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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

She Was a Real-Life 'Mother of Invention'

By Paul Niemann

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[March 06, 2008]  Maria Sklodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. While there's a good chance that you don't recognize her name, there's an even better chance that you've heard of her.

Maria's family included her French husband, Pierre, and their daughter Irene. Pierre was co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1901, while Irene won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935. Their other daughter, Eve, was a successful author.

Maria is the only person in history to have both a spouse and a daughter (or a son) win Nobel Prizes, but that wasn't even her greatest accomplishment. During her long career as a scientist, she and her husband also discovered two of the elements on the periodic table of elements, and a third element is named after them. If you took chemistry in high school, then you're familiar with the periodic table. Pierre's research identified what are now known as alpha, beta and gamma rays.

When Pierre died in 1906 at age 46, Maria was left to raise her two young daughters by herself. How did Pierre die? As a result of a traffic accident, in which he was run over by a horse-drawn wagon!

This wasn't the first time Maria experienced a deep loss. Her mother had died when Maria was only 9, and Maria grew up in Poland during the time it was occupied by Russia. In addition, her first boyfriend broke up with her because his parents didn't approve of him marrying a woman from a poor family.

Despite the success that her husband and daughters achieved, it's unlikely that this mother of invention ever felt overshadowed by her family. Earlier, I mentioned that her husband was co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1901. Who was the other co-winner? It was Maria, his wife.

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Maria earned a second Nobel Prize in 1911; this one was in chemistry. By the end of World War I, she was possibly the most famous woman in the world, even though you've probably never heard her name before now. You see, Maria Sklodowska changed her first name to the French version when she moved to Paris. She changed her last name when she married Pierre.

You learned about her in science class, except that you learned about her by her married name of Marie Curie, the woman who discovered radium. Her work continues to benefit anyone who receives radiation treatments for cancer.

Which of the periodic table of elements did Marie and Pierre Curie discover? Radium and polonium. In fact, it was Maria who coined the term "radioactivity." The element that's named after them is known as curium.

In addition to being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie was also the first woman to:

  • Teach at the university level in France.

  • Win two Nobel Prizes.

  • Be part of a mother-daughter combination to win Nobel Prizes -- the only such pair.

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934, in a nursing home. In a twist of irony, she is believed to be the first person to die of radiation poisoning, and it was probably her own radiation experiments that eventually killed her.


Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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