Cartoon from Vanity Fair of Marie and Pierre Curie.

Marie Curie and the History of Radioactivity

During the 19th century scientists knew little about what went on inside an atom. However, by the end of the century there were startling new ideas about the structure of the atom resulting from the discoveries of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron. 

Our collections contain a number of objects used by the physicists who made and researched these discoveries, including some of those belonging to Marie Curie and her family.

Marie Curie, her husband Pierre and their daughter Irène

Marie Curie, her husband Pierre and their daughter Irène

Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867. She was a brilliant student and dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris but it took eight years of saving before she could afford to go. Despite very poor living conditions and a lack of French she graduated in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894.

While looking for a laboratory in Paris to continue with her experiments she was introduced to Pierre Curie, a highly regarded professor at the School of Physics. At 35 years old, Pierre was already an internationally recognised physicist. With his brother Paul-Jacques, he discovered piezo-electricity: the fact that crystals under pressure produce electric currents. He also studied crystal symmetries and the magnetic properties of bodies at different temperatures. His papers had been well received by distinguished colleagues but he was still an outsider in the French academic community. Like Marie he did not care for outward distinctions or a career. They married in July 1895.

During her studies Marie had heard about Henri Becquerel's discovery of some sort of radiation emitting from uranium salts and decided to investigate these mysterious 'uranium rays' for her doctoral thesis. She soon discovered that the intensity of the rays was in direct proportion to the amount of uranium in her sample. Nothing she did to the uranium affected the rays. This, she said, 'shows that radioactivity is an atomic property'. She also found that two minerals, pitchblende and chalcite, were much more radioactive than uranium itself, and realised that they must contain a new radioactive element.