150th anniversary of the birthday of Maria Skłodowska-Curie

She was the first Polish woman at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first woman to be laid to rest at the famous Panthéon in Paris… Maria Skłodowska-Curie, born in Warsaw exactly 150 years ago, remains the most outstanding Polish researcher and global female scientist icon.

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, which at the time was under Russian rule. Science occupied a prominent place in Skłodowska’s home: her father was a teacher of mathematics and physics, and her mother at one point ran a boarding school for girls. Maria and her four siblings were raised in the spirit of deep patriotism, and Poland has always played a very important role in Maria’s heart.

Maria's first teacher was her father, she started going to school as a 10-year-old and she finished her junior high school when she was only 15 years old, with the highest marks of course. Fascinated by science, she joined the Flying University. In 1890 she followed her sister, Bronisława, to Paris, where she soon took up studies in mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. She graduated with bachelor degrees in both subjects. She continued her research and while looking for a larger laboratory she met a modest scientist, Pierre Curie. Although he could not offer fitting facilities he did soon become Maria’s husband and her closest co-worker.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie in her laboratory Maria was interested in Henri Becquerel's research on the phenomenon of the radiation of minerals. One of the greatest achievements of Maria Skłodowska-Curie was the development of his theory of radioactivity and the discovery of two previously unknown elements - first polonium, named after Poland and then radium. For her research on radioactivity she was honoured, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, as the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Physics (1903).

Maria was heartbroken by the unexpected death of her beloved husband – a friend, companion, co-worker, and father of their two daughters. As a result, she became fully immersed in her work: in 1906 she took over the physics department at the Parisian Sorbonne, becoming the first female professor at the university.

In 1911 Maria was awarded the second Nobel Prize - this time for chemistry and awarded just to her.  To this day Maria Skłodowska-Curie remains the only female Nobel Prize winner to have received awards in two different disciplines. She donated the funds accompanying the award to the Paris Radium Institute, today known as the Curie Institute, a research institution dealing with radioactivity and research in medicine, in particular cancer treatment.

After the outbreak of World War I, she did not remain idle – using equipment assembled in Paris, she created mobile diagnostic points, so-called Small Curies, which enabled x-rays to be taken in the field. Maria taught herself how to drive a car and was one the first women to receive a driving licence.

Maria, whose emotional attachment to Poland did not diminish despite leaving the country, dreamed of setting up an affiliate of the Radiation Institute in Warsaw (today known as the Centre for Oncology - Maria Skłodowska-Curie Institute). She realized this dream in 1932, opening the facility in person.

Maria Skłodowska-Curie died in 1934 of a malignant anaemia caused by the long-term effects of harmful radiation and was buried next to Pierre in the Sceaux cemetery. In recognition of their service to science, in 1995 French President François Mitterrand announced that the relics of Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Pierre Curie would be transferred to the Pantheon in Paris. Maria thus became also the first and only woman to be laid to rest in the Pantheon.

Source: Polish Embassy in France