By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
In the 19th century, female scientists were confronted with a wide range of social and legal barriers that virtually shut them out of the profession. Due to prevailing prejudices, many colleges would not accept women, scientific journals would not publish their work, and research laboratories would not hire them. Navigating a field dominated by men was extremely difficult at best. Nevertheless, numerous brilliant and dedicated women stepped forward to pursue the sciences – despite the obstacles involved. One of the greatest, by far, was Marie Curie, a woman whose intelligence was matched only by her courage. Curie not only managed to build a successful career as a physicist and chemist during those difficult times, she accomplished remarkable feats of scientific discovery that continue to shape modern medicine to this day.
Curie is the first woman in the history of the world to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the only woman in history to win this prestigious prize two times. She was also the first female professor to work at the esteemed University of Paris, where she received her education. With her extraordinary insight, powerful curiosity, and commitment to advancing science, Marie Curie went on to a life of success, despite opposition from most male scientists. And the institutes she founded continue to carry on important research to benefit the world. On November 7, 2015, we will commemorate the 147th anniversary of her birth – making this a good time to look back on her accomplishments and celebrate her work.
BORN INTO HARDSHIP
Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867 – the youngest of five children. Though the family had once been prosperous, they had lost their wealth and property, condemning Marie and her family to economic hardships and a life of struggle.
Her parents, both well-known teachers, encouraged her interest in science at an early age. However, at the age of 10, Marie’s mother died from tuberculosis – a traumatic event that had a terrible impact on her. Over time, Marie began attending a boarding school. From there, she went to a special school for girls who were academically outstanding. At the age of 15, Curie graduated from high school at the top of her class, and was awarded a gold medal for her achievements.
Although Marie and her sister Bronia had a passion for science and wanted to pursue it, the Warsaw College did not allow women, so they decided to further their education in France. To help pay for her sister’s medical education in Paris, Marie worked as a governess for several years, while at night, when she had the chance, she read everything she could about science and mathematics, hoping someday to pursue her own degree. Finally, when her sister had completed her studies, Marie’s chance had come. And in November of 1891, at the age of 24, Marie left for Paris, France, to follow her dream.
PURSUING A DREAM
In Paris, Marie rented a room in the Latin quarters so she could be closer to the university and have more time to study. The room was small and cold, and she often subsisted on nothing but tea and bread in order to pay the rent, causing her health to suffer. But her hard work paid off when she graduated in 1893, once again at the top of her class, with a master’s of physics degree. When advocates for women’s education gave her a scholarship to continue her education, she pursued a degree in chemistry, which she attained the following year in 1894.
Eventually, Marie grew homesick, so she returned to Poland for a time, hoping to remain there and find a job. In Poland, she once again faced a staggering degree of gender discrimination. Because she was a woman, there was no opportunity for her to work in the field of science, so she left once again and returned to Paris.
When one of Marie’s former professors arranged a grant for her to study the magnetic properties and chemical composition of steel, she accepted the challenge. It was while working at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry where she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, a man who was an expert on magnetism and had as much passion for science as she did. The two fell in love and married in the summer of 1895, and over the next several years had two daughters, Eve and Irene. “My husband and I were so closely united by our affection and our common work,” said Marie, “that we passed nearly all of our time together.”
Over time, Marie eventually began studying radioactive elements – primarily uranium ore. In fact, it was Marie who actually coined the term “radioactive.” It was used to describe materials that emitted energy particles. Marie discovered that uranium rays charged the air they passed through, so that this air could conduct electricity. During her research, she theorized that the emission of these rays was an atomic property of uranium and, if true, meant that the atom was not the smallest possible fragment of matter, but that there had to be something even smaller. Today, with the advancing field of quantum physics, and the discovery of the sub-atomic world, we now know that Marie Curie was right.
When Curie decided to test all known chemical ores to see if they shared the same properties, her husband found her work so fascinating, that he put aside his own research to assist her. After countless hours of work and research, they discovered two new elements, which Marie called polonium (named after her home country of Poland), and radium, both of which emitted considerably more radioactivity than uranium.
In the year 1903, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics for her contributions to the understanding of atomic structure. And in 1911, she won her second Nobel Prize, this in chemistry, for her discovery of polonium and radium. These accomplishments made her an internationally celebrated figure.
TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH
The money from the prizes brought a life of comfort for Marie Curie and her husband. Unfortunately, her life turned to tragedy when her beloved Pierre was struck and killed by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906 – leaving Marie devastated. To honor her husband’s memory, officials at the Sorbonne University offered Marie a chance to take over her husband’s old position as Chair of the Physics Department. She accepted their offer, becoming the first woman ever to hold the position.
To cope with the loss of her husband, Marie immersed herself in her work. She continued to conduct research in the field of radiation, until the outbreak of WW 1 gave her a chance to put her knowledge to use. To help save lives, Marie set up radiology medical units that could be used to x-ray wounded soldiers in order to determine how extensive their wounds were. It’s estimated that by the end of the war, over 1 million soldiers had been helped by her invention.
Now recognized as one of the world’s “scientific greats,” Marie Curie began travelling the world to give lectures about science and about her new establishment, The Radium Institute, which was set up to further study how radiation could be used for medical purposes. Marie was one of a small number of elite scientists, and the only woman, invited to one of the most famous scientific conferences of all-time – the 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons.
As she carried on with her research, Curie soon discovered that radiation could be used to treat tumors, a finding that has gone on to benefit millions of people around the world. To this day, radiation therapy is still used to shrink and destroy both cancerous and benign growths.
Sadly, a lifetime of exposure to radiation took its toll on Curie. Unaware of the harmful effects of radiation, she often walked around with a vial of radium in her pocket. Eventually, it affected her health. From 1920 on, she suffered from various medical issues, and on July 4th, 1934, at the age of 66, she passed away from aplastic anemia, a blood disease that is associated with too much exposure to radiation.
A LEGACY OF HEALING
Despite Curie’s passing, the work at her institutes continued, with some of its scientists receiving the Nobel Prize over the years, including one of her own daughters, Irene. Curie and her husband were both honored in 1944 when a newly discovered element was named Curium in their memory.
Marie Curie was a brave and passionate woman whose curiosity and courage in the face of opposition led to discoveries that have revolutionized medicine and have helped improve countless lives. “I am one of those who think… that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries,” she said.
Although she had met opposition from most male scientists in her day, not all of the men felt resentful toward Curie and her work. In fact, she had the admiration of one of the most respected scientists of all time – Albert Einstein.
“Not only did she do outstanding work in her lifetime,” said Einstein, “and not only did she help humanity greatly by her work, but she invested all her work with the highest moral quality. All of this she accomplished with great strength, objectivity, and judgment. It is very rare to find all of these qualities in one individual.”