Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist who became the first woman to win a Nobel prize. Along with her husband Pierre, she discovered two elements: polonium and radium. She also carried out pioneering research into radioactivity.

Born Maria Skłodowska in Warsaw on 7 November 1867, Marie moved to Paris in 1891 to study physics, chemistry and maths at the University of Paris, where she earned two degrees, supporting herself through her studies by tutoring in the evenings. There she met Pierre Curie, who worked at the university, and they married in 1895. The couple set up a joint laboratory in a basement, building their own equipment for their experiments. At the time no one knew about the effects of radioactivity on the body, so they handled the elements they used in their research without any of the precautions or protective clothing we would use today. Marie even kept vials of what she was working on in her pockets or her desk drawers. More than 100 years after their discoveries, the couple’s notebooks are still so radioactive they have to be kept in lead-lined boxes and handled only while wearing protective clothing.

1898 was a busy year for the couple. Marie had been investigating the unusual properties of pitchblende, a black mineral that is rich in uranium. Two years earlier Henri Becquerel had discovered that uranium salts gave off rays that could penetrate objects in a similar way to the newly discovered X rays, but Marie had noticed that pitchblende gave off much more of what she later called radioactivity than would be expected if uranium alone was to blame.

Excited by Marie’s work, Pierre stopped his own research into crystals to help her grind down tonnes of the mineral in search of an answer. That July, the couple announced the discovery of the element polonium, which they named after Marie’s native Poland. But it still didn’t explain all of the radiation seen in pitchblende. Then, on 26 December, they announced the discovery of a second new element: radium. It took Marie another 12 years before she could isolate pure metal radium from pitchblende and definitively prove its existence.

After Pierre’s death in 1906 in an accident, Marie continued their work and took up his position at the university, while raising their two daughters. During the first world war, she created mobile X-ray equipment to help soldiers who were injured on the battlefield and went to the front herself to train medics in how to use them.

All those years of working with radioactive elements eventually took their toll: Marie died of aplastic anaemia, often caused by radiation exposure, in 1934, aged 66. The radioactive element curium is named after her and Pierre.

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/people/marie-curie/#ixzz67HBi6J2i