Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. You can access all the previous postings of these remarkable women from the menu at the top of my site.
Today an outstanding woman of science. It is not Saturday but Meet Marie Curie.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.
Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. She was the fifth of seven children born to Bronislawa (nee Boguska) and Wladyslaw Sklodowski. Her parents were well-known teachers. Since they lived in the Russian partition of Poland, both sides of the family lost everything from their involvement in Polish national uprisings. Her father taught mathematics and physics and after the Russian authorities eliminated laboratory instruction for Polish schools, he brought the equipment home and continued to instruct his children. This would shape Marie’s future.
Birthplace on ulica Freta in Warsaw’s “New Town” – now home to the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum
In May 1878, when Marie was 10 years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Marie’s father was an atheist and her mother a devout Catholic. For Maria, the death of her mother and her sister three years earlier caused her to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.
When Marie was 10 years old, she began attending a boarding school and then she attended a gymnasium for girls. She graduated on June 12, 1883 with a gold medal. After a collapse, possibly due to depression, she spent the following year in the countryside with relatives of her father, and the next year with her father in Warsaw, where she did some tutoring.
Marie Sklodowski Age 16
Unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher education because she was a woman, Marie and her sister Bronisława became involved with the clandestine Flying University which was a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women students.
Sklodowski Family: Wladyslaw Skłodowski and his daughters Maria, Bronisława and Helena
The financial situation for an education was a struggle so Marie made a pact with her sister Bronislawa. Marie would take a position as a governess to help Bronislawa pay for her medical studies and two years later, Bronislawa would assist financially with Marie’s studies. While working for relatives of her father, Marie fell in love with the son, Kazimierz Zorawski. Her parents rejected the idea of marrying this relative and this is unfortunate as Kazimierz went on to become a prominent mathematician.
In early 1890, Bronislawa, now married, invited Marie to join them in Paris. It would be nearly two years before she could due to a lack of funding for university tuition. During this period she continued to educate herself. She began her practical science training (1890-91) in a chemical laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture at Krakowskie Przedmiescie 66, near Warsaw’s Old Town.
At a Warsaw laboratory, in 1890–91, Maria Skłodowska did her first scientific work
Paris, A New Life and Love
In late 1891, Marie came to Paris. She studied physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris. She studied during the day and tutored evenings. In 1893 she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory. She continued at the university and earned a second degree in 1894. At the beginning of her scientific career, she investigated the magnetic properties of various steels under a commission by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. It was at this time that she met and fell in love with Pierre Curie. It was their mutual interest in science that brought them together. He was an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry. Eventually he proposed marriage but she was reluctant as she wanted to return to Poland. He declared that if that be the case, he would move to Poland too. She thought she’d find a place for her work in Poland but that was for naught. Even though she came back to Warsaw, she soon returned to Paris and pursued her PhD. He also earned his Doctorate. She did go to Poland again in 1902 upon the death of her father.
Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory
On July 26, 1895, they were married. Their shared passions were long bicycle trips and journeys abroad. In Pierre, Marie found a new love, a partner, and a dependable scientific collaborator. During their life’s work, they would have two children, Irene in 1897 and Eve in 1904.
Pierre and Marie Curie shortly after their wedding.
The Curie Family; Marie, Pierre and daughter Irene, sit on an outdoor bench posing for a picture. — Image by © CORBIS
Ève, Marie and Irene Curie in 1908
This is the part that is hardest to write as there is so much material to abstract. I have given it in bullet points and will give links to sources at the end of my post.
- Influenced by the work being done with X-rays and with uranium, she decided to study uranium rays as her research thesis.
- By use of the electrometer, a sensitive device measuring electric charge and developed by her husband Pierre and his brother, she discovered that uranium rays caused air around a sample to conduct electricity. From this, she hypothesized that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself. This hypothesis was an important step in disproving the ancient assumption that atoms were indivisible.
Pierre and Jacques Curie’s electrometer.
- The Curies worked in an old shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry that they converted for their purposes. It was poorly ventilated nor waterproof. They were unaware of the effects that radiation exposure would have on them.
The storage shed laboratory
- By mid 1898, Pierre was so intrigued with Marie’s work that he gave up his study of crystals to join her.
- Marie understood the importance of publishing her discoveries in order to establish it as her original work.
- In July 1898 Curie and her husband published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element which they named “polonium”, in honor of her native Poland.
- On 26 December 1898, the Curies announced the existence of a second element, which they named “radium”, from the Latin word for “ray”.
- In the course of their research, they also coined the word “radioactivity”.
- Between 1898 and 1902 the Curies published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.
- In 1900 Curie became the first woman faculty member at the École Normale Supérieure, and her husband joined the faculty of the University of Paris.
L’École normale supérieure de Saint-Cloud en 1900.
- In June 1903, supervised by Gabriel Lippmann, Curie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris.
- That month the couple were invited to the Royal Institution in London to give a speech on radioactivity; being a woman, she was prevented from speaking, and Pierre alone was allowed to. Imagine how many wonderful things were lost to the world of discovery by this close mindedness.
- A new industry began developing, based on radium but the Curies did not patent their discovery and benefited little from this increasingly profitable business.
In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie and Henry Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics for their joint researches on radiation discovered by Professor Henry Becquerel. As you probably guessed it, the committee at first only intended to honor Pierre and Becquerel. One of the committee members who was an advocate for women scientists alerted Pierre and his complaint resulted in Marie’s name being added to the nomination. Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
1903 Nobel Prize portrait
After the Nobel Prize, the University of Paris gave Pierre a professorship and the chair of physics but the Curies still did not have a proper laboratory. Upon Pierre’s complaint, the university agreed to furnish a new laboratory but it would not be read until 1906. On April 19, 1906, Pierre was killed crossing a street. Marie was now a widow raising two daughters. On May 13, 1906, the physics department of the University of Paris decided that the chair created for Pierre would be offered to Marie. She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. When she accepted, she set a goal to create a world-class laboratory as a tribute to her husband.
Her Work Continues
During the first two decades of the twentieth-century, Marie Curie continue her important work. In 1910 she succeeded in isolating radium and defined the international standard for radioactive emissions which was eventually named for her and Pierre, the curie. Despite her contributions, she was still left out because she was a woman. In 1911, the French Academy of Sciences did not elect her to be a member. It would take over half a century (1962) for a woman, one of Marie’s students to be elected. Another obstacle for Marie Curie’s election and other setbacks was xenophobia, the public fear of anything strange or foreign. During the French Academy of Sciences elections, she was vilified by the right wing press who criticised her for being a foreigner and an atheist.
The right-wing French press, including the daily Excelsior, attacked Curie’s candidacy for the French Academy with scurrilous and racist claims based on supposedly scientific analyses of her handwriting and facial characteristics.
Despite the negative press which grew again when it was noted that she had an affair with a married man in 1910-11, Marie’s international recognition for her work was growing. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, overcoming opposition prompted by the Langevin scandal, honored her a second time, with the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This award was “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.” She was the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes, and remains alone with Linus Pauling as Nobel laureates in two fields each.
1911 Nobel Prize diploma
During World War I, Marie Curie saw the need for field radiological centers near the front lines and developed mobile radiology units using procured X-ray equipment, vehicles and auxiliary generators. She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service. With the assistance of a military doctor and her 17 year old daughter, Irene, Marie Curie set up 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war. Later she began training other women as aides.
Curie in a mobile X-ray vehicle
A fleet of 20 x-ray vehicles was built up, and they were called “petites Curies.”
In 1915 Curie produced hollow needles containing ‘radium emanation’, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon, to be used for sterilizing infected tissue. She provided the radium from her own one-gram supply. It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units. In spite of all her humanitarian contributions to the French war effort, Curie never received any formal recognition of it from the French government. Promptly after the war started, she attempted to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the war effort but the French National Bank refused to accept them. She did buy war bonds, using her Nobel Prize money. She was also an active member in committees of Polonia in France dedicated to the Polish cause. After the war, she summarized her war time experiences in a book Radiology in War (1919
Radiology and War by Marie Curie.
There is so much more I could write about her accomplishments but it is just a blog post, not a full length biography. I have provided other online sources at the end.
Death and Legacy
Curie visited Poland for the last time in early 1934. A few months later, on 4 July 1934, she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, in Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionising radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket, and she stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark. Curie was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war. Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Panthéon, Paris. She became the first—and so far the only—woman to be honored with interment in the Panthéon on her own merits. Because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.
- The physical and societal aspects of the Curies’ work contributed substantially to shaping the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
- To attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way because she was a woman, in both her native and her adoptive country.
- In a 2009 poll carried out by New Scientist, Marie Curie was voted the “most inspirational woman in science”. She received 25.1% of all votes cast.
- Poland and France declared 2011 the Year of Marie Curie, and the United Nations declared that this would be the International Year of Chemistry.
- Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. Awards that she received include:
Nobel Prize in Physics (1903)
Davy Medal (1903, with Pierre)
Matteucci Medal (1904; with Pierre)
Actonian Prize (1907)
Elliott Cresson Medal (1909)
Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911)
Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society (1921
- The curie (symbol Ci), a unit of radioactivity, is named in honour of her and Pierre (although the commission which agreed on the name never clearly stated whether the standard was named after Pierre, Marie or both of them).
- The element with atomic number 96 was named curium.
- Three radioactive minerals are also named after the Curies: curite, sklodowskite, and cuprosklodowskite.
- She received numerous honorary degrees from universities across the world.
The list goes on and on.
Want to learn more?