Marie Curie: Notable Nobel Prize Winner and Contributor to Women in Physics

 Marie Curie: 
Notable Nobel Prize Winner 
and Contributor to Women in Physics

You may think you already know all there is to know about Marie Curie, but we hope this article detailing why she made our list of important women physicists will shed new light on her contributions to the fields of chemistry and physics.

The Nobel Prizes

Did you know that Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win the prize in two different fields of science? She won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911). While others have won two Nobel prizes, no one else, man or woman, has won the prize in both physics and chemistry. The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903  was shared with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel and awarded for their work on radioactivity. Her Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 was awarded to Marie Curie alone, for her discovery of radium and polonium and the isolation of radium and study of this element’s intriguing properties.

Long-Lasting Impact on Women in Physics

Marie Curie’s accomplishments were unprecedented in the history of science, but her contributions to women in the field of physics reaches further than admiration for her Nobel Prizes. Curie is notable for starting the Curie Institutes (one located in Paris and one in Warsaw), also known as the Radium Institutes, funded by the Curie Foundation.

Curie travelled to the United States in search of funding for her research, and she successfully funded the Warsaw Branch of the Radium Institute in 1929; later she appointed her sister, Bronya, as director of the Warsaw institute.  In the following decades, the Curie Foundation became an important player in the treatment of cancer. In a 1900 research paper, Pierre and Marie were the first to suggest and research the use of radiation therapy to treat cancer.

“It may be easily understood how deeply I appreciated the privilege of realizing that our discovery had become a benefit to mankind, not only through its great scientific importance, but also by its power of efficient action against human suffering and terrible disease. This was indeed a splendid reward for our years of hard toil.” –from Autobiographical Notes, pp. 199-200, quoted on this website 

 The institutes focused on research in physical chemistry and the majority of employees were women physicists. Curie’s daughter Irene became a researcher there, and later went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1935 (jointly with her husband, Frederic Joliot, a chemical engineer) for their work on artificial radioactivity and the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

 Another colleague, Marguerite Perey, who was employed by Madame Curie, discovered the element Francium.

Women at Work in the Curie Lab: Sonia Cotelle and Marguerite Perey

More Discoveries

Marie and Pierre, 

Curie also discovered uranium, which was extracted from a black ore called “pitchblende.” She even influences the way we talk about radioactivity. She invented the terms “radioactive” and “isotope.” Later, Pierre and Marie would apply their work with radioactivity to the treatment of cancerous tumors. There is a myth that Marie was an assistant to Pierre in his work, however, that is not true; Pierre was working on crystals at a time when Marie’s work appeared more promising, and so he joined her in her research. The element “curium” is named after Pierre and Marie Curie and radioactivity is measured in “curies.”

Pierre Curie is known for some discoveries in his own right, as well, including the Curie Effect—when you heat a piece of metal and it loses its magnetism. He is also known for Piezo electricity—when you put pressure on a crystal, it generates a voltage. Not every crystal does this, but this is still used today, like in ultrasonic speakers.

Education and Early Influences

Marie Curie as a Child:

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Both of her parents were teachers and her father taught her some science. She attended local schools and later, in 1891, she moved to Paris to study math and physics at the Sorbonne. She earned her Doctor of Science degree in 1903, and when her husband Pierre passed away, she became the first woman to hold the position of Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences.  

The Importance of Encouraging Parents, Teachers, Mentors, and Colleagues

It is worth mentioning that many of the women physicists in our series had parents who strongly supported their daughters' educations. Without this early and ongoing parental support (all the more important in time periods and societies that were not encouraging toward educating women), these young women would not have achieved their later, great accomplishments. 

Teachers, mentors, and supportive colleagues are also very important, as much now as in the past. In the case of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a teacher, like Max Born encouraged her interest in physics and colleague Enrico Fermi supported her research. For Marie Curie, her colleague was her husband, Pierre Curie, who put some of his research aside to support her promising work. 

Later, Marie used her success to support other women in physics through raising funding and hiring women to work in her research institutes. These women proved that her investments were worthwhile as they went on to discover an element or win a Nobel Prize. 

If you are a teacher, think of yourself as a mentor and encourage a young woman to pursue physics. If you have a colleague or acquaintance who is trying to make her way as a woman in physics, think about how you can be a more supportive colleague. 

Marie Curie with daughters Eve and Irene

Read the rest of our series about top ten important women in physics:

  1. Maria Goeppert-Mayer
  2. Lise Meitner
  3. Emmy Noether
  4. Sally Ride
  5. C.S. Wu