Remembering Maria: The life and times of one of the world’s greatest female scientists, Maria Skłodowska-Curie

Prof. Helene Langevin-Joliot (R) and Prof. Pierre Joliot (L), grandsons of Maria Skłodowska-Curie , in front of her monument in Lublin. Wojciech Pacewicz

A Polish-born physicist and chemist, Maria became one of the most famous scientists of her time. In 1903 she was awarded the Nobel Prize, and went on to win another just eight years later.

Yesterday marked the 84th anniversary of the death of Maria Skłodowska-Curie, the woman behind revolutionary research into physics and nuclear chemistry. She is also the only woman to have received two Nobel Prizes.

A pioneer in more way than one, she was also a ground-breaking scientist, a woman who carved out her place in an academic world dominated by men, a wife and the mother of two multitalented daughters – Marie Skłodowska-Curie is the epitome of what women today aspire to be. Inquisitive and tenacious, she was interested in sociology, mathematics, physics, literature and even wrote some poetry herself.

Born on November 7th, 1867 she was one of five children. Her family supported her yearning for education, as Maria attended a boarding school and later a gymnasium for girls. She continued her pursuit of knowledge at the “Flying University”, a clandestine institution operated in secreted from the Russian imperial authorities, as Poland was under partitions at that time. 

In 1891, at 24-years old Maria Skłodowska went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne – Polish universities did not accept women at that time. Studying during the day and tutoring at night she barely managed to earn her keep, but succeeded in receiving a degree and pursuing her scientific career. In France she found not only the outlet for her curiosity and professional activities, she also met Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1895. 

The couple had two daughters, Irene Joliot-Curie and Eve Labouisse. Irene, together with her husband Frederic Curie-Joliot (the couple used both surnames) won a Nobel prize in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. Eve strayed from the family’s scientific traditions and became an accomplished writer, journalist and pianist, as well as a humanitarian worker for UNICEF. 

The works of Skłodowska-Curie focused on the phenomenon of radioactivity. Together with her husband and Prof. Antoine Henri Becquerel she received her first Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel". In 1911 Skłodowska-Curie was awarded the second Nobel prize, this time in chemistry, for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium.

She died in Sancellemoz, France in 1934. The cause of death was aplastic anaemia, which we now know was caused by the long-term exposure to radiation.

The life of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, her achievements and passions, inspired not only generations of scientists, but also a number of books, plays and movies. A 2016 film starring Karolina Gruszka and directed by Marie Noëlle, “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge”, showcased the scientists struggle for recognition and respect. Another movie, based on the book by Lauren Redniss “Marie & Pierre Curie: a tale of love and fallout” is in post-production. Shot in Hungary and titled “Radioactive” it’s directed by Marjane Satrapi (author of Persepolis) with Rosamund Pike as the main character.