Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Marie Curie becomes first woman to receive a doctorate in France; greatest contribution to science than any previous thesis, committee says

In 1903, scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934) defended her doctoral thesis at the Université de la Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in the history of France. The examining committee noted that her thesis made a greater contribution to science than any other thesis project before. The same year she and her husband Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of radium and polonium. She coined the term radioactivity, and polonium was a name they invented to honour Poland, Marie's birthplace.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw under the name of Maria Sklodowska in 1867. Both her parents were teachers. Her mother was a piano teacher, and her father was a teacher of mathematics and physics. Marie herself became a teacher during her teenage years.

In 1906, when her husband Pierre died in a tragic accident, she took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne, becoming the first a woman to be appointed to this position in the history of that university.

In 1911 she was awarded another Nobel Prize for her work on radioactivity, becoming the first person to win a the Nobel Prize twice.

In 1914 she co-founded the Radium Institute in Paris and became its first Director. During the first World War, Curie and her daughter Irene trained nurses to use X-rays to locate bullets in injured soldiers.

She devoted her life to scientific research and teaching. Her work made a great contribution to basic science by helping to better understand energy and matter. It also opened a new era in medical research and treatment of diseases.

Marie Curie died in Paris in 1934 at the age of 67 of leukemia, probably caused by her many years of exposure to high levels of radiation. She was survived by two daughters, Irene (born in 1897) and Eve (born in 1904). In 1935, a year after her mother's death, Irene won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, making them the first mother and daughter to share this honor.

Marie Curie was always concerned about the use of science to alleviate suffering and promote well-being. In her own words, 

"You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful."

For more information on Marie Curie, see: 

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