In June 1903, Marie had defended her doctoral thesis, and the examination committee stated their belief which represented the greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis. In November 1903, the Royal Society of London presented the Curies with the Davy Medal for the most important discovery of the year in Chemistry. While Pierre was in London accepting this award, Marie received word Pierre had been named the winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Henri Becquerel.
Although the nominating committee objected to including a woman as a Nobel Laureate, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a committee member who was an advocate of women scientists, wrote to Pierre and advised him of the situation. Pierre replied, insisting it would be a travesty not to include Marie because the original research was hers—and she had conceived experiments and generated theories about the nature of radioactivity. The committee ultimately agreed to include her, making her the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and in December 1903, Becquerel and both Curies were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.
|The 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was divided, one half awarded to Antoine Henri Becquerel “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity”, the other half jointly to Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, née Sklodowska “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”|
The Curies’ citation was carefully worded to avoid specific mention of their discovery of polonium and radium. Chemists on the nominating committee had insisted the Curies might in the future deserve a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of those elements, and there remained some doubts about the elements, which had been isolated only in small amounts. Thus, their physics prize mentioned only their collaborative work on Becquerel rays.
Because of their teaching obligations and both being too ill to travel—most likely because of excessive exposure to radioactive materials (and Marie had recently suffered a miscarriage)—the Curies were unable to go to Stockholm until June 1905 to receive the prize and for Pierre to deliver his Nobel lecture.
Groundbreaking Discoveries in Primitive Conditions
Leading up to their 1903 Nobel Prize, the Curies had to isolate polonium and radium so the atomic weight of both elements could be determined. They devised a new method of chemical research, whereby they progressively separated pitchblende by chemical analysis and then measured the radioactivity of the separate elements. Marie and Pierre divided their labor—Marie as the chemist, performing the physically demanding job of chemically separating the pitchblende and Pierre as the physicist, analyzing the physical properties of the substances produced by Marie’s separations.
The brilliant pair worked in primitive conditions with laboratory facilities which were woefully inadequate: an abandoned wooden shed in a courtyard at ESPCI, with no hoods to carry off the toxic fumes, chemicals, metals, and poisonous gases released during the purification process. Their research yielded a wealth of information about radioactivity, which they shared with the world in a series of papers published between 1898 and 1904: Marie published 19 describing various aspects of her thesis research, she and Pierre co-authored 10, and Pierre published 14 additional papers on other aspects of radioactivity.
After four years of steady labor, the Curies managed to extract one decigram of radium chloride from more than 10 tons of pitchblende they had obtained from the Austrian government. At night, Pierre and Marie would linger to marvel at the way their samples of radium chloride would illuminate their lab.
Radium was an instant commercial hit, yet the Curies chose not to patent their findings or their radium-preparation process, which was the foundation of the lucrative radium industry, expressing their shared belief of any commercial value was an accident and it would be contrary to the scientific spirit.
Their ethical standard wasn’t shared by entrepreneurs, opportunists, profiteers, and charlatans who quickly capitalized on the Curies’ discovery and detailed processes—and marketed radium as a wonder drug and cure-all, even adding it to makeup and paint.
International Acclaim Results in Rewards at Home | Serious Health Issues Overshadow Joy
Although he is now considered one of France’s (and the world’s) preeminent scientists, over the years, Pierre struggled for acceptance by the French scientific establishment and was turned down for election to the French Academy of Sciences and for professorships at the Sorbonne. Despite having been a child prodigy and an internationally acclaimed physicist, because of his unorthodox education—and because he didn’t attend the “right” schools—he was seen as an outsider in the French scientific community.
France had been less forthcoming than other countries when it came to honoring and recognizing Pierre Curie. Appreciated outside France, Curie was offered a professorship at the University of Geneva in the spring of 1900, but he turned it down so as not to interrupt the Curies’ joint research on radium. He continued his work at ESPCI where he had served as Professor of General Physics and Electrical Theory since earning his doctorate of science in 1895.
In early June 1903, both Curies were invited to London as guests of the prestigious Royal Institution. Because custom ruled out women lecturers, Pierre alone explained their work in his “Friday Evening Discourse.” He went into in detail describing Marie’s crucial role in their collaboration. The audience included representatives of England’s social elite and such major scientists as Lord Kelvin, the president of London’s Royal Society, who sat with Marie at the lecture and hosted a luncheon in Pierre’s honor the next day. Only those closest to the Curies realized not all was well. Pierre was in in such bad health and his hands so covered with sores he had had trouble dressing himself before his lecture. His scarred hands shook so much during his presentation he spilled a bit of the costly radium preparation he used in his demonstration. (Fifty years later, the presence of radioactivity was discovered there, and surfaces had to be cleaned thoroughly.)
Several months later, the Royal Society conferred the Davy medal on the Curies, and shortly thereafter, they were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics—along with Becquerel—for their work on radioactivity. Acknowledgement at home finally came for Curie because of international recognition received by Pierre and Marie, and the awards brought changes in their lives. The cash award from the Nobel Prize (about $1.6 million in today’s dollars) enabled Marie to fund a scholarship for Polish girls to study in Paris, and they hired their first paid lab assistant.
Pierre’s scientific achievement was finally acknowledged in his native country when the French parliament created a new professorship for him at the Sorbonne in 1904. He rejected their first offer, which didn’t include the lab he and Marie so desperately needed. The university agreed and included a fully funded laboratory, complete with assistants. Marie was named his laboratory chief, and she would finally be paid for her work.
Although Pierre began his new position in the fall of 1904, the laboratory was not completed until 1906.
In June 1905, the Curies felt well enough to travel to Stockholm where Pierre delivered a lecture about their work and its ramifications. Women weren’t yet permitted to make the presentation, but just as hid did in his 1903 presentation to the Royal Institution, Pierre distinguished between Marie’s independent work and their joint efforts. After discussing the science of radioactivity and their work, he warned radium could be dangerous in the wrong hands; however, recognizing the benefits from this new science, he ended his lecture on a positive note:
“I am one of those who believe with Nobel
that mankind will derive more good
than harm from the new discoveries.”
~Pierre Curie in his June 1905 Award Address
for 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics
A Tragic End to an Extraordinary Partnership
Because his teaching load was now doubled, as he still held his post at ESPCI, Pierre began to suffer from extreme fatigue and sharp pains through his body, which he and Marie attributed to overwork, although the symptoms were almost certainly a sign of radiation poisoning, an unrecognized illness at that time.
The international acclaim resulting from their Nobel Prize shattered the Curies’ reclusive work-absorbed life as they achieved unwanted celebrity status. Pursued constantly by journalists and photographers, Pierre’s productivity was destroyed by the unwelcome intrusions. He had published 25 papers between July 1898 and June 1904, but nothing in the following two years. His long-overdue election to the French Academy of Sciences in July 1905 did not improve his spirits, and he lamented this in a letter to a friend and fellow physicist, George Gouy, “A whole year has passed since I was able to do any work, and I have not one moment to myself.”
In the spring of 1906, things were looking up for Pierre, and he had a renewed sense of enthusiasm for his work and for the future. His new laboratory was in the works, and he was immersed in his professional and social life.
April 19 was scheduled to be a full day for Pierre. He and Marie would be entertaining fellow scientists in their home during the evening, and he had several commitments which filled his day.
He attended a luncheon with the Association of Professors of the Science Faculties where he spoke about issues important to him: laboratory safety and creating career opportunities for junior faculty. Afterwards, he was to meet with his publisher to review proofs for his new book.
It was raining heavily as he arrived at his publisher’s office where the doors were locked due to a strike, so he hurried off to his next appointment at a local library.
The Curie’s extraordinary partnership came to a sudden, tragic, and untimely end when Pierre was killed in a street accident near Pont Neuf near the Île de la Cité in Paris on 19 April 1906. Crossing the busy Rue Dauphine in a rainstorm at the Quai de Conti, he slipped on the cobblestone street and fell under a dray carrying a load of military uniforms, weighing about six tons. He died instantly when one of the rear wheels ran over his head, fracturing his skull.
Statements made by his father and lab assistant seem to imply Curie’s characteristic absent-minded preoccupation with his thoughts contributed to his death. Upon learning of Pierre’s death, his father asked, “What was he dreaming of this time?” Pierre Clerc, the Sorbonne lab assistant who identified Curie’s body, remarked, “He wasn’t careful enough when he was walking in the street, or when he rode his bicycle. He was thinking of other things.”
It’s more likely, however, Pierre’s constant exposure to radioactive chemicals had weakened him, and this was a contributing factor. If he hadn’t died in this tragic accident, he surely would have succumbed to radiation sickness, as did Marie, his eldest daughter, his son-in-law (and Marie’s laboratory assistant at the Radium Institute), and countless other laboratory team members.
Marie was despondent by this tragic loss, but she refused to allow this to derail their work.
“Crushed by the blow, I did not feel able to face the future. I could not forget, however, what my husband used to say, that even deprived of him,
I ought to continue my work.”
~Marie Curie, explaining why she was compelled
to return to work the day after Pierre’s funeral
As a tribute to Pierre, Marie vowed to devote the rest of her life to completing the work they started together. She created a world-class laboratory in Pierre’s honor and became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne when she succeeded Pierre in his chair as professor at the Sorbonne.
 The President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, is a learned society. Founded on 28 November 1660, it was granted a royal charter by King Charles II as The Royal Society. It is the oldest national scientific institution in the world. The society is the United Kingdom’s and Commonwealth of Nations’ Academy of Sciences and fulfills a number of roles: promoting science and its benefits, recognizing excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, and fostering international and global co-operation, education, and public engagement.
 Having suffered a miscarriage in August 1903 and suffering with pernicious anemia, Marie was too ill to travel.
 By this time, they were both suffering from excessive exposure to radioactive materials. In addition to being surrounded by radium in their work, Pierre often carried a sample of radium in his waistcoat pocket to show his friends, and Marie liked to keep a bit of radium salt by her bedside to provide a soft glow in the darkness. Marie was exhibiting signs of the anemia and lung problems that would persist for the rest of her life and ultimately lead to her death; Pierre suffered with tremors in his hands, and his legs shook so much that at times he found it hard to stand. He was in constant pain and consulted a doctor who diagnosed neurasthenia and prescribed strychnine. Sometimes unbearable pain kept Pierre awake all night, lying weakly in bed, moaning. The skin on their hands was cracked and scarred, and they both suffered constantly from fatigue.
 Because Marie was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to deliver the lecture.
 About 70 percent uranium, uraninite (formerly, pitchblende)—the crystallized form of uranium oxide is a radioactive, uranium-rich mineral and ore.
 She performed the bulkiest part of this work in the yard adjoining the shed that served as their laboratory.
 ESPCI is short for École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la Ville de Paris (The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Education Institution). Five researchers and alumni from ESPCI Paris have been awarded the Nobel Prize: Pierre and Marie Curie (Physics, 1903), Marie Curie – second Nobel Prize (Chemistry, 1911), Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Chemistry, 1935), Pierre-Gilles de Gennes (Physics, 1991), and Georges Charpak (Physics, 1992).
 This research included the following:
• They announced their discovery of induced radioactivity in 1899.
• They wrote about the luminous and chemical effects of radioactive rays and their electric charge.
• Pierre studied the action of a magnetic field on radium rays, he investigated the persistence of induced radioactivity, and he developed a standard for measuring time based on radioactivity (carbon dating), an important basis for geologic and archaeological dating techniques.
• Pierre used himself as a human guinea pig, deliberately exposing his arm to radium for several hours and recording the progressive, slowly healing burn that resulted. He collaborated with physicians in animal experiments that led to the use of radium therapy to treat cancer and lupus.
• Marie submitted and successfully defended her doctoral thesis on June 12, 1903. Her thesis was reprinted widely in 17 editions in five languages in the first year after its defense.
• In 1904, Pierre published a paper on the liberation of heat by radium salts
 The Royal Institution of Great Britain is a London-based organization devoted to scientific education and research. It was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age. Its foundational principles were diffusing the knowledge of, and facilitating the general introduction of, useful mechanical inventions and improvements, as well as enhancing the application of science to the common purposes of life (including through teaching, courses of philosophical lectures, and experiments).
 William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907) was an Irish-Scottish mathematical physicist, and engineer who was born in Belfast in 1824. At the University of Glasgow, he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics in its modern form. Absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honor. While the existence of a lower limit to temperature (absolute zero) was known prior to his work, Lord Kelvin is known for determining its correct value as approximately −273.15 degree Celsius or −459.67 degree Fahrenheit.
 The Île de la Cité is one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine within the city of Paris (the other being the Île Saint-Louis). It is the center of Paris and the location where the medieval city was re-founded.
 A dray is a heavy horse-drawn cart.