Great Scientists and their Inventions

Marie Curie(1867-1934)

marie curie

image source: wikimedia commons

Marie Curie is the only women on the list of scientists who changed the world,. This Polish scientist was also the first woman to be honoured with Nobel Prize. She dedicated her life to scientific experiments on radio activity and discovering elements which exhibited this property, such as radium and thorium. Her work in the field earned her the title of “Mother of Atom Bomb”.

Marie Curie discovered two new chemical elements – radium and polonium. She carried out the first research into the treatment of tumours with radiation, and she was the founder of the Curie Institutes, which are important medical research centres.

She is the only person who has ever won Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.

Marie Curie’s Early Life and Education

Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. At that time, Warsaw lay within the borders of the Russian Empire. Maria’s family wanted Poland to be an independent country.

We shall refer to Maria as Marie Curie – her name after marriage – because that is how she is best known.

Marie Curie’s mother and father – Bronislawa and Wladyslaw – were both teachers and encouraged her interest in science.

When Marie was aged 10, her mother died and she started attending a boarding school. She then moved to a gymnasium – a selective school for children who were strong academically. Aged 15, Marie graduated from her high school with a gold medal as top student and a burning interest in science.


Two obstacles now stood in Marie’s way:

--Her father had too little money to support her ambition to go to university.

--Higher education was not available for girls in Poland.

Marie’s sister Bronya faced exactly the same problems.

Discovery of Polonium, Radium and a New Word

Marie and Pierre decided to hunt for the new element they suspected might be present in pitchblende. By the end of 1898, after laboriously processing tons of pitchblende, they announced the discovery of two new chemical elements which would soon take their place in Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table.

The first element they discovered was polonium, named by Marie to honour her homeland. They found polonium was 300 times more radioactive that uranium. They wrote:

The second element the couple discovered was radium, which they named after the Latin word for ray. The Curies found radium is several million times more radioactive than uranium! They also found radium’s compounds are luminous and that radium is a source of heat, which it produces continuously without any chemical reaction taking place. Radium is always hotter than its surroundings.

Together they came up with a new word for the phenomenon they were observing: radioactivity. Radioactivity is produced by radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium, polonium and radium.

Ph.D. and a Nobel Prize in Physics!

In June 1903, Marie Curie was awarded her Ph.D. by the Sorbonne.

Her examiners were of the view that she had made the greatest contribution to science ever found in a Ph.D. thesis.

Six months later, the newly qualified researcher was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics!

She shared the prize with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, the original discover of radioactivity.

The Nobel Committee were at first only going to give prizes to Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel.

However, Pierre insisted that Marie must be honoured.

So, three people shared the prize for discoveries in the scientific field of radiation.

Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Marie Curie Theorizes Correctly About Radioactivity

“Consequently the atom of radium would be in a process of evolution, and we should be forced to abandon the theory of the invariability of atoms, which is at the foundation of modern chemistry.

Moreover, we have seen that radium acts as though it shot out into space a shower of projectiles, some of which have the dimensions of atoms, while others can only be very small fractions of atoms. If this image corresponds to a reality, it follows necessarily that the atom of radium breaks up into sub atoms of different sizes, unless these projectiles come from the atoms of the surrounding gas, disintegrated by the action of radium; but this view would likewise lead us to believe that the stability of atoms is not absolute.”


Marie Curie died aged 66 on July 4, 1934, killed by aplastic anemia, a disease of the bone marrow. It is likely that the radioactivity she had been exposed to during her career caused the disease.

Scientists are now much more cautious in their handling of radioactive elements and X-rays than they were in the first few decades after their discovery. Marie Curie’s own books and papers are so radioactive that they are now stored in lead boxes, which may only be opened by people wearing protective suits.


"Have no fear of perfection; you'll never reach it.""Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood."

Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.