This culture landmark provides a general overview of Marie Curie Lederberg, a Polish scientist who won two Nobel Prizes in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911).

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Marie Curie, a pioneer

Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a Polish and naturalized- French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.

Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world's first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centres of medical research today. During World War I, she established the first military field radiological centres.


Marie Curie

Marie Curie (1867-1934).
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Marie Curie, a woman of firsts
  • First woman to win a Nobel Prize.
  • First person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice.
  • Only person to win twice in multiple sciences (Physics and Chemistry).
  • First woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.
  • First woman to be entombed in the Panthéon in Paris.
  • The fist military field radiological centres were established by her.


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She was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, where she studied and began her practical scientific training. In 1891, aged 24, she followed her older sister Bronisława to study in Paris, where she earned her higher degrees and conducted her subsequent scientific work. In 1894 she was introduced to Pierre Curie by the Polish physicist, Professor Józef Kowalski-Wierusz. Their mutual passion for science brought them increasingly closer: they began to develop feelings for one another and got married in 1895. While a French citizen, Marie Skłodowska Curie (she used both surnames) never lost her sense of Polish identity. She named the first chemical element that she discovered – polonium, which she isolated in 1898 – after her native country.


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Albert Einstein

"Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted."
Albert Einstein on Marie Curie.

Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium, and coined the word radioactivity.

The Nobel Prize

In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they (had) rendered by their joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. At first, the Committee intended to honour only Pierre and Becquerel, but one of the committee members and an advocate of woman scientists, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, alerted Pierre to the situation, and after his complaint, Marie's name was added to the nomination. Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discoveries and studies of the elements radium and polonium.

Please watch this short video about the consequences of manipulating radium.


She was known for her honesty and moderate life style. She gave much of her first Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students, and research associates. In an unusual decision, Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium-isolation process, so that the scientific community could do research unhindered. She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than to her. She and her husband often refused awards and medals. Albert Einstein reportedly remarked that she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame.

The physical and societal aspects of the Curies' work contributed substantially to shaping the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.



1. Where was Marie Curie from?

2. Why did she go to Paris?

3. What elements did she discover?

4. How do we know that she never forgot her home country?

5. Who did she marry?

6. How many Nobel Prizes did she win?

7. Why can we say she was a pioneer or a woman of firsts?

8. What term did she invent?

9. When was she awarded her fist Nobel Prize?

10. What did Albert Einstein think of her?

11. Why was the discovery of radium important for medicine?

12. What did she do with monetary prizes?

13. Why was life as a scientist more difficult for her than for others?

14. What was her role in World War I?

15. Did she know that carrying test tubes in her pocket could kill her?

16. Did she patent her discoveries? Why/Why not?

L. Pearce Williams

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"The result of the Curies' work was epoch-making. Radium's radioactivity was so great that it could not be ignored. It seemed to contradict the principle of the conservation of energy and therefore forced a reconsideration of the foundations of physics. On the experimental level the discovery of radium provided men like Ernest Rutherford with sources of radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the atom. As a result of Rutherford's experiments with alpha radiation, the nuclear atom was first postulated. In medicine, the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked."
Cornell University professor L. Pearce Williams, on Pierre and Marie Curie.

17. Can we consult her papers freely nowadays? Why/Why not?

18. Where are her notebooks kept?

19. How many Noble Prizes has the Curie family won so far?

20. Who were the "radium girls"?

Curie in WWI

Marie Curie during World War I.
Image from Discover Magazine

A feminist precursor

If Curie's work helped overturn established ideas in physics and chemistry, it has had an equally profound effect in the societal sphere. To attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way because she was a woman, in both her native and her adoptive country. This aspect of her life and career is highlighted in Françoise Giroud's Marie Curie: A Life, which emphasizes Marie's role as a feminist precursor.

Health issues

Curie died in 1934 at the sanatorium of Sancellemoz (Haute-Savoie), France, due to aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation – including carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research and her service during World War I in mobile X-ray units created by her.

Carrying radioactive test tubes in her pockets may have been the cause of the aplastic anemia she suffered from.


Because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

Over a hundred years later, it is still necessary to wear protective clothing to consult her notes.

Sanatorium Sancellemoz

Sanatorium Sancellemoz.
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Curie's notebook

A hundred years later, Curie's papers are still radioactive.
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Curie's radioactive test tubes

Curie's radioactive test tubes.
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Curie at 6, 36 and 66

Stages of Curie's life.
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Lead-linen box

Lead-linen box holding radioactive documents.
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At the beginning of the 20th century, radium was widely used to make glow paint. The following video shows the consequences most workers suffered from due to their jobs. For more info, have a look at the following video, or check other Youtube videos about "the radium girls". Interesting and scary!


1. Poland.
2. Because her sister studied in Paris.
3. Polonium and radium.
4. She named Polonium after her country.
5. Pierre Curie.
6. Two, in Physics and Chemistry.
7. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences (Physics and Chemistry), the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and the first woman to be entombed in the Panthéon in Paris.

8. Radioactivity.
9. In 1903.
10. She was the only celebrated person not corrupted by fame.
11. Because therapies using radium proved successful in treating some types of cancer. 12. She donated monetary gifts to scientific institutions, students and family.
13. Because she was a woman.
14. She established and supervised X-ray centres in field hospitals.
15. No, nobody was aware of the danger it posed to humans back then.

16. No, because she wanted researchers to be able to use her discoveries for free.
17. No, they are highly radioactive, so protective clothes are needed.
18. They are kept in lead-linen boxes.
19. Five.
20. Workers at radium-based glow-paint factories, who suffered terrible deaths because of radiation.


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