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Summary Article: Curie Sklodowska Marie (1867-1934)
From Encyclopedia of Creativity


Awarded Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry

Marie Sklodowska Curie was one of the first woman scientists to win worldwide fame and one of the great scientists of this century. She had degrees in mathematics and physics. Winner of two Nobel prizes, she performed pioneering studies with radium and polonium and contributed profoundly to the understanding of radioactivity.

Perhaps the most eminent of all women scientists, Marie Sklodowska Curie is notable for her many firsts. She was first to use the term "radioactivity" for this phenomenon. In 1903, she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics. She was also the first female lecturer and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris (1906). In 1911, she won an unprecedented second Nobel prize (this time in chemistry) for her discovery and isolation of pure radium and radium components. She was the first mother–Nobel Prize Laureate of a daughter–Nobel Prize Laureate; her oldest daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, also won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1935). She received 19 degrees, 15 gold medals, and many other honors. In 1995 Marie Curie's ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris; she was the first woman to receive this honor for her own achievements.

Marie Curie. (Copyright WideWorld Photo.)


Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867 in Poland, the fifth and youngest child of Bronsilawa Boguska, a pianist, singer, and teacher, and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Descendants of Catholic landowners, her parents were intellectuals whose opportunities were restricted by the Russian domination of Poland. At age 10, Marie was left motherless.

Her father took boarders into his home; Marie helped with housework and became a governess for six years so that her sister Bronie might study in Paris and become a medical doctor. In 1891 Marie also went to Paris and after several years of spartan living and intense study she received a licence, or master's degrees, in physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne.

Marie was married to Pierre Curie, also a physicist, in a civil ceremony in 1895, followed by a honeymoon which was a three-week bicycle tour. Living near poverty they gave up social contacts and recreation for their dedication to research. Marie's first scientific work was on the magnetic properties of tempered steel (1893). Then, learning of Becquerel's discovery, she selected the radiation from uranium for her doctor's thesis. After observing that uranium ore (pitchblende) was several times more radioactive than uranium, the Curies came to believe that the ore contained a new element or elements more active than uranium.

Working under miserable conditions in a shed, the Curies carried out the chemical concentration of some 100 kg of uranium ore supplied by the Austrian government to obtain a specimen from which spectroscopic identification was made of a new element which they called "polonium." Marie later discovered a second element in pitchblende, which she named "radium."

By 1902, she had isolated.1 g of pure radium salt and had determined the atomic mass of radium as 225 (226 is now accepted). In 1903, Marie, her husband, and Henri Becquerel received the Nobel prize in physics for their work on radioactivity. It was not until 1910 that she finally obtained 1 g of the pure radium metal. The Curies also determined that the beta rays emitted by radium were negatively charged particles (electrons).

The birth of her two daughters, Irene and Eve, in 1897 and 1904 did not interrupt Marie's intensive scientific work. She was appointed lecturer in physics at the École Normale Supérieure for girls in Sévres and introduced there a method of teaching based on experimental demonstrations. In 1904, Marie was finally named as Pierre's assistant at the Faculté des Sciences where she had long worked without pay.

Confident of medical and industrial applications, a French industrialist constructed a factory near Paris for the extraction of radium from pitchblende. The Curies took out no patents and claimed no royalties, thereby renouncing a fortune. The sudden death of Pierre Curie in a road accident in 1906 was a bitter blow to Marie Curie, but it was also a decisive turning point in her career. Marie's life became even more devoted to continuing her research and raising her daughters.

In 1906, the physics chair created for Pierre was bestowed on Marie and for the first time a woman taught at the Sorbonne. As had Pierre, Marie declined the recognition of the Légion d'Honneur, asking only for the means to work. Albert Einstein once said of her that "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the one whom fame has not corrupted." Five years after her husband's death, Marie received the 1911 Nobel prize, in recognition of her work in isolating radium in its pure metallic form and developing the first international standard for measuring the substance. She was nominated for the French Academy of Sciences that year, but was rejected by one vote after a slanderous campaign was waged against Marie by a competitor. Marie's supporters and co-workers were shocked by this defeat but she made no comment on her rejection.

In 1910, Marie worked with the Radiology Congress in Brussels to establish official standards for radium needed in therapy and research. The Congress defined the "curie" as the unit of radioactivity. During World War I, Marie, with the aid of private gifts, equipped ambulances (which she could drive) with portable x-ray equipment; she became head of radiological services for the Red Cross. Her wartime experience led her to write the book, La Radiologie et la Guerre.

In 1914 Marie Curie helped found the Radium Institute in Paris, and was the Institute's first director. Through the Radium Institute, the Curie Foundation, and her membership in the Academy of Medicine, Marie Curie pursued goals such as "curie therapy" and the establishment of safety standards for workers. Marie Curie has been honored more than any other scientist on the postage stamps of many nations; many picture the benefits of x-ray diagnosis, the use of radium in the treatment of cancer, and the gift of 1 g of radium to Madame Curie by grateful women of America.

Madame Curie's health declined partly due to the lethal effects of her prolonged exposure to nuclear radiations. She had cataract operations, and suffered from lesions on her fingers and from leukemia. She died in a sanatorium in the French Alps in 1934. After her death the Radium Institute was renamed the Curie Institute in her honor.

Creativity And Eminence

For decades, scholars have studied creativity by examining eminent individuals and those factors that appear to influence or be related to creativity. Marie Curie demonstrated many of the personality characteristics common to eminent individuals and she experienced many of the environmental and social factors frequently encountered by eminent individuals.

Personal Characteristics And Creativity

Scholars do not know whether personal qualities can be a direct cause of creativity, but it does seem clear that they are intimately involved in the process. Marie Curie demonstrated the following personality characteristics common to eminent individuals: propensity to persevere, intellectual competence, academic propensity, risk taking, force of character, and independence.

Marie Curie's perseverance, intellectual competence, and academic propensity are unquestioned. She spent six years as a governess so that her older sister Bronie might study in Paris and become a medical doctor, knowing that when Bronie obtained her licence, Marie would have the opportunity to attend university. Marie spent four years of spartan living and intense study so that she could receive a master's degree in physics and a year later, a master's degree in mathematics. From childhood, Marie was remarkable for her prodigious memory, and at the age of 16 she won a gold medal on completion of her secondary education at the Russian lycee. Her intellectual competence and academic propensity were also evident in her later academic accomplishments. Among those taking the licence es sciences exam Marie ranked first, and among those taking the licence es mathematiques exam she ranked second.

Marie Curie was not afraid to take risks and her forceful character led her to a level of independence unusual for her time. In France during this period, women, especially gifted women, were scorned. The Belle Epoque writer Octave Mirbeau wrote during this period that a woman "is not good for anything but love and motherhood. Some women, rare exceptions, have been able to give, either in art or literature, the illusion that they are creative. But they are either abnormal or simple reflections of men." When studying in Paris, Marie lived alone for almost three years. It was a life which, as she wrote later in Autobiographical Notes, gave her a sense of liberty and independence.

Later, Marie showed incredible strength of character when she foresaw the immense labor necessary in attempting to chemically concentrate uranium in order to study radium. Knowing the small means to accomplish this task at her disposal, she plunged into the adventure wholeheartedly.

Environmental Influences

Marie Curie was influenced by many of the environmental and social factors common to eminent individuals: she came from a culturally and intellectually advantaged family; she had the presence of many adults other than her parents; she was exposed to eminent adults during her formative years; and she experienced an early parental death.

Marie's family came from the peculiarly Polish form of landed gentry known as szlachta, nobles who in previous centuries had fought for the republic but who valued their independent authority and participated with equal voice in the parliament of the land. During Marie's time, both sides of her family had been reduced to the position of minor szlachta. Though very poor, the family, like many of the intelligentsia, viewed education as a powerful weapon, an unlimited resource which could fundamentally change and ennoble society.

Many members of Marie's family were teachers and the overall welfare of the children was primary.

"My father," Marie's brother remembers, "was concerned about our health, our physical development, our studies and even our free time, for which he tried to provide us with ideas and games." In the Sklodowski household, play was learning and learning was play. Although women were excluded from university in Poland, Marie and her sisters grew up assuming higher education was their right.

While growing up, Marie and her siblings had the presence of many adult role models, especially female role models. Marie Curie could look to her own family for examples of female independence. There had been her mother, the forceful headmistress, and there was Uncle Zdzislaw's wife, Marie Rogowska, the tall blonde who founded factories and ran the family estates, defying the rules of dress and decorum along the way. But the most pertinent example may well have been Aunt Wanda Sklodowska, "the most educated of all" the women, according to Marie's brother; she had attended university in Geneva and developed a "literary career." Later, Marie may have been influenced by another remarkable woman, Jadwiga Szczsinska-Dawidowa. Dawidowa, responding to the yearnings of young Polish women for higher education, began to organize a clandestine academy for women. Marie was apparently involved in the secret academy almost from its inception.

Along with these adult role models, Marie was exposed to eminent adults during the formative years of her career. While at the Sorbonne in Paris she followed the lectures of Paul Appel, Gabriel Lippmann, and Edmond Bouty. There she became acquainted with other physicists who were well known–Jean Perrin, Charles Maurain, and Aimé Cotton.

Research suggests that the experience of an early death of a parent and/or an older sibling is not necessarily an impediment to the achievement of creative achievement and eminence. Such an event can be an opportunity and a challenge to healthy ego development. At age 7 Marie experienced the death of her cherished oldest sister Zofia from typhus, and that of her beloved mother at age 10 from tuberculosis. It may have been these premature deaths that in Marie evoked the agnosticism that would later bolster her faith in science.

See also

Collaboration; Albert Einstein 1879–1955; Eminence; Families and Creativity; Women and Creativity.

Further Reading
  • Albert, R.A. Genius and Eminence 1983 Pergamon Press New York.
  • Curie, E. Madame Curie 1937 Doubleday New York.
  • Quinn, S. Marie Curie 1995 Simon & Schuster New York.
B.J. Thurston
University of Hawaii, Hilo, HI, USA
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved

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