Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person and only woman to win it twice, and in multiple sciences.
Maria Sklodowska, better known as Marie Curie, was born in Warsaw in modern-day Poland on November 7, 1867. A top student in her secondary school, Curie could not attend the men-only University of Warsaw, which was run by Tsarist Russia at the time.
She instead continued her education in Warsaw's Polish "floating university," a set of underground, informal classes held in secret and ran by Polish teachers and professors, who unlike everywhere else in Europe at that time, had no problem of admitting and teaching women in their classes.
For roughly five years, Curie worked as a tutor and a governess. She used her spare time to study, reading about physics, chemistry and math. In 1891, Curie finally made her way to Paris where she enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Marie Skłodowska Curie in her younger years.
She threw herself into her studies, but this dedication had a personal cost. With little money, Curie survived on buttered bread and tea, and her health sometimes suffered because of her poor diet.
Curie completed her master's degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics the following year.
Her achievements are among the greatest in the history of science.
She was the first to establish a theory of radioactivity. Her pioneering work led to the first use of X-rays and a tentative understanding of cancers. Curie's efforts, with her husband Pierre Curie, led to the discovery of polonium and radium and, after Pierre's death, the further development of X-rays.
She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to be accepted to the French Academy of Medicine a distinguished institution steeped in tradition. She was also the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in two fields, and the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Marie Skłodowska Curie in her Paris lab
All of her years of working with radioactive materials took a toll on Curie's health. She was known to carry test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat. In 1934, Curie went to the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France, to try to rest and regain her strength. She died there on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.
She also founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw - where she was born, raised and educted - which remain major centres of medical research today.
Curie also passed down her love of science to the next generation. Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her mother's footsteps, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
Today several educational and research institutions and medical centers bear the Curie name, including the Institute Curie and the Pierre and Marie Curie University, both in Paris.