Marie Curie is widely regarded as the most famous woman scientist in history, a pioneer in the field of radioactivity. History books outline her many achievements: she discovered two elements, pioneered the use of radiation in treating cancer and became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. On a deeper level, however, Curie endured great personal tragedy, an explosive scandal and professional adversity that would have derailed other scientists. Yet to the very end, Curie remained focused on her research — work that quite literally killed her.
5. Curie’s Husband Died in a Terrible Accident
Born in Poland, Maria Sklodowska moved to France at age 24 to further her education at the University of Paris. She soon met Pierre Curie, an instructor who helped her find lab space for her work. They married three years later. Although Pierre Curie is not as well known today as Marie, he was a professor of physics and an accomplished scientist in his own right, especially in the field of magnetism. The Curies worked together, sharing the same passion for scientific research. And although there were virtually no female scientists at the time, Pierre encouraged Marie to continue working, even after they had two children. Pierre and Marie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, with another researcher in the field, Henri Becquerel.
That same year, however, Curie suffered a miscarriage. Also, after several years of working with highly radioactive material, both Curies had begun to exhibit symptoms of radiation sickness. Pierre would sometimes lie awake all night, moaning and wracked with pain. Marie’s husband died suddenly in 1906, when a horse-drawn wagon ran over him on a Paris street; falling under the wheels of the wagon, his skull was crushed. The accident, which made headlines worldwide, devastated Marie. A widow at age 38, she later wrote, “It is impossible for me to express the profoundness and importance of the crisis brought into my life by the loss of the one who had been my closest companion and best friend. Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used sometimes to say, that, even deprived of him, I ought to continue my work.”
4. An Extramarital Affair Sparked Outrage
Several years after the death of her husband, Curie became romantically involved with a fellow physicist, and former student of Pierre Curie’s, Paul Langevin. His estranged wife found letters written to him from Marie, some of which urged him to leave his marriage and start a new life with Marie. These days, the letters would have probably gone viral on Twitter or Facebook. But back then, Madame Langevin provided the letters to the French press, which published them. The letters drew public outrage. Some newspapers portrayed Curie as a Jewish homewrecker (she was neither), fueling xenophobic anger against her. Other reporters spread rumors that the affair had begun while her husband was still alive, causing him to commit suicide. Protesters even surrounded her home to harass Curie. Paul Langevin became so furious over the newspaper attacks on Curie that he challenged an editor to a duel (the two men met but walked away without firing a shot).
During this difficult time, Curie received some encouraging words from Albert Einstein — although it came with a backhanded compliment. While he came to her defense, Einstein also noted Marie as having “sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone.” Ouch.
3. Curie Often Found Herself Snubbed in France
With the benefit of hindsight, we look back at Curie’s achievements and accolades and assume she must have been treated like royalty. As noted earlier, in 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and she added a second in 1911 (for Chemistry). She is one of two people to win a Nobel in two different fields, and is one of only four people who have won two Nobel Prizes. She discovered two new elements, radium and polonium (named after her native Poland). And she made the groundbreaking discovery that led to the use of radiation in the treatment of cancer.
Yet incredibly, Curie often found herself overlooked in her adopted French homeland. After her husband’s death, she spent several years lobbying unsuccessfully for more laboratory resources. And in 1911, the French Academy of Sciences voted to deny her membership, with some members citing her stance as an atheist. Some Polish associates suggested that she leave France and return to Poland to continue her work. Eventually, of course, her work came to be appreciated, especially after the second Nobel. Both Marie and Pierre Curie were originally buried in a common Paris cemetery, but in 1995, both Curies were disinterred and laid to rest in the Pantheon, the most hallowed burial ground in France.
2. Curie’s Descendants Are Giants in Field of Science
Marie and Pierre were not the only Nobel Prize winners in the Curie family. Their daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frederic, shared the award in 1935, in recognition of their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Irene’s daughter, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, is a French nuclear physicist, and son Pierre is a notable French biochemist. Interestingly, Helene Joliot-Curie married Michel Langevin, grandson of the man with whom Marie Curie had that controversial affair in 1910.
1. Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioactive
At the time of her research, Curie was not aware of the damaging effects of radiation exposure. She often carried test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pockets. She also observed that they gave off light in the dark, while never realizing that the glow result from harmful materials. Her prolonged exposure to radiation, both from her X-ray work in field hospitals, to her research, had a disastrous effect on her health. Curie developed chronic health problems, including cataracts. Later, she developed aplastic anemia, which eventually caused her death in 1934.
Curie’s notebooks, which are stored at the National Library in Paris, are still radioactive. To view them, visitors must acknowledge the risk by signing a waiver, and don protective gear. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Curie’s books are kept in a lead-lined box because of their contamination with radium-226, which carries a half-life of about 1,600 years.