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In memory of
Maria Skłodowska-Curie
(1867-1934)

Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born 7 XI 1867 in Warsaw as the fifth child of grammarschool teachers. It was a difficult time of Russian repressions after uprising in 1863 in occupied Poland. Her parents lived under the great influence of positivism, that meant the trend to society education, reconstruction of Polish intellectual elite and emancipation of women. The positivism of Comté, which rejected metaphysics and all theses, which are impossible to prove by logical, unambiguous evidences, substituted the religion in Maria’s life and became the motto of her scientific work. Her youth interests to the equal degree contained exact sciences, as sociology, medicine and belles-lettres. She was writing poems and reading literature in Russian, French, German, and English languages. She completed of her education with a gold medal (1882). Soon after, the financial situation of the family forced her to give private lessons, to earn money for own livelihood and for her older sister medical studies. It was the time of self-education, when she got access to well equipped laboratory, directed by her cousin - J. Boguski, where she was learning experimental work. These probes consolidated her patience and interest for experimental work. Soon she became a participant of the “Flying University” – a secret high school for women, for those the legal high schools were closed. After sister’s marriage, Skłodowska was invited by her to Paris (1891) and started studies at Sorbona. In spite of difficult financial and social conditions, in 1893 she achieved licentiate in physics, and one year later –in mathematics. In group of her teachers were professors, such as: P. Appel, G. Lippmann and H. Poincaré. In 1894 she met Pierre Curie – her later husband (1895) and main collaborator, who had already scientific achievements, such as formulation of Curie-law and the discovery of piezoelectricity. After licentiate Maria started her work on: “Magnetic properties of hardened steel”, proposed by G. Lippmann. The decisive role in her carrier was the discovery of radiation by H. Becquerel. On husbands suggestion, in 1897 she reported to Becquerel for the doctoral work in the branch of radioactivity. Using Pierre’s extremely sensitive quartz electrometer, she started the examinations of radiation, emitted by all contemporary known elements. Firstly stated, that the most intensive is the radiation emitted by uranium. Secondly, that the radiation of the black blende after extraction of uranium is much more intensive, than of pure uranium. The result suggested the existence of a new, unknown element. In 1898 she found in the black blende an extremely active substance, associated with bismuth. The consecutive laborious extractions and Pierre’s measurements, with the use of electrometer and ionizing chamber, (made of tin after canned food) led to the discovery of polonium (1898). The similar way the couple Curie found the second element, accompanied by barium, active several million higher, in comparison to uranium (1898). The new element, called by Maria of “radium” was supported by Demarçay’s spectrum analysis.
In the next years the couple was concentrated on the separation of the new elements from black blende and on prove, that they are indeed new. One has to emphasize, that the amount of polonium and radium in blenda is extremely low, and the discovery was possible only, due to a very strong radiation. The work was very hard, and performed in difficult local and social conditions. Later, with the help of professor Suesse from Vienna and industrialist E.A. de Lise, they organized industrial production of radioactive samples. Maria was purifying these products and condensing to extract pure radium chloride. Pierre’s role relayed on the examinations of the physical properties of radiation. Efforts succeeded in 1902 by confirmation of the radium existence and determination of its properties. In 1903 she received doctor degree with annotation très honorable (summa cum laude); the same year, commonly with Becquerel and her husband, she received the Nobel Prize in physics for her research on radiation. In 1910 she extracted metallic radium; After Pierre’s death (1906), Maria took over his department in Sorbona, and started lectures as assistant professor. In 1909 she became she could not extract polonium, but this was later done in her laboratory, whereas Maria’s merit relayed on the exact determination of polonium decay constant. Her next important achievement was the elaboration of the method for the determination of the radium amount from measurements of radonium – gas, emitted from radium. Together with A. Debierne she constructed a vacuum apparatus for the extraction of radonium from aqueous solutions of radium chloride.
Besides that, she also investigated the properties of α-rays, determined the optical spectrum of actinium, and the electromagnetic spectrum of α-rays, emitted by the elements of actinide series. In 1910 Maria participated in the Conference of Radiologists and Engineers, where she proposed the radioactivity standard, known as “Curie”. Simultaneously it was decided the improvement of the standard, containing a strictly defined amount of radium. This standard, (passed to Sevrés) in the form of the thin glass pipe, containing a radium salt was serving for the determination of radium atomic weight. In 1911 Maria participated in the first Solvay’s Congress in Brussels, in the circle of famous scientists, such as: Goldschmidt, Planck, Sommerfeld, de Broglie, Rutherford, Einstein, Langevin, Nernst, Brillouin, Warburg, Lorentz, Perrin and Poincaré. Since then, she was a participant of all successive Solvay Conferences on Physics until 1933.
In 1911 Maria received the second time the Nobel Prize (in chemistry), for the discovery of new elements, isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this element. In 1914, in Paris was opened the Pierre Curie Radium Institute – the institution for research of radiation and its biological meaning. During the war, Maria was actively organizing and laboring in camp radiological stations, giving services for the army. The strong radium samples imported by her served for the preparation of pipes with radonium, used in therapy. After the war, Maria, who was already the director of the Radium Institute was traveling the world, when by means of her foundation she helped in establishments of many medical institutes for cancer therapy. In 1932, with the help of the Polish President such an institute was opened in Warsaw.
The popularity of Maria’s achievements in the word caused, that in 1920 she was invited to America, where the American women organized considerable means for her further research. In 1921 she was entertained in the White House by President Harding. During this stay (when received 1 g of radium, the expensive laboratory apparatus and money) she delivered many lectures at universities and scientific institutes. In 1922 she participated in activity of the International Commission of the Intellectual Cooperation in Geneva, where she was a member, and subsequently - vice chairman of this organization. In 1925 she participated in devotion of the foundation-stone under the Radium Institute in Warsaw, where she met President St. Wojciechowski and many Polish physicists and chemists. Four years later, she made the second trip to USA, where, as the guest of President H. Clark, she lived in the White House. During this visit she received the second gram of radium, visited the Saint-Lawrence University and participated in Edison’s jubilee. The gift was transferred by her to Poland for the Radium Institute in built. In 1932 the Radium Institute was opened and Maria participated in the opening celebration as the honorary master. It was her last journey to Poland. She died on 4 VII 1934, for the reason of leukaemia, caused by long lasting contacts with radioactive elements. In 1995, the ashes of Maria and Pierre Curie were placed in Pantheon in Paris.
Maria left 80 scientific articles, 3 monographs: La radioactivité et la guerre (1921), L’isotopié et les éléments isotopes (1923), Les rayons alpha, beta et gamma des corps radioactifs en rélation avec la structure nucléaire (1933), and 2 extensive works on radioactivity: Traité de Radioactivité (1910) and Radioactivité (appeared after her death, in 1935). The outstanding scientific achievements brought her 10 scientific awards and many honours. So far she remained the first woman, twice awarded by the Nobel Prize. She was given 14 doctorates honoris causa from abroad universities and 16 medals, admitted by institutes and scientific societies. She was a member of 11 Academies of Sciences, and was the first woman, honored a full member of the French Medical Academy (1922). On the whole she was a honorary member of 72 scientific societies and honorary citizen of 3 cities: Warsaw, Glasgow and Riga.
The work of Maria Skłodowska-Curie became the base of new scientific disciplines, such as: nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry. She created the base under oncology, as a new separate discipline in medical science. Under her personal supervision, the first in the word research on cancer therapy by radioactive preparations were performed.
Her greatest scientific achievements are: the introducing the concept of radioactivity and the elaboration of its theory, the discovery of polonium and radium, and the elaboration of radioactive isotopes separation technique.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie achieved great successes in spite of difficult circumstances. She had underwent discrimination as woman, as well as scientist and a Polish immigrant. In the first covering letter to Nobel Committee, only H. Becquerel and P. Curie were mentioned, as the first men who extracted radioactive elements. In 1910 -due to the sex, she was rejected to become a member of the French Academy of Sciences. At the beginning her life level was very modest, what forced her to earn money as a teacher and laboratory assistant. Her first laboratory in France was an old shed. Later she worked as the teacher at girls’ school at Sévres, and her husband’s assistant in laboratory. Only after the first Nobel Prize, Pierre received a laboratory at Sorbona and Maria became its director. Later she directed the laboratory in Pierre’s Institute, which employed scientists from 25 countries. In 1923 the government admitted her - as the gift from the nation - the salary of ₣ 40000 a year, inheriting by children.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie was mother of 2 daughters: Irena Joliot-Curie - the Nobel Prizer in chemistry (1935) and Ewa, talented in music, the author of Maria’s biography.

Dr. Lidia Debowska
Institute of Physical Chemistry of PAS,
Warsaw Poland,
October 2007