Marie Curie (1867)
It was on this date, November 7, 1867, that French chemist and nuclear physicist Marie Curie was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, Poland. She was brought up a Catholic by her mother, but her father was a freethinker and provided her with some scientific training. She abandoned Catholicism before she was twenty. She met Physics Professor Pierre Curie while studying at the Sorbonne. They were married in 1895. In her 1924 memoir, she says that they had a civil marriage ceremony, “in conformity with the views of both of us,” because “Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any.”*
The Curies teamed up to conduct research on radioactive substances and, in 1903, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics – she the first woman to receive the award – along with Henri Becquerel, for isolating the element radium. After her husband’s early death in 1906, Mme. Curie took his place as Professor of General Physics at the Sorbonne – she the first woman to hold the position. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for her work in radioactivity – she the first man or woman to receive two Nobel prizes.
Internationally respected, by the end of her life Marie Curie counted 15 gold medals, 19 degrees, and eighty-eight other academic honors. She once said,
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
Overexposed to radiation, Mme. Curie died of leukemia on 4 July 1934 and had a secular funeral. She was the first woman, on her own merits, laid to rest under the famous dome of The Panthéon in Paris. Her older daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, with her husband, won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 – the first mother and daughter to be so honored. Her younger daughter, Eve Curie, wrote a biography of her mother in which she confirms that every member of this gifted family was a freethinker.**
* Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, 1924, p. 52.
** Eve Curie, Mme. Curie, 1938.
Originally published November 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.