Marie Curie, born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, was born in Poland, November 7, 1867 in Varsovie. She grew up under the Russian occupation. Her father was a mathematics teacher and her mother a school teacher. She was a Polish and naturalized French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman who won two Nobel prizes in two scientific fields. Marie Curie’s life was driven by an unwavering commitment to women’s rights, social progress, peace among people, and emancipation through knowledge.
In her early life, Marie Curie was already a little genius. At 16 years old, she won a gold medal on the competition of her secondary education at the Russian school.
In the 19th century, higher education was forbidden to women in Poland, so she studied at Warsaw’s clandestine Flying University and began her practical scientific training in Warsaw.
In 1891, aged 24, she followed her elder sister Bronisława to study in Paris, at the Faculty of Science at the University of Paris, where she earned her higher degree in medical studies.
She identified herself with the positivist thinking of Auguste Comte, who sought to understand the world through science.
She was awarded a Degree in Physics in 1893 where she came first. Then she began to work in the industrial laboratory of Gabriel Lippmann. Meanwhile, she continued studying at the University of Paris, and with the aid of a fellowship she was able to earn a second degree in 1894 in Mathematical Sciences where she was the second-best.
In that period she met Pierre Curie and they became husband and wife in 1895. This year marked the start of a partnership between Marie and Pierre Curie.
In 1896, she defended her thesis on “The study of radiation produced by uranium”. On December 10, 1903, she received the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for their research on the radiation phenomena, making her the first woman to receive this award.
In 1897 the couple had their first baby girl called Irène, in 1904 Marie Curie gave birth to their second daughter Eve. The birth of her two children didn’t interrupt Marie’s intensive scientific work. During this time she had been appointed lecturer at the “École Normale Supérieur” for girls in physics, where she introduced a new method of teaching based on experimental demonstrations. Also, in December 1904 she was appointed chief assistant in the laboratory directed by Pierre Curie.
In April 1906, her husband Pierre Currie suddenly died in a road accident. The year 1906 was also a turning point for her career. During this year, on May 13, she was appointed the teaching position that had been left vacant on her husband’s death. She became the first woman to teach in the Sorbonne. Two years after that, she became titular professor and in 1910 her thesis about radioactivity was published.
In 1911, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the isolation of pure radium and polonium (named by Marie in honour of her native land). She is the first scientist to have received two Nobel Prizes for her work. (Currently, there are only four women who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Irène Joliot-Curie in 1935, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964, Ada Yonath in 2009 and Frances Arnold in 2018).
Marie Curie became the first woman to direct a university laboratory where she hired many qualified female scientists. She decided to never patent some of her discoveries, considering that “the discoveries belong to the people”. Her work on radioactivity has led to decisive medical progress, particularly in cancer research. She developed a cancer treatment technique that would bear her name. The principle is to irradiate a tumor with a radioactive substance. This method is still used today.
During the First World War, she went to the field in Verdun. She mobilized its network to contribute to the war effort with X-ray units that she created as well as equipped ambulances that bear her name. Thanks to X-rays, surgeons were able to locate shrapnel in the wounds. Marie Curie herself drove one of the ambulances accompanied by her daughter Irène. Her X-ray stations may have saved the lives of a million people.
After the war, her example would be a precious help in the various struggles for the causes of women, especially in the field of science.
She avoided taking political sides, but protested against the imprisonment of a suffragette in 1921 and spoke out against the death penalty.
In 1922, she was the first woman to enter the Academy of Medicine, she devoted her research to the study of the chemistry of radioactive substances and the medical applications of these substances.
With Albert Einstein, she joined the “International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations”, which earned her the congratulations of the great physicist: “You are the best among women. And also among men!”.
In 1934, Marie Curie died as a result of aplastic anemia caused by the action of radiation. In the world of science, her contribution has been immense. With her work she influenced generations of scientists. She was awarded with a Nobel Prize twice for her discoveries. In 1995, Marie Curie’s ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris.
Irène Joliot-Curie would say few years later what she loved about her mother: “her uncompromising feminism, her revolt against the current social state, her passionate desire to see a peaceful understanding between the people….”.
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