Marie Curie – Stirring the pot

  • Lucy B. Spalluto
    Department of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, 1161 21st Ave South, Nashville, TN 37232, United States
    Veterans Health Administration-Tennessee Valley Healthcare System Geriatric, Research Education Clinical Center, HSR&D Center, Nashville, TN, United States
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Published:September 15, 2017DOI:


      This month, November 2017, we celebrate the 150th birthday of Marie Curie. When I think of Marie Curie, I envision a woman in a crisp white lab coat carrying out her experiments in a tidy laboratory surrounded by Erlenmeyer flasks and bubbling beakers. Turns out, this image could not be further from the truth. In fact, Marie Curie performed much of her groundbreaking work in what she describes as a “miserable old shed” with a leaky glass roof that was previously a medical school dissecting room. She described the shed as stiflingly hot in the summer and frigidly cold in the winter. It was in this old shed that she and her husband Pierre carried out the successive experiments that led to the historical discoveries of radium and polonium. It was in this old shed that she endured the demanding physical labor of stirring giant pots of raw physical materials with a huge iron rod nearly as large as she to carry out the necessary chemical separations. Marie Curie's determination to advance the field of “radioactivity”, a term she herself coined, could not be deterred by subpar working conditions.
      Marie Curie was one of the first to face the issues that continue to challenge women in medicine and science today: gender discrimination, work-life balance issues, the challenge of being a single parent. She faced these difficulties with both grace and humility. Driven by furthering the greater good of science, Marie Curie cared little about her own individual success. Throughout her career she was determined to establish the relationship between science and humanity, understanding the need for science to relate to people and people to relate to science. This passion for science and education was instilled in her as a young child.

      1. Early life and early career

      Born on November 7, 1867, Marie Sklodowska was the fifth and youngest child of Bronislawa and Vadislav, both teachers in Warsaw, Poland. The Sklodowska family deeply believed in the importance of education. Not surprisingly, Marie excelled in her early schooling and like her siblings aspired to an advanced degree. Her older brother, Joseph, enrolled in the medical school at the University of Warsaw. However, Poland did not allow women to pursue advanced academic studies at that time. As a solution, Marie and her older sister Bronya attended the “Floating University”, an illegal night school that changed its location every night. Marie and Bronya realized that this underground education could not match that of the other European universities that allowed women to enroll and hatched a plan. Marie, only 17, would work as a governess in Poland, supporting her older sister's medical school education in Paris. Once Bronya had completed her studies, she would return the favor and support Marie's studies.
      During her time as a governess, Marie continued to pursue her academic interests on her own by reading texts on sociological sciences, physics and chemistry. Hungry for scientific knowledge, she even took chemistry lessons from a local chemist in a beet-sugar factory. By 1891, 24 year old Marie and her father had finally saved enough money for her to join her sister in Paris. She enrolled at the University of Paris, the famous Sorbonne.
      Marie worked night and day, dividing her time between her coursework, experiments and studying to catch up with her more formally educated peers. Her efforts were rewarded with a master's degree in physics in 1893 and another in math in 1894. At the completion of her degrees, her search for laboratory space to continue her work led to her fateful introduction to Pierre Curie.
      At the time Marie met Pierre Curie, he was an established scientist in the field of piezoelectricity. Pierre was a scientific idealist, dedicating his entire life to his scientific work, indifferent to career adulations and recognition. Marie found in him a companion in both work and in life. Their intellectual attraction was immediate. Marie and Pierre were married in a simple civil ceremony in July 1895. Always practical, Marie wore a dark blue outfit instead of a traditional bridal gown, knowing that she could wear it for years to come in the laboratory.
      Marie and Pierre Curie continued to focus on their scientific effort, but also on building their family. In 1897, their first child, Irene, was born. Marie suddenly found herself as a young mother faced with the challenge of work/life balance. She was desperate to continue her scientific work, but could not do so in good faith until her daughter was appropriately taken care of. Marie, always resourceful, retained her father-in-law, a physician who had lost his wife to breast cancer, to help with childcare. In her own words, “It became a serious problem how to take care of our little Irene and of our home without giving up my scientific work. Such a renunciation would have been very painful to me, and my husband would not even think of it… While I was in the laboratory, she was in the care of her grandfather, who loved her tenderly and whose own life was made brighter by her. So the close union of our family enabled me to meet my obligations” [

      Historical information and quotations from Accessed August 27, 2017. American Institute of Physics and Naomi Pasachoff, based on the book Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity by Naomi Pasachoff, Oxford University Press, copyright 1996 by Naomi Pasachoff.

      Knowing her family was well taken care of, Marie continued to pursue her doctoral thesis. She found herself surrounded by a world of scientific discovery. Roentgen and the X-ray. Becquerel and uranium rays. She chose to focus her thesis on further evaluating the uranium rays Henri Becquerel had recently discovered. At her husband's request, Marie was permitted to work in a damp storeroom at his place of employment, the Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. It was here that Marie Curie made her startling discovering that two uranium ores, pitchblende and chalcocite, were actually more radioactive than the uranium rays themselves. Pierre developed a keen interest in Marie's discoveries and soon joined her efforts. Together, they identified two new radioactive active elements, polonium and radium.
      Recognizing the potential importance to the scientific community of isolating these two new elements, the Curies poured themselves into their work. It was at this time that they moved their work into the “miserable old shed”. Marie would spend entire days physically laboring to isolate her newly found elements, shoveling loads of pitchblende ore, separating out physical matter such as rocks and pine needles, stirring huge boiling pots to perform the chemical separations. In this simple lab, consumed by curiosity, the Curies performed their groundbreaking science.
      Marie's efforts were not unnoticed. She successfully defended her thesis in June 1903 and was awarded her doctorate, the first for a woman in France. Later the same year, the French Academy of Sciences nominated both Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. In the original nomination, there was no mention of Marie. Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the Nobel Prize nominating committee and a well-known supporter of women in the sciences, immediately wrote to Pierre, voicing his concern that Marie's efforts would not be recognized. Pierre made a very clear reply that failing to acknowledge Marie was unacceptable. The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Henri Becquerel and Marie and Pierre Curie, marking the first time a Nobel Prize was awarded to a woman.
      After receiving the Nobel Prize, Pierre was finally awarded a full professorship at the University of Paris. And, Marie for the very first time had her own title, Chief of Laboratory, in addition to a university salary. In December 1904, the Curie family expanded again with the birth of their second daughter, Eve. Shortly thereafter, tragedy would strike. In the spring of 1906, Pierre was struck by a horse carriage while crossing the street and instantly killed. The widowed Marie suddenly found herself as a young single working mother of two. The state offered her a pension, which she flatly refused, stating she was quite capable of supporting herself. After Pierre's death, the University invited Marie Cure to assume her husband's academic post, making her the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She accepted, always with the goal of building an institution she felt was worthy of her husband's efforts. The Radium Institute, an institution focused solely on radioactivity and its applications, would fulfill this dream for Marie Curie. After years of design and construction, the building of the Radium Institute was finally completed in August 1914.

      2. Radiology in War

      As bombs fell on Paris, war was declared in September 1914. Curie's researchers were drafted and the work of the Radium Institute would be put on hold. Rather than be deterred by this interruption, Marie Curie saw in this an opportunity. She realized that her scientific advancements could help the war effort. X-rays could make diagnoses of broken bones and find shrapnel pieces in soldiers' bodies. She had 20 cars transformed into mobile radiology units, playfully called “petite Curies”. She trained herself in anatomy and learned to drive a car to personally bring her radiology services to the field. As her first radiology assistant, Marie Curie selected her daughter, Irene, age 17. Demand quickly outpaced the services they could supply. Marie and Irene could not drive the vehicles, administer the X-ray studies, and interpret the results. Marie Curie trained an additional 150 women as radiology assistants and became the Director of the Red Cross Radiology Services. After the war was over, Marie continued to teach radiology courses. She summarized her war experience in a book, Radiology in War.
      In the words of Marie Curie, “The story of Radiology in War offers a striking example of the unsuspected amplitude that the application of purely scientific discoveries can take under certain conditions. X-rays had only a limited usefulness up to the time of the war…A similar evolution took place in radium therapy, the medical applications of radiations emitted by the radioelements” [

      Historical information and quotations from Accessed August 27, 2017. American Institute of Physics and Naomi Pasachoff, based on the book Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity by Naomi Pasachoff, Oxford University Press, copyright 1996 by Naomi Pasachoff.

      ]. By integrating radiology services into the war effort, putting her efforts towards humanity, she made her scientific efforts tangible and alive, revered and admired by the people. She introduced the world to a new era in medical diagnosis and treatment.

      3. Radium Institute

      Finally, at the close of the war in 1919, Marie was able to focus the remainder of her life efforts on the Radium Institute. With the aid of both industry and government financial support, Marie grew the Radium Institute into a renowned center for the study of radioactivity. She oversaw the institute, ensuring that all work was centered on radioactivity. She presided over many small teams, each focused on a different aspect of radioactivity. Between 1919 and the time she died, the Radium Institute published 483 works, 31 of which were her own.
      Marie Curie refused to patent any of her numerous discoveries. She wanted humanity to benefit from her discoveries and to build further on her work, unhindered. As Albert Einstein said, “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted.”
      By 1920, Marie's vision was growing poor and she had trouble delivering lectures and navigating the Institute. Years of exposure to both radium and X-rays during her war efforts left her nearly blind and with damaged skin on her hands. Marie continued to grow weaker and was eventually diagnosed with aplastic pernicious anemia. She died on July 4, 1934 and was buried next to her husband. Over 60 years later, they were reinterred in the Pantheon, France's national mausoleum in Paris.

      4. Closing

      Marie Curie's remarkable life has made her famous for many firsts (Table 1). One famous first, the 1931 American College of Radiology Gold Medal Ceremony was captured on video, Marie sits humbly, surrounded by a group of men presenting her with the Gold Medal, the first to be given to a woman. I would imagine that the picture of this award ceremony, completely dominated by men, has changed very little in the past 86 years. Since that time only 7 additional women have received an ACR Gold Medal. Of the 8 total women to receive the ACR Gold Medal, 2 are Nobel Prize winners. The numbers are striking.
      Table 1Marie Curie famous firsts.
      • First woman to win a Nobel Prize (Physics 1903) – shared with Antoine Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for “recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”

        The Official Website of the Nobel Prize. Accessed August 28, 2017.

      • First person to win 2 Nobel Prizes (Chemistry 1911) – for the “discovery of radium and polonium. Isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this element”

        The Official Website of the Nobel Prize. Accessed August 28, 2017.

      • First, and to date only, woman to win Nobel Prize in 2 fields
      • First, and to date only, person to win Nobel Prize in multiple sciences
      • First, and to date only, mother Nobel Prize winner of a daughter Nobel Prize winner
      • First woman professor at the Sorbonne, University of Paris
      • First woman to receive a doctorate in France
      • First woman to be laid to rest in the Pantheon, France's national mausoleum in Paris, for her own merit
      • First woman to win an ACR Gold Medal
      We should celebrate Marie Curie for stirring the pot. Yes, stirring the giant pot of pitchblende ore that led to the groundbreaking isolation of radium. But also, stirring up society to recognize the importance of women in science, the importance of government and industry financial support of the sciences, and mostly, the importance of relating science to people.


      1. Historical information and quotations from Accessed August 27, 2017. American Institute of Physics and Naomi Pasachoff, based on the book Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity by Naomi Pasachoff, Oxford University Press, copyright 1996 by Naomi Pasachoff.

      2. The Official Website of the Nobel Prize. Accessed August 28, 2017.