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Her-Story, Then: Marie Curie

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Kate Mulgrew: When the family business is science, don't be surprised to find a few Nobel Prizes in the closet. One of Poland's favorite daughters won two, and her daughter another. I am Kate Mulgrew with Her Story. [music 00:13]

She called it her miserable little shed, leaky and cold, but there, the young mother and doctoral student spent years processing pitch blend. "Sometimes, I had to spend a whole day stirring a boiling mass with a heavy iron rod nearly as big as myself, " she wrote.

Her husband gave up his own scientific pursuits to join her. They isolated two new elements, naming one radium and the other polonium after her native country.

Manya Sklodowska was born in czarist Poland in 1867 to Polish nationalists. Her parents were educators, but politics cost them job after job. TB and typhus killed her mother and a sister.

11-year-old Manya plunged into her schoolwork, graduating first in her class at 15, but women were forbidden to attend college, so Manya supported her sister's medical studies in Paris. Later, her sister returned the favor. Meanwhile, Manya attended underground classes to avoid czarist authorities.

In Paris, Manya changed her name to Marie. She earned two master's degrees, married Pierre Curie, had two daughters, and became the first woman in France to get a doctorate. The Curies won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903.

Marie kept a sample of glowing radium on her bed stand. Pierre carried a piece in his vest pocket. But exposure to radiation caused severe effects on their health. Pierre died in an accident in 1906. Marie won another Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911. Her daughter Irene and her husband later won a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

At 67, Marie died of radiation exposure. The Curie's lab is still contaminated. Even their books are radioactive. Today, researchers who study their notebooks must sign a waiver and do so at their own risk.

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Her Story is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

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