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Marie Curie


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Polish-born French chemist. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. She shared the 1903 prize with her husband, the physicist Pierre Curie (1859–1906), and Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) for their studies of radioactivity and won the second prize for chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium and polonium.

Born Marya Sklodowska, the daughter of a Warsaw schoolteacher, she worked as a governess for six years to enable her sister Bronya to qualify in Paris as a doctor. She followed her sister there in 1891 and despite four years of poverty graduated from the Sorbonne in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894. The following year she married Pierre Curie, who was in charge of the laboratory of the School of Industrial Chemistry and who already had a distinguished career behind him.

Permitted to work in her husband's laboratory without a salary, in the late 1890s she chose the subject of uranium for her doctoral thesis. Becquerel had discovered that pitchblende (uranium ore) was radioactive in 1896. It was also known that pitchblende was far more radioactive than the pure uranium. Mme Curie was convinced that the enhanced radioactivity of pitchblende resulted from the presence of an unknown substance. After a considerable amount of physically demanding work she succeeded in identifying both polonium and radium from the many tonnes of pitchblende she processed. She went on to study the nature of the radiation produced by the new elements.

Pierre died in 1906 in a road accident. Marie, by then with two daughters (see Joliot-Curie, Irène), succeeded to her late husband's chair of physics at the Sorbonne. Much of Marie's later life was spent in raising funds to pursue her research and to establish an appropriate institution in which to pursue the work. Fortunately Marie Curie's US admirers presented her with one gram of radium in 1921, when it was worth $100,000. The Sorbonne created for her the Curie Laboratory which, though opened in 1914, had to wait for the end of World War I in 1918 before it could begin serious research. Mme Curie herself spent the war training radiologists. She continued to work throughout the 1920s in her laboratory. Inevitably for one who had been so frequently exposed to radiation, her health began to fail, and she finally died from leukaemia.

In her honour, the unit of activity of radioactive substances was named the curie in 1910. In the same year she had allowed her name to be submitted for election to the Académie des Sciences as the first plausible woman candidate. In spite of her Nobel Prize she was rejected and thereafter she refused to allow her name to be resubmitted.

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