Marie Curie: A Life Illuminated by Intelligence, Determination and Courage

Marie_Curie-Laboratory before 1937 author unknown
A picture of Marie Curie’s laboratory where she did much of her work on radium.

When we read about famous historical figures their accomplishments seem obvious, their acclaim assured. Closer examination often reveals a different story. Marie Curie, for example, almost didn’t get her first Nobel Prize. Even after winning the prize, she and her husband struggled to find appropriate laboratory space in which to conduct their experiments. And, though Marie Curie was the first woman to hold a professorship at the Sorbonne, she was only given that position after her husband’s became vacant because of his death.

Most modern observers marvel at Marie Curie’s intelligence and insight. A review of the obstacles she overcame suggest that perhaps her most influential traits might have been determination and courage. Marie had faith in her own abilities, but stronger than that was a conviction that her work was important.

Albert Einstein once described Marie Curie as someone who was totally indifferent to fame. She was a scientist. She did hard, grinding labor. She extracted radium and polonium from pitchblende; the yield of this extraction was in minute quantities. The exquisitely slow pace of the process did not deter Marie. She endured physical consequences of her effort–radiation burns and fatigue–without complaint.

When World War I broke out, Marie Curie used her scientific knowledge to save lives. She designed portable x-ray units and traveled to the front so she could offer her services to wounded soldiers. Marie Curie did this as she did everything else in her life, with courage, intelligence and a lack of regard for herself.

As we read about Marie Curie, and other accomplished figures in history, we marvel at what they achieved. Often, however, the better part of their story may be the road they traveled to realize their achievements. The strength of character displayed in some cases–certainly in Marie Curie’s case–is certainly as noteworthy as the honors earned.


Two books issued by Rhythm Prism are dedicated to Marie Curie’s life. One, Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium, is designed for a general audience and the other, Marie Curie: Science Pioneer,  addresses the interests of children.  Material in both books overlaps, although specialized information about Polonium and Radium are contained in Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered two elements on the periodic table, radium and polonium. One of the difficulties they had in working with polonium was the fact that it kept “disappearing”.  What they did not understand at the time was that radioactive elements decay at a regular rate, called its half life.  Below is a chart (which appears in the Rhythm Prism book Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium) that shows the process of thorium decay.  The chart was the work of Ernest Rutherford, who was himself a Nobel Laureate.

thorium chart

Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium and Marie Curie: Pioneer in Science are written in very basic language.  If you’re interested in gaining a rudimentary understanding of radioactivity and learning about Marie Curie, both books will serve that purpose.

General Interest Book

marie and atom 5 cover smash site

Children’s Book (with study guide)

BeFunky_Marie for site

 Another book that introduces more information about radioactivity is the Rhythm Prism publication, What Is Radioactivity? The Basics.  This book is offered in  6 by 9 and  8 1/2 by 11 workbook version. Reading level is adult or mature student.

what is radioactivity front  cover 6 by 9 print site

Marie Curie on Education

Theories about education don’t evolve; they erupt.  Most people understand that childhood offers an irreplaceable opportunity to influence minds for a lifetime.   Maybe that explains the furor surrounding the roll-out of the Common Core in communities across the US. While the trend toward rigid standards, uniform curriculum and increased formal instruction seems sound to some, to others it seems a travesty, a squandering of childhood’s most precious gifts:  play, imagination and exploration. Included in this camp would surely be Marie Curie, if she were alive today to express a view.

In a book she wrote about her mother, Marie Curie’s youngest daughter, Eve, described Marie’s views on education.  Eve explained that Marie dreaded sending her children into the sterile, confined atmosphere of a structured classroom.  Marie regarded formal schooling as  “hours of attendance”.  Her philosophy was that children should be encouraged to find their talent through exploration.  It was in this way that Irene, the older daughter, discovered an early interest in mathematics; and Eve, the younger daughter, learned through experimentation that she was fascinated with music.

Essential to the daily regimen of both Curie children was vigorous physical activity.  Marie installed gym equipment at home and took the girls on camping trips. Together the family trekked through the countryside on extensive biking trips.  “Formal” instruction was put off as long as possible.  In its place, Marie devised a scheme with her  colleagues at the Sorbonne.

The girls, and several other children, would be exposed to the finest minds, in a congenial atmosphere.  Each day the children would spend hours with a professor from a specific discipline.  The weeks would be passed in this way, with a casual rotation between specialties and a cheerful approach toward learning.

Eventually Marie’s daughters were obliged to go to formal classes, but not until this was absolutely necessary.  Irene eventually earned a Doctor of Science degree and Eve earned two bachelor degrees, one in philosophy and one in music.

Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1935 and later continued to do groundbreaking research in nuclear physics.  Eve was for a time a concert pianist. She was also a journalist, diplomat and humanitarian.

Irene died in 1956, Eve in 2007. I would be hard to imagine two more accomplished women.  Whether their mother’s approach to education enabled a lifetime of accomplishment, it would be hard to say.  But their lives and achievements certainly make a good argument for those who believe that a a rigid curriculum may not be the path to a great mind.

Polonium in Cigarettes

cigarette smoke smash

Last week I was researching material for a new book, Marie Curie.  Madame Curie, I learned, was like many very successful people: absolutely determined and stubbornly undeterrable.  Although she was not allowed to study because she was a woman and she was Polish,  she earned several advanced degrees.  She could not find a laboratory, did not have money for heat or food, and yet she performed groundbreaking experiments.

Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes, the first person ever to do so in two categories.  She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne and the first woman to win a Nobel prize.  She was also the first person to operate a mobile x-ray unite in a war zone.

So what does all of this have to do with polonium in cigarettes? Marie Curie discovered polonium and radium.  She knew they were radioactive; she knew they could burn skin, treat cancers and kill bacteria.  But somehow she never acknowledged that her beloved radioactive elements could be harmful to her health.

Marie Curie, and her daughter Irene, died of cancer.

Millions of people smoke.  Most of these people understand in some vague way that they shouldn’t smoke, but the threat they perceive seems distant.  Perhaps if they knew clearly what some scientists and all cigarette manufacturers know, then these smokers might grasp the risk that cigarettes pose to them.

Cigarette smoke contains polonium, the same polonium that Marie Curie discovered and named more than a hundred years ago. The amount of polonium in cigarettes varies according to the region where tobacco is grown.  US cigarettes definitely contain detectable amounts.

So, when a smoker takes a good puff and inhales, along with all the other things in the smoke that might harm, there is a dose of polonium–radioactive, cancer-causing polonium.  A good long puff on a cigarette delivers that polonium directly to lung tissue.

I think that’s something people ought to know.


Rhythm Prism’s compact book on Marie Curie, polonium, radium and radioactivity:

marie and atom 5 cover smash site

Available in print,

on Kindle


and through other eBook vendors