Marie-Curie_exposition-virtuelle_psl_psl-explore
Marie Curie 1867-1934
Life and scientific career of Marie Curie

« “I am among those who think that science has great beauty.” »
Marie Curie, during “The Future of Culture”, a debate she chaired in Madrid, held from 3 to 7 May 1933

Marie Curie devoted her entire life to science and was a pioneer in her field. After having discovered two new radioactive elements with Pierre Curie in 1898, she became the first woman to occupy the position of professor at the Faculté des Sciences de Paris in 1908. She was twice awarded a Nobel Prize (in 1903 and 1911), and was a member of the Physics Solvay Council from 1911 to 1933. She was also the first woman to become a member of the Académie de médecine in 1922.

This virtual exhibition has been put together by the Musée Curie, and covers Marie Curie’s life and scientific career, spanning a long period of history that stretches from the end of the 19th Century through to the beginning of the 20th Century.

Marie Curie in her laboratory on rue Cuvier, around 1908 (Photo Henri Manuel. Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Curie in her laboratory on rue Cuvier, around 1908"      
around 1908
Photo Henri Manuel. Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP137

 

 

From Warsaw to Paris (1867-1891)
Wladyslaw Sklodowski
Bronislawa Hoguska-Sklodowska

Maria Sklodowska was born on 7 November 1867 at 16 Freta Street in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which was at that time occupied by Russia. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowski (1832-1902) was a mathematics and physics teacher, and her mother, Bronislawa, née Boguska (1836-1878), was head of one of the most prestigious boarding schools for girls in Warsaw..

 

Wladyslaw and Bronislawa Sklodowski, Marie Curie’s parents, surrounded by their students, at 16 Freta Street, Warsaw, Poland, 1860 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)

"Wladyslaw and Bronislawa Sklodowski, Marie Curie's parents, surrounded by their students, at 16 Freta Street, Warsaw, Poland"
1860
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP3

 

 

The young Maria grew up surrounded by her elders. She had three sisters – Sophia, Bronislawa and Helena – and a brother – Josef. As the youngest of five, Maria enjoyed a happy childhood, until January 1876 when her eldest sister Sophia died of typhus. Two years later, on 9 May 1878, she lost her mother to tuberculosis. It was at this point in her life that the young Maria turned her back on religion.  

 

The Sklodowski children: from left to right Sophia, Helena, Maria, Joseph and Bronislawa"The Sklodowski's children : from left to right Sophia, Helena, Maria, Joseph et Bronislawa"
1872
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP 5

 

 

 

Maria Sklodowska in 1883
Maria Sklodowska in 1888

Encouraged by her parents, who were themselves both teachers, the young Maria had a traditional education, starting at the Sikorska boarding school, from 1877 to 1882, then at the gymnasium, the equivalent of secondary school.

 

"Extract from Maria Sklodowska’s diary. The sketch depicts Lancet, the Sklodowski children’s beloved pointer"

"Extract from Maria Sklodowska’s diary. The sketch depicts Lancet, the Sklodowski children’s beloved pointer"            

ca 1886
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP37

 

Maria was a brilliant student who excelled in all subjects. She was awarded a gold medal upon completing her secondary education in 1883, as were all her brothers and sisters.

 

Keen to use her intellect to fight against the Russification of society, she started to follow secret underground classes held in apartments designed to educate, in particular, young Polish women. It was known as the “floating university”.  

 

"Wladyslaw Sklodowski and his daughters in 1890 (from left to right: Maria, Bronislawa and Helena)"

"Wladyslaw Sklodowski and his daughters in 1890 (from left to right: Maria, Bronislawa and Helena)"               

1890
Source: Musée Curie/Cote MCP53 /Droits: Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum de Varsovie

 

 

 

 

 

At that time, Maria hoped to continue her higher education and attend a proper university. However, this was unfortunately not possible for a young woman in the Russian-dominated Warsaw. Maria was fluent in French (as well as German and Russian) and she dreamt of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, as it accepted women who had passed their baccalaureate or foreign equivalent.

Maria Sklodowska and her sister Bronislawa in 1886
Kazimierz Zorawski, ca 1888

However, moving to Paris would be very expensive, and Maria’s father could not afford this alone, especially as Bronislawa also wished to move to the French capital to study at the Faculty of Medicine. The two sisters made a pact – Maria would accept a job as a governess and save money to pay for her sister’s education in France. In return, once Bronislawa had become a doctor, she would pay for her younger sister’s tuition.     

 

Andzaz Zorawska, Maria Sklodowska’s pupil, from 1886 to 1889 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)

"Andzaz Zorawska, Maria Sklodowska’s pupil, from 1886 to 1889"
ca 1888
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC /Cote MCP45

 

 

 

                                 

 

 

This was how Maria came to give private tuition to the children of middle-class families in Warsaw. She became governess to the children of the Zorawski family in the village of Szczuki, 5 miles north of Warsaw, between 1886 and 1889. During this prolonged stay away from her family, Maria fell in love with the family’s eldest child, Kazimierz Zorawski, a brilliant mathematician of the future and just one year her elder. Unfortunately, because of the great difference in social status, the Zorawski family were against the marriage.

 

Mme Fuchs chez qui Maria Sklodowska a été préceptrice à Zoppot et à Varsovie, de 1889 à 1890 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)

"Mrs Fuchs, who employed Maria Sklodowska as governess in Zoppot and in Warsaw, from 1889 to 1890"
ca 1889
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP49

 

 

 

                                 

 

 

Maria went back to live with her father and continued to work as a private tutor. One of her cousins authorised her to come and conduct a few experiments in a laboratory at the University of Warsaw, so that she could apply the scientific knowledge she had continued to accumulate. Nevertheless, Maria began thinking more and more about the possibility of foregoing her education to devote her life to her family. It was at this point that her sister Broniswlawa intervened and encouraged Maria to join her in Paris and start a new life.

A new life in Paris (1891-1897)
Marie Sklodowska on the Dluski family’s balcony, in 1892
Drawing of Marie Sklodowska, done in Paris, in 1892

Maria Sklodowska, then aged 24, arrived in Paris at the Gare du Nord at the end of October 1891. She initially moved into a property on rue d’Allemagne (now named avenue Jean Jaurès), with her sister and brother-in-law, Casimir Dluski, who was living in exile from Poland and had met Bronislawa during her studies. She then moved to rue Flatters, in the Latin quarter, in March 1892, in order to be closer to the Sorbonne. She enrolled in the Faculty of Science on 3 November 1891, determined to follow an education in Science and become a secondary school teacher in Poland. Along with Maria, female students made up only 2% of the university.

 

Casimir Dluski, doctor, married to Bronislawa, in 1890 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)

"Casimir Dluski, doctor, married to Bronislawa, in 1890"
1890
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP58

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On her university enrolment form, Maria adapted her name to the more French‑sounding Marie. Studious and rather financially deprived, she worked tirelessly to bring herself up to standard. Lacking in confidence about her scientific knowledge, she chose not to take her Licenciateship exams in the Summer of 1892, preferring to re-sit her first year.  

 

Marie Sklodowska, student, in 1894 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Sklodowska, student, in 1894"
1894
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP60

 

 

This enabled her to graduate top of her class for the Licenciateship in Physics in July 1893. The following year, she graduated third in her class with a Licenciateship in Mathematical Sciences.  

 

Pierre Curie in 1905
Pierre and Marie Curie in 1895
Pierre and Marie Curie in 1895 in their garden in Sceaux, just south of Paris

Marie Sklodowska’s mentor, Gabriel Lippmann (1945-1921), was a professor at the Sorbonne. It was in his laboratory that she conducted a study commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry on the magnetic properties of certain steels, for which she had received a scholarship. However, it was not an area of study she knew particularly well. In order to assist her, Marie was introduced to one of France’s experts in magnetism, Pierre Curie.

As the laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris (formally known as EMPCI, now called ESPCI) since 1882, Pierre Curie was already an experienced physicist. He was known throughout the scientific community for his work on piezoelectricity, a discovery he made with his brother Jacques, as well as his work on magnetism and symmetry in physics. He was well respected for his talent in designing experiments and his quick wit.

The two got on well and began to work together. In March, Marie sat in the audience as Pierre obtained his doctorate in Physics.

However, Marie’s plan had always been to go back to her home country and become a teacher. When she did return to Poland in the summer of 1894, Pierre wrote to her to persuade her to come back to live and work alongside him.   

It would be a beautiful thing if we could spend our life near each other, hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream.”
Letter from Pierre to Marie, 10 August 1894

Marie let herself be convinced, and with her father’s blessing, she married Pierre Curie on 25 July 1895 in a small ceremony at the Town Hall in Sceaux, just south of Paris. To celebrate their union, the couple bought themselves two state of the art bicycles – that had tyres! Their honeymoon was the first of many bike-riding holidays in Brittany. They then moved in to a property at 108 boulevard Kellermann in Paris.

Pierre Curie (sitting, third from the right), with a group of EMCPI professors, around 1894 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Pierre Curie (sitting, third from the right), with a group of EMCPI professors, around 1894"                 
ca 1894
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/MCP267

 

 

Despite being married to a renowned physicist, the newly named Marie Curie still hoped to become a teacher. She took the “certificate of aptitude for teaching young women, mathematics” in 1896. In October 1900, she was named lecturer of Physics for the 1st and 2nd year students at the higher education institute of École normale supérieure for young women in Sèvres, in the southwestern suburbs of Paris, where she continued to teach until 1906.

Marie Curie (second row, third from the left) and her students in the school grounds at the École normale supérieure for young women in Sèvres, where Marie worked as a certified lecturer (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)"Marie Curie (second row, third from the left) and her students in the school grounds at the École normale supérieure for young women in Sèvres, where Marie worked as a certified lecturer "
1890
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP102

 

 

 

On 12 September 1897, Pierre and Marie’s first daughter, Irene, was born.

Pierre, Marie and Irene Curie in their garden at 108 boulevard Kellermann, Paris, 1904 (Photo Albert Harlingue. Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)"Pierre, Marie and Irene Curie in their garden at 108 boulevard Kellermann, Paris, 1904"
1904
Photographie: Albert Harlingue/Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP105

 

 

 

 

 

But that didn’t stop Marie from continuing her research. She published her first scientific paper on the magnetic properties of metal, for which she was awarded the Gegner Prize from the Academy of Sciences in 1898. She went on to win the same prize twice more in 1900 and 1902.

With the support of Pierre Curie, Marie decided at the end of 1897 to undertake a doctorate in physics on the invisible rays emitted by uranium, discovered 18 months earlier by Henri Becquerel (1852-1908). To work on these experiments, Marie made the most of the laboratory that the EMPCI had granted her and her husband. She undertook a quantitative study of “uranium rays” with some highly sensitive equipment developed by Pierre Curie. She coined to term “radioactivity” to describe the spontaneous release of radium, established the atomic properties of this phenomenon and sought to identify whether or not radiation was also present, initially in other elements, then in uranium-rich minerals such as pitchblende. She set out the hypothesis that they contained an unknown element. Gabriel Lippmann presented this work to the Academy of Sciences on 12 April 1898. Pierre Curie, intrigued by the results, abandoned his own research to work alongside his wife

Inside Pierre and Marie Curie’s laboratory at EMPCI, around 1898
Outside Pierre and Marie Curie’s laboratory at EMPCI, in 1898
First discoveries (1898-1906)
Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory at EMPCI, around 1898
Sheet of card on which Pierre and Marie Curie took notes, in 1902

The main problem that Pierre and Marie Curie needed to overcome in their joint research project was that of procuring the raw material. They required large amounts of uranium-rich minerals. One of these minerals – pitchblende – was mined in Bohemia and used to colour glass. Thanks to the generosity of Baron Henri Rothschild, the Curies agreed a partnership deal with the glassworks in Bohemia and we able to import several tonnes of the mineral from Sankt-Joachimsthal. This agreement enabled them to develop the chemical processes to separate, isolate and define the chemical properties of the unknown elements they were looking for.

Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory at EMPCI, around 1898 (Source : Musée Curie ; coll. ACJC)
"Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory at EMPCI, around 1898"        
ca 1898
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP80.02
 
 
 
 

 

This was how the couple came to prove the existence of two previously unknown radioactive elements, present in very low quantities in uranium-rich minerals. On 18 July 1898, they announced their discovery of polonium (named in honour of Marie Curie’s homeland) and on 26 December of the same year, they announced their discovery assisted by Gustave Bémont, of the second new element, which they called radium.

“We thus believe that the substance that we have extracted from pitchblende contains a metal never known before, akin to bismuth in its analytic properties. If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we suggest that it should be called polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us.”
P. Curie and M. S.-Curie, in a report to the Academy of Sciences, 18 July 1898

Following these discoveries, they continued their study of radioactivity. To facilitate their chemical work, Pierre and Marie were granted the use of a hangar in the courtyard of EMPCI.

A bowl containing radium bromide (photo taken in the dark), 1922 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. Institut du Radium)

"A bowl containing radium bromide (photo taken in the dark)"                 
1922
Source: Musée Curie; coll. Institut du Radium/Cote MCP4151

 

 

 

 

Through their tireless work, the Curies were eventually able to produce one decigram of pure radium in 1902. This enabled them to measure the atomic weight of radium and thus identify the position of this element in the periodic table.  

On 25 June 1903, Marie Curie defended her doctoral thesis entitle “Research on radioactive substances” for which she was awarded distinction.

Portrait of Henri Becquerel
Caricature of Pierre and Marie Curie published in Vanity Fair in 1904
Front page of the newspaper “Le Petit Parisien” on 10 January 1904 of Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory at EMPCI

1903 was the year of consecration for Marie Curie. The couple travelled to London for the first time on 19 June to present their research to the Royal Institution. Pierre visited the city again a few months later to receive the Davy Medal, jointly awarded to himself and his wife by the Royal Society for their discoveries.

Already well-known in scientific circles, Pierre and Marie Curie became widely-known public figures on 12 December 1903, when it was announced that they were to be awarded, along with Henri Becquerel, the Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.” Their scientific work had indeed contributed to establishing a new world-view of the atom and the properties of matter.

Certificate for the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Pierre and Marie Curie (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Certificate for the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Pierre and Marie Curie"
1903
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/COte MCP86,02

The prize was a reward for their research, but it also had an unsettling effect on the Curie’s lives. Despite the notoriety that came since winning the Nobel Prize, their working conditions were inadequate and the process to isolate radium remained long and difficult. As the Curie’s were so worn out by their work, they had to wait until 1905 before being able to travel to Stockholm to collect the award. They continued their research, although somewhat disturbed by journalists and other curious spectators.

Pierre Curie lecturing in the amphitheatre at the Faculty of Sciences in Paris, 12 rue Cuvier, in 1904
Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory at EMPCI, around December 1903

Winning the Nobel Prize did however bring about some advantages. From October 1904, Pierre became a Titular Professor of Physics at the Sorbonne Faculty of Sciences. The position came with a small laboratory located in an annex at the university at 12 rue Cuvier. Marie became Chief of the laboratory in November 1904, even though the couple didn’t leave the hangar at EMPCI until 1905.

Pierre Curie among his students in the amphitheatre on rue Cuvier in 1904 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Pierre Curie among his students in the amphitheatre on rue Cuvier in 1904"
1904
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP310

Pierre and Marie developed an experimental protocol to extract radium from pitchblende.

The Curie’s selflessness, along with the fact that they believed the discovery of radioactivity had to potential to benefit humanity, meant that they decided not to patent their discovery, preferring instead to make their research universally available. As a result, from 1904 they entered into a partnership with Émile Armet de Lisle (1853-1928), a manufacturer from Nogent-sur-Marne, just east of Paris, in order to develop a method for the chemical processing of radium. The partnership also enabled them to delegate part of their work.

 

“Radium need not make anyone rich. It is an element, it belongs to everyone.”
Marie Curie, quoted by Mary Meloney, 1921 in Madame Curie, Eve Curie, Ed. Gallimard, 1938

Irene and Eve Curie in the garden, sat in the grass, Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, just south of Paris, July 1905 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)
"Irene and Eve Curie in the garden, sat in the grass, Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, just south of Paris, July 1905"              
July 1905
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP111

 

At the end of the year, the Curies celebrated the birth of their second daughter, Eve, on 6 December.

Marie Curie and her daughers Irene and Eve, in the garden in Sceaux, summer 1908
Marie Curie in the laboratory on rue Cuvier, 1908

In 1905, Pierre was elected to the French Academy of Sciences. Between the laboratory and their family life, the Curies did not have much time to devote to their life in the public eye.

Pierre Curie was nearing the end of his life. On 19 April 1906, he was run over and killed. While walking to a session at the Academy of Sciences, he was knocked over by a horse-drawn carriage on rue Dauphine near Pont Neuf in Paris. The back left wheel of the carriage crushed his head and he died instantly. He was just 47 years old.

The funeral procession in front of the Curies house for Pierre Curie’s funeral, 108 boulevard Kellerman, 1906 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"The funeral procession in front of the Curies house for Pierre Curie’s funeral, 108 boulevard Kellerman, 1906"       
1906
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP414

 

Trials, tribulations and consecration (1906-1919)
Marie Curie in her laboratory on rue Cuvier, 1913
André Debierne, in 1901

Following the death of her husband Pierre, Marie Curie, devastated at the age of 39, continued the research on which they had been working together while also raising their two daughters.

She took over Pierre Curie’s post teaching physics on 5 November 1906, picking up where he left off. Her first lecture attracted a crowd of journalists and curious spectators. She was named Titular Professor of Physics, replacing her late husband on 16 November 1908, to take up the renamed position of “General physics and radioactivity”. She thus became the first female professor, both at the Sorbonne and in the whole of France

Laboratory on rue Cuvier, workbench of Mr Laborde after the explosion on 25 June 1908. Thankfully, no one was injured that day (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Laboratory on rue Cuvier, workbench of Mr Laborde after the explosion on 25 June 1908. Thankfully, no one was injured that day."  
June 1908
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP1777

Alongside her teaching work, Marie Curie worked assisted by André Debierne (1874‑1949) to elaborate an international standard for measuring radium in the laboratory on rue Cuvier. They succeeded in isolating pure radium metal in 1910 and, in the same year, she wrote her Treatise on Radioactivity – the founding publication for this new science.

The first Solvay Conference, in 1911
Marie Curie in Birmingham in 1913
Marie Curie in her laboratory on rue Cuvier, 1913

1911 was a pivotal year. At the instigation of her close friends, Marie Curie posed her candidacy herself to the Academy of Sciences in January. It was the first time a woman had been named as a candidate to the French Institute, and public opinion was divided. Anticlerical republicans were in favour of Curie’s election, whereas conservative Catholics supported the physicist and doctor Édouard Branly. Curie lost her bid and Branly won by two votes; never again would she renew her candidacy at the Institute.

From 27 to 31 October 1911, she attended the first Physics Solvay Council, founded by the Belgian chemical manufacturer Ernest Solvay (1838-1922), in Brussels. She was the only woman at the first conference and in many of the later years, alongside many prominent scientists including Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Paul Langevin, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Jean Perrin.

[Learn more about the Physics Solvay Council on PSL-Explore: read our Introduction (in French) and our collection of archives and correspondence (in French).]

In November, the relationship between Marie Curie and the physicist Paul Langevin was the subject of a smear campaign in the far-right press.

Support from the international scientific community helped her to overcome the ordeal. On 10 December 1911, and despite the controversy in her private life, Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by the Academy of Sciences in Stockholm “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

“The chemical work aimed at isolating radium in the state of the pure salt, and at characterizing it as a new element, was carried out specially by me, but it is intimately connected with our common work.”
Marie Curie, Nobel conference , 11 december 1911

Certificate for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Marie Curie in 1911 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Certificate for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to Marie Curie in 1911"        

1911
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP141,01

 

Unfortunately, this recognition on the world stage occurred at the same time as certain serious health problems. Marie Curie was diagnosed with a kidney disease. After undergoing her first operation, she was required to rest for several long months and could only return to her laboratory in September 1912.

Curie finished her work in January 1913. She deposited a sealed ampule in a safe at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres that contained a gram of radium chloride that she had managed to purify. This constituted the first radium standard, known today as the “Marie Curie standard”.

Marie Curie driving a radiology unit, October 1917
Marie Curie giving a lesson in radiology to nurses at the Edith Cavell Hospital, in her laboratory, 1916
Marie and Irene Curie pose with their pupils from the American Expeditionary Corps at the Radium Institute, 1919

In August 1914, the First World War broke out. Marie Curie’s laboratory lost many people to the resulting universal conscription. Rather than leaving to join her daughters in Brittany, Curie decided to use her knowledge to help the wounded by helping to establish military radiology centres. 

She coordinated specialist training for nurses and installed both stationary and mobile radiology units. In particular, she outfitted around 20 vehicles, later nicknamed “little Curies”, that were intended to be sent to the various war fronts. In this way, Marie Curie participated in developing radiology in military hospitals, which enabled doctors to locate fragments of shrapnel lodged in soldiers’ bodies and treat a million wounded soldiers within close proximity to the front.

Marie and Irene Curie with a group of nurses in the garden at the Hoogstade hospital in Belgium, 1915 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie and Irene Curie with a group of nurses in the garden at the Hoogstade hospital in Belgium, 1915"         
1915
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP398

Curie was assisted by her daughter Irene, who was just 17 years old at the time when she became a Red Cross nurse. They travelled up and down the war front training radiology nurses in how to use the x-ray tubes, and working to educate surgeons in the advantages of the technique. Marie and Irene also took charge of the practical teaching of radiology at the Edith-Cavell hospital by giving lessons in Marie’s new laboratory at the Radium Institute.

Marie Curie detailed her experiences of the war in her book Radiology in War, published in 1921.  

An internationally known public figure (1919-1934)
The Curie Pavilion at the Radium Institute, in the 1920s
Marie Curie in her chemistry laboratory at the Radium Institute in Paris, 1921
Marie Curie and her daughter Irene at the Radium Institute, 1922

In 1909, the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris signed a partnership to build a modern research laboratory for Marie Curie. It was to become the Radium Institute, financed by the legacy the important 19th‑Century philanthropist Daniel Iffla, known as Osiris (1825-1907).

The Institute opened in 1914 at 11 rue Pierre Curie (which has since been renamed rue Pierre et Marie Curie). Marie was Director of the Physics and Chemistry laboratory in the Curie Pavilion until her death in 1934.

Marie Curie’s business card with her address at the laboratory at the Radium Institute (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Curie’s business card with her address at the laboratory at the Radium Institute"         
from 1914 onwards
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC

The laboratory became a leading centre for research in radioactive bodies and helped develop the use of radiation in the fight against cancer. It was one of the main radioactivity research hubs in the world.

Marie Curie and Dr Claudius Regaud, the director of the Pasteur Pavilion at the Radium Institute, established in 1920 the Curie Foundation, which rapidly became seen throughout the world as a reference in radiation therapy to treat cancer. In 1921, the foundation was recognised as a public interest institution, encouraging donations that were used to fund the extension of the laboratories at the Radium Institute. The Curie Foundation sought also to set up two clinics with a view to developing therapeutic uses of radiation in cancer treatment. Fifty years later, in 1970, the Curie Foundation merged with the Radium Institute. In 1978, it became known as the Institut Curie.

Once the war was over, Irene Curie became her mother’s personal laboratory assistant. Frederic Joliot took over her position in 1924, while Irene was preparing her thesis, just two years before the pair were to be married.

[To find out more about the Curie Laboratory, take a look at our online collection of logbooks and progress reports.]

Marie Curie with Mary Meloney, 1921
Marie Curie and the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, coming down the stairs at the White House, 20 May 1921
Marie Curie in conversation with two Directors at the Standard Chemical Company in Pittsburgh, 1921

Marie Curie continued to teach, both at the Sorbonne and the Radium Institute, as well as at other establishments, including the Arts et Métiers university in Paris.

As the director of the laboratory, Curie was in great demand to participate in society life, a role that she did not particularly enjoy. Nevertheless, the need for research funding was becoming ever more pressing, given that the radium necessary for her work was both rare and expensive.

In 1921, the American journalist Mary Meloney (1878-1843), an admirer of Curie’s work, organised a fundraiser in the United States, putting together a committee of wealthy American women. The purpose was to offer Marie Curie a gram of radium, worth at that time around $100 000 dollars (equivalent to approximately $1,355,000 in today’s money). Accompanied by her daughters, Marie travelled to the United States, where she received a special welcome during her time there throughout May and June of 1921. Over the six week trip, she travelled along the east coast of the United States. The President himself, Warren G. Harding, presented her with a golden key during an official ceremony at the White House on 20 May. The key opened a casket containing one gram of radium.

Curie gave talks at numerous conferences in women’s universities and colleges, who rewarded her with honorary diplomas. She also met with important industrials, including visiting the radium factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the gram of radium she was given had been prepared. Even through the trip was extremely tiring, Curie developed fruitful relationships with many of her scientific and engineering peers.  

Marie Curie with Dean Pegram, Dean of the School of Engineering at Columbia University, 1921 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Curie with Dean Pegram, Dean of the School of Engineering at Columbia University, 1921"        
1921
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP203

She returned to the United States in 1929 to collect a second gram of radium, which she offered to the Polish Institute of Radium in Warsaw.

President Doumergue’s visit to the Radium Institute, 4 June 1924
Marie and Irene Curie in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July/August 1926
Marie Curie, Mrs Meloney and Mrs Mead, in a photo taken after dinner during Curie’s second trip to the United States, 1929

Having been accepted as a major figure in scientific circles, Marie Curie was invited to participate in numerous scientific and medical conferences around the world. Her discoveries, her Nobel Prizes, and her commitment to research and fighting cancer earned her the recognition of her peers.

Marie Curie planting a tree at the Radium Institute in Warsaw, 29 May 1932 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Curie planting a tree at the Radium Institute in Warsaw, 29 May 1932"        
29 May 1932
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP228

Under her leadership, research in radiation and its potential biological and medical uses was developed at the Radium Institute. In 1922, Marie Curie was elected to the Academy of Medicine.

The undersigned members think that the Academy would be honoured by electing Madame Curie as an associate member, in recognition of the part she has played in the discovery of a new treatment: curietherapy.”
Academy of Medicine, 7 february 1922

Marie Curie gradually gained greater international recognition. She visited many countries to promote the scientific work conducted in her laboratory, and research more generally.

She became the Vice President of the Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations in Geneva. There, she worked alongside Albert Einstein (1879‑1955), who she met at the first Physics Solvay Council, and the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). The Commission aimed to strengthen and consolidate initiatives supporting culture, science and peace.

Until her death in the summer of 1934, Marie Curie travelled the world meeting her scientific peers and accepting the many prizes and honours bestowed upon her. In particular, Curie’s travels took her to Prague in June 1925, Rio de Janeiro in July/August 1926 and Madrid in 1933. Such recognition, although it came late in her life, rewarded a lifetime dedicated to her work and to science as a whole.

"Video of the only sound recording of Marie Curie’s voice"                  
In 1931, in Paris, Marie Curie received a Gold Medal from the American College of Radiology (ACR). The ACR donated the film to the Musée Curie that can be seen here in digital format.
Source: Musée Curie; with the authorisation of the ACR

 

Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie produced for the first time, at the Radium Institute, artificial radioactive isotopes in January 1934. Marie had the satisfaction of seeing her daughter and son-in-law making a major discovery in her laboratory. However, unfortunately she did not get to witness the Joliot-Curie’s being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in December 1935; she died of leukaemia on 4 July 1934 in Sancellemoz in the Haute-Savoie region in the French Alps. Her illness was clearly caused by her work on radioactivity and the use of x-rays during the First World War. 

Marie Curie was a pioneer. Through her never-ending research work, she opened up an entirely new branch of physics. As the first woman to receive the recognition of the scientific community, she was a source of inspiration for many scientists, women in particular, throughout the world. 

Recognition from the wider public has grown over time, reaching its height on 20 April 1995, when her ashes, along with those belonging to her husband Pierre, were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris. France sought to pay tribute to the young Polish immigrant who went on to become one of the most important scientists of the 20th Century. 

 

"Account from Mario Da Silva and Alexandre Sanielevici on meeting Marie Curie"         
In this recording, Mario Da Silva and Alexandre Sanielevici, two physicists at the Radium Institute, recount the time they met Marie Curie when she invited them into her office for the first time. This account was documented by UNESCO in 1967 on the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s birth.
Source: Musée Curie; Voice over: Audrey Defretin

Marie Curie on the patio of the Curie Pavilion at the Radium Institute, outside her personal chemistry laboratory in 1923 (Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC)

"Marie Curie on the patio of the Curie Pavilion at the Radium Institute, outside her personal chemistry laboratory in 1923"         
1923
Source: Musée Curie; coll. ACJC/Cote MCP249

About

This virtual exhibition has been created as a natural prolongation of the travelling exhibition "Marie Curie 1867-1934". Arranged by the Musée Curie in 2011 for the International Year of Chemistry, the exhibition serves to commemorate the centenary year of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Translated in several languages, the exhibition has travelled continuously throughout the world. For further details on how to book the exhibition, click here.

 

Credits 

The exhibition has been arranged by the Musée Curie, with support from the Foreign and European Affairs Ministry, the Association Curie Joliot-Curie, the Institut français, the Institut Curie and the National Center for Scientific Research CNRS.

All images are provided by the Musée Curie’s archives.

 

Arrangement of the Virtual Exhibition  

Xavier Reverdy-Théveniaud

With help from​

Annael Le Poullennec and the team at the PSL Resource and Knowledge department 

The Musée Curie


To learn more about the Curie family, be sure to visit the Musée Curie.

Located in the former Radium Institute at 1 rue Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris’ 5th district, the Musée Curie gives the public the opportunity to learn more about the work of the Curie family, five-time Nobel Prize winners, from the discovery of radioactivity to the development of medical uses. Preserved in their original state, Marie Curie’s office and chemistry laboratory make up the heart of the museum that seeks to act as a place of memory and knowledge in the history of science. 

Opening hours: Wednesday to Saturday from 1pm to 5pm. Closed over the Christmas holidays and the month of August. 

Guided tours are organised in the morning from Wednesday to Friday for groups of 10 people or more. Booking required. 

For further information, go to : http://musee.curie.fr

Musée Curie Archives

The Musée Curie’s archives reflect the history of the Radium Institute and the Curie Foundation, as well as their directors, including Marie Curie herself, Claudius Regaud, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie. The archives cover the history of the Institut Curie, medical and scientific progress, and the stories of the valuable contribution of the men and women that worked ther. They also preserve the memory of the Curie family. The archives can be accessed upon booking. 

For further information, go to: http://musee.curie.fr/decouvrir/archives-et-collections/archives

Bibliography

Please find below a selection of books on Marie Curie's life and scientific career.

 

marie_curie_a_biography“Madame Curie, A Biography” by Eve Curie, Da Capo Press, 2001

“Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman scientist to win worldwide acclaim and was, indeed, one of the great scientists of the twentieth century. Written by Curie’s daughter, the renowned international activist Eve Curie, this biography chronicles Curie’s legendary achievements in science, including her pioneering efforts in the study of radioactivity and her two Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry. It also spotlights her remarkable life, from her childhood in Poland, to her storybook Parisian marriage to fellow scientist Pierre Curie, to her tragic death from the very radium that brought her fame. Now updated with an eloquent, rousing introduction by beast-selling author Natalie Angier, this timeless biography celebrates an astonishing mind and an extraordinary woman’s life.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bibliography_pierre_curie“Pierre Curie, with autobiographical notes by Marie Curie”, by Marie Curie, Dover Publications, Inc., 2012
 
“Nobel laureate Marie Curie offers a memorable portrait of her equally famous husband and lab partner, Pierre Curie. A scientific biography as well as an intimate memoir, this unique narrative recaptures Pierre Curie’s youthful research and his first scientific breakthrough, the discovery of piezoelectricity. It further explores his pioneering work in crystallography and magnetism along with the couple’s most famous achievement, the discovery of radium.
 
In addition to firsthand accounts of laboratory work and techniques, Marie Curie offers observations on her husband’s personality and character, their family life, and the work of their scientific contemporaries, including Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Soddy, Friedrich Oskar Giesel, and Henri Becquerel. Curie also reconstructs her studies of radiation, discussing equipment, procedures, and results. These rare insights into two of history’s great scientific minds will fascinate students of science and all readers interested in scientific discovery.”
 
Dover (2012) republication of the edition published by The Macmillan Company, New York, 1923

 

 

 

 

 

 

bibliography_marie_curie_a life“Marie Curie, A Life”, by Susan Quinn, Da Capo Press, 1995
 
“One hundred years ago, Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, for which she won the Nobel Prize in physics. In 1911 she won an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for isolating new radioactive elements. Despite these achievements, or perhaps because of her fame, she has remained a saintly, unapproachable genius. From family documents and a private journal only recently made available, Susan Quinn at last tells the full human story. From the stubborn sixteen-year-old studying science at night while working as a governess, to her romance and scientific partnership with Pierre Curie – an extraordinary marriage of equals- we fell her defeats as well as her successes: her rejection by the French Academy, her unbearable grief at Pierre’s untimely and gruesome death, and her retreat into a love affair with a married fellow scientist, causing a scandal which almost cost her the second Nobel Prize. In Susan Quinn’s fully dimensional portrait, we come at last to know this complicated, passionate, brilliant woman.”