I was born in Warsaw, Poland, to two teachers. My father had a cabinet of scientific instruments at the house, and I remember being extremely curious about them even as a little girl. The year I turned 10, my mother died, and my father lost his job. Times were hard, but I graduated from high school with top grades when I was 15 and went to the Sorbonne in Paris to continue my studies.
While in Paris, I met Pierre Curie, who became my husband and research partner. Together, we began our exploration into the invisible rays given off by uranium. Our testing of pitchblende, which contains uranium ore, revealed that it was more radioactive than uranium itself. We figured there must be something else in the pitchblende that was increasing the level of radiation. Our research was performed under difficult conditions; isolating the different elements in the pitchblende required cooking it in huge pots and then grinding it into a powder. Our efforts resulted in the discovery of two new elements – polonium and radium – but the arduous work took a toll on our health. We didn’t know it at the time, but we both suffered from what is now known as radiation sickness, and we were not able to travel to Sweden to receive our Nobel Prize in 1903.
In 1906, Pierre was killed in a tragic accident, but I continued our laboratory work and eventually took on his teaching role, becoming the first female professor in the Sorbonne’s history. Throughout my life I promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering and even designed mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries during World War I.