The Curies began to do scientific experiments on radiation, or the energy and light that an object gives off. In 1898 they discovered two new elements in nature called polonium (puh•LOH•nee•uhm) and radium (RAY•dee•uhm). For their work the Curies and another scientist, Henri Becquerel, earned the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. At the time, people did not know that radiation was dangerous or deadly. Doctors used radium as medicine for cancer. Also, radium glowed in the dark, so watchmakers sometimes painted radium on watch hands. People even put it in face powder. The Curies both became sick from the radiation that polonium and radium gave off, but they did not stop working.
On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was hit by a wagon on the streets of Paris and died. This was a tragic loss, but Marie Curie knew she had to finish the work they had started. She began teaching at the Sorbonne in May 1906. She was the first woman to teach at the university. In 1911 she won a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for her continued work with radium. She was the first person ever to win a Nobel Prize twice. The University of Paris then opened the Radium Institute (later named the Curie Institute) on July 31, 1914. World War I began four days later.
During World War I Curie and her daughter Irène set up X-ray machines in cars. This allowed the machines to be moved easily to the battlefields, where they were used to find bullets lodged inside wounded soldiers. By the end of the war, she had taught 150 women to use the X-ray machines.
Many women saw Curie as a role model. She was one of the most famous scientists in the world. In 1921 President Warren G. Harding gave Curie a gram of radium bought with money that American women had collected because they believed in the importance of her work. Since radium was expensive at the time, this gift would allow Curie to continue her research on radium.
On July 4, 1934, Curie died of leukemia (loo•KEE•mee•uh), a disease probably caused by her exposure to radiation. Leukemia is a cancer that affects some of the cells that form blood. In 1995 the ashes of both Marie and Pierre Curie were buried in the Pantheon in Paris. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive this honor.
Today the work of Marie Curie remains important. Doctors have medicines to treat cancer, and scientists can use nuclear power to make energy because of Marie Curie's work.