Born in Poland during a time of Russian domination, Marie Sklodowska (1867-1934) had no real opportunity for an education after high school. She saved her hard-earned money to help pay for her older sisterís medical studies in Paris, then followed her to France in 1891, studying at the Sorbonne. In 1894, she met the French chemist Pierre Curie (1859-1906), and they were married a year later. Although Pierre had already made a name for himself, their collaboration proved far more fruitful than his solo career.
They spent much of their careers studying radioactivity (a term coined by Marie), examining the particles and energy produced as radioactive atoms decayed, and in the process learned about the building blocks of matter. They established that the heavy element thorium was radioactive and discovered two new elements: polonium and radium. They refined techniques for extracting radium from ores.
Marie won Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry for their work. (Pierre failed to share in the second simply because he was dead.) Yet despite living in near povertyóthey spent most of their money on further researchóthey were idealistic enough to refuse to patent any of their potentially lucrative discoveries. Pierre was killed when he was run down by a horse-drawn carriage. Marie died of leukemia, almost certainly the result of a lifetime of exposure to high levels of radiation. Ironically, one of the enduring applications of their work has been in the treatment of cancer with radiation.