Born in Warsaw, Poland, she moved to Paris and studied chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne, where she became the first woman to teach there.
At the Sorbonne she met another instructor, Pierre Curie and married him; together they studied radioactive materials, particularly the uranium ore pitchblende, which had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. By 1898 they deduced a logical explanation: that the pitchblende contained traces of some unknown radioactive component which was far more radioactive than uranium; thus on December 26th Marie Curie announced the existence of this new substance.
Over several years of unceasing labour they refined several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive components, and eventually isolated, initially the chloride salts (refining radium chloride on April 20, 1902), two new chemical elements. The first they named polonium after Marie's native country, and the other was named radium from its intense radioactivity.
Together with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903: "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel". She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
Eight years later, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911 "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element". In an unusual move, Curie intentionally did not patent the radium isolation process, instead leaving it open so the scientific community could research unhindered.
She was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes. She is one of only two people who has been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different fields, the other being Linus Pauling.
During World War I, she pushed for the use of mobile radiography units for the treatment of wounded soldiers. In 1921, she did a tour of the United States, where she was welcomed triumphantly, to raise funds for research on radium.