Anniversary of Marie Skłodowska-Curie’s PhD, one of the most important scientific papers of the last century

Entitled 'Research on Radioactive Substances', the PhD thesis written in French took rays from uranium, a radioactive chemical element, as her starting point, and traced the process back to the atoms themselves. Public Domain

In what would become one of the most important scientific studies of the 20th Century, 116 years ago this week Polish-born physicist Marie Skłodowska-Curie defended her PhD thesis in Paris.

Entitled “Research on Radioactive Substances”, the PhD thesis was defended in Paris on June 12th, 1903, in front of an exam committee of three scientists. The thesis itself was written in French.

Taking rays from uranium, a radioactive chemical element, as her starting point, the thesis traced the process back to the atoms themselves.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie found her ‘happy place’ in an abandoned shed she used as a laboratory together with her husband, French physicist Pierre Curie who she married after moving to Paris in her 20s to study at the Sorbonne. Public Domain

Later that year, Skłodowska-Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with her husband and French scientist Henri Becquerel. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Eight years later, she won a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, becoming the first person ever to win two of them.

In 1903, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for her work in physics. In 1911, she won it again this time in Chemistry, becoming the first person ever to win two of them.Public Domain

Incredibly, her elder daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, followed in her footsteps, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband in 1935. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, both their children became prominent scientists, too.) Overall, this made the Curies the family with the most Nobel Prizes between them.

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, when the city was part of the Russian Empire. In her 20s, she moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, focusing on mathematics and physics. Public Domain

Through her research, Skłodowska-Curie discovered two new elements, Radium and Polonium. She named the latter after her country of birth, Poland, which did not exist on the map at the time. She died in 1934 at the age of 66 of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation.

Possibly one of the most famous PhD theses in history, Marie Curie’s became one of the most important scientific papers of the last century. Public Domain

Despite the challenges she encountered along the way, Skłodowska-Curie’s pioneering research was driven by curiosity and a spirit of adventure.

Marie Curie in a mobile military hospital X-ray-unit (circa 1915). She died in 1934 at the age of 66 of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation.Public Domain

Her younger daughter Ewa quoted her as saying: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”

To read more about her life click here.