Collaboration: Science

Marie and Pierre Curie
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Women physicists were rare in the 19th century, but even rarer were husband-and-wife collaborative teams. Marie and Pierre Curie made history not only in that respect, but also because their scientific teamwork led to the discovery of radioactivity and two new elements in the periodic table, radium and polonium. Marie Curie had begun her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Marie and Pierre Curie together. It was only at the urging of Marie that Pierre Curie took the trouble of writing up his research on magnetism as a doctoral thesis. A few months before their marriage he was awarded a doctorate of science. When Marie's own thesis research led her to believe that she was on the verge of discovering a new element, he joined her in the search. They divided the labor: while Pierre concentrated on investigating the properties of radium, Marie did chemical experiments with a view to preparing pure compounds. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 played a major role in the continued study of this new radiation by the Curies. Together, they were awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 on account of their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the prize. [3] 

Their work in this era formed the basis for much of the subsequent research in nuclear physics and chemistry. Radioactivity is the starting point for cancer treatment, for the dating techniques used on ancient objects, rocks and the universe, and for molecular biology and modern genetics. It is also the source of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.  


[In science] we can aspire to accomplish something ... every discovery, however small, is a permanent gain.

Pierre Curie to Marie, 1894, urging her to join him in “our scientific dream.” [1] 

My husband and I were so closely united by our affection and our common work that we passed nearly all of our time together.

Marie Curie [2] 

Comprehension Questions: 

  • What common interest and research brought the Curies together?
  • Through their studies together, what did they discover?
  • What previous research conducted by others helped the Curies with their discovery?
  • Due to this body of research, what current technologies and advancements in science have been made?


2 Marie Curie By Nick Healy, Published by Creative Education, 2005