“My husband and I were so closely united by our affection and our common work that we passed nearly all of our time together.” – Marie Curie
Many are familiar with Marie Curie as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person, and only woman, to win two. However, she and her husband are also noteworthy as being the first couple to win a Nobel Prize. The couple also received various other honors including the Davy Medal, the Matteucci Medal, and having the Curie symbol “Ci” (a unit of measurement in radioactivity) named after them. Together they made some of the most significant scientific discoveries of the early 1900s.
While their accomplishments are well documented, their relationship was also the subject of admiration, and they were even described as the model married couple. This post gives a bit more insight into why that is.
Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw of Congress, Poland, in the Russian Empire on November 7, 1867. Her father, Wladyslaw Sklodowski, allowed her to have an educator’s influence in both the subjects of physics and mathematics from an early age. Eventually, Marie and her sister attended the Floating University, which was an illegal night school, in order to progress their education. She then worked as a governess for a few years before following her sister to Paris where she could study at the Sorbonne, also known as the University of Paris.
Pierre Curie was born in Paris on May 15, 1859. His father, Eugène Curie, was a doctor and taught Pierre mathematics and geometry. He earned his Bachelor’s degree by age 16 and the equivalent of a Master’s degree by 18 (he eventually earned his doctorate in 1895). He also attended the Sorbonne.
Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie in 1894 through Polish physicist Józef Wierusz-Kowalski. Pierre then took her in as a student in his laboratory, and they later started dating. Pierre suggested marriage that same year although Marie did not accept right away mostly due to concerns about being separated from her country and family. She went on vacation back to Poland that year and had plans to transition back there, but Pierre convinced her to return through a series of letters. They corresponded back and forth throughout her vacation there. They were married in July of 1895.
(Fun fact: Marie Curie was always extremely practical, and insisted that her wedding dress be a dark color instead of the traditional white so she could wear it in their lab.)
Throughout their relationship, they shared their research and worked in tandem towards the discoveries that would eventually lead to their renown. However, getting there was far from glamorous. Some of their most important findings were from experiments that had to be conducted in a storeroom shed. This was an obstacle, as the shed did not have the ideal equipment for identifying the components of polonium and radium and was in addition to both of them having full-time jobs and caring for their daughter, Irène, born in 1897. (I should also mention they had another daughter, after their combined Nobel Prize win in 1904, Eve Curie. More about her later.)
Despite their challenges, they won the Nobel Prize together in 1903 (along with Henri Becquerel) for their discovery of radium. However, Marie was not initially included in the award, and Pierre had to write a letter to ensure she was credited for her part of the research. This event was not the last time Marie was excluded from the same recognitions as Pierre, and he even refused a cross of the Legion of Honor because Marie was not also included.
On April 19, 1906, Pierre attended a reunion of the Association of Professors of the Faculties of the Sciences. As he left the reunion and crossed the rue Dauphine, he was hit by a truck coming from the Pont Neuf and fell under its wheels. The concussion caused instant death. You can read coverage from the incident here. Marie later wrote Pierre’s biography and won another Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry for the discovery of polonium. These are just a few of the many other accomplishments she went on to earn due to her dedicated research.
Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie (France). She died due to damage to her bone marrow caused from long-term exposure to radiation, which resulted in her body failing to make blood cells. However, her oldest daughter continued her research and later went on to win a Nobel prize in 1935. Her younger daughter, Eve Curie, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF in 1965.
There are a lot of lessons we can learn from observing the relationship between Marie and Pierre Curie. They shared a common dream and passion which was one of the reasons for their powerful bond. It’s easy to admire them for their commitment to each other and science. To that point, I want to leave you with one of the many beautiful quotes from Pierre’s love letters to Marie:
“It would, nevertheless, be a beautiful thing in which I hardly dare believe, to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.”
- Marie Curie: A Gift of Radium: a blog post from Inside Adams, from the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress.
- A Tribute to Nobel Laureate Madame Marie Sklodowska-Curie: a blog post from 4 Corners of the World, from the European Division of the Library of Congress.
- Marie Curie: Topics in Chronicling America: a research guide from the Serials and Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress.
- Curie, Marie, 1867-1934. Pierre Curie, by Marie Curie, translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg, with an introduction by Mrs. William Brown Meloney, and autobiographical notes by Marie Curie. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923.
- Pasachoff, Naomi E. Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Search Chronicling America* for additional newspaper coverage of Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and more. And let us know what you find in the comments!
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.