with radioactivity, first woman to win the Nobel prize, first person to win the Nobel prize twice!

Nothing came easy to Marie Curie in life. Her mother and sister died when she was young. Their deaths were tragic, but she did not let this stop her from becoming one of the world's most decorated scientists. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first person to win it twice! She took the name of her husband but made a name for herself by discovering two chemical elements. With this discovery, she coined the term “radioactivity”, and became the first woman teacher ever at the University of Paris.

Manya Grew Up Poor in Poland

The youngest of five brothers and sisters, Marie was born in Warsaw, Poland. Her Polish name was Marya Sklodowska, while her family called her Manya. Her parents were both teachers: her dad taught math and physics; her mom was a headmistress at an all-girl school. They encouraged Manya to read and write early, and she excelled in school. Her father lost his job because of the political turmoil between Poland and Russia. To make ends meet, her family rented rooms in their home for income. Then, by the time Manya was 10 years old,her mother and sister had died of illness.

Can you believe that Manya started out as a teacher after she graduated at age 15 to help her family? She was already good at physics like her dad, and really wanted to go to a university. But girls didn’t enter university in Poland in the 1800s. Universities were for men only. There was a school called the Sorbonne in Paris that allowed women to attend. The price was high for a poor Polish girl, but Manya agreed to work and help pay for her older sister Bronislawa to go there. Manya worked as a tutor and governess to pay for her sister’s tuition. Bronya would repay her later.

Freezing in Paris… brrr...!

Finally, Manya changed her name to “Marie,” and after six years of waiting and working and never giving up hope, she was on her way to France. She found her place at the Sorbonne, where she studied so fiercely that she sometimes forgot to eat and almost fainted. Marie was so poor that in the winter, she needed to wear all her clothes at the same time to avoid freezing to death.

Marie and Pierre Were Some Team!

After earning her degree, Marie met a physics professor and like-minded scientist named Pierre Curie. The two scientists fell in love. At the same time, Marie and Pierre were enchanted by X-rays that others had just discovered. They composed a theory of radioactivity. They identified new isotopes, which were the atoms they found in chemical elements. Two of these isotopes they named “radium,” which turned out to be one of the most radioactive and dangerous elements in the world, and “polonium.” Does that sound familiar? The second element was coined after her native country Poland. Marie looked even deeper and found it possible to treat cancer in a new way with radiation.

Scientist, Nobel Prize Winner and Helping Others

She continued to share her discoveries with Pierre and another scientist, Gustave Bemont. But this female super-scientist didn’t stop. She became the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband Pierre, and then she won a second award--in the field of chemistry. All in all, the Curie family won five Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics. And suppose you know somebody who has been treated for cancer with radiation. In that case, you can say thanks in part to Marie Curie (also called “Madame Curie” in the best French fashion) and her husband Pierre.

Even though Curie became a French citizen, she never gave up her Polish nationality. She also wasn’t satisfied just to sit in a lab experimenting with isotopes. After World War I, Madame Curie began to raise money for a hospital doing research. The next thing you knew, she was invited to tour the U.S. to speak on (and speed up!) her project. She spoke more, raised more money, and became quite a celebrity. To top things off, Marie Curie supported world peace, gladly serving on the League of Nations’ council. Not really what you’d expect of a poor girl with humble beginnings, is it?

4 Mega-Fun Facts about Marie Curie:

  1. Madame Curie became buddies with fellow scientist Albert Einstein.
  2. The Curies’ first daughter was named Irene. Their second daughter, Eve, wrote a biography on her mom.
  3. Marie founded the Curie Institute in Paris in 1921. It’s still a major facility for cancer research today.
  4. Marie Curie personally helped with medical aid during World War I. She not only made sure ambulances had the necessary X-rays, but she helped drive them onto the battlefield!
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