Women in Science: Marie Curie, the Grand Dame of Science

When I started this series, I knew that at some point I would want to tell this story. The story of the Grand Dame of Science, Marie Curie. This story is especially important to me because reading about her life has inspired me to study Chemistry and pursue a PhD.

Marie Curie’s life was full of firsts. She was the first female professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, the first female Nobel Prize winner and the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice. So great were her achievements, that she is often considered the first female research scientist, although some others came before her.

Maria Sklodowska was born 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, which was then a part of the Russian empire. Her father was a teacher in Mathematics and Physics. He provided her with some scientific training additionally to the general education Maria received in local schools.

Maria’s family was too poor to support her through a university education. Therefore, she struck a deal with her sister, Bronislawa. At first, Bronislawa studied Medicine in Paris while Maria stayed behind in Poland to work as a tutor and governess supporting her financially. The plan was that later her sister would support Maria to get a higher education. During this time, Maria continued to read and study in her own time quenching her thirst for knowledge.

In 1891, Maria could finally move to Paris and continue her studies at Sorbonne University, where she started using the name Marie. She graduated with a degree in Physics 1893 and one in Mathematics 1894. Throughout her studies in Paris and even later, Marie had to carry on working as a tutor and teacher to earn her keep.

In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie, a professor at the School of Physics in Paris, whom she married one year later. Their marriage marked the beginning of a great partnership that would lead to a number of significant scientific discoveries.

The Curies research built on work of Becquerel, who had observed the first evidence of radioactivity in 1896. They continued Becquerel’s studies and called the phenomenon ”radioactivity”. Together with Becquerel, they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for the ”discovery of radioactivity”.

While working with the ore pitchblende, which contains the element radioactive uranium, Marie found that the radioactivity of the mineral was higher than that of pure uranium. This led her and Pierre to believe that there must be another, more radioactive element hidden inside the ore. After years of hard work processing tons of pitchblende, they were finally able to extract two new elements, radium and polonium in 1898. The latter was named after Marie’s home nation.

The Curies had been right about the high radioactivity of the new elements. In fact, radium gives off so much radiation, that it glows in its pure state. Marie Curie would later receive a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for the discovery of radium and polonium.

Pierre Curie died suddenly in an accident in April 1906 leaving behind his wife and their two young daughters, Irene and Eve. This was a huge blow to Marie who from now on proceeded with their work alone. In May, she was appointed to the professorship that had been left vacant by her husband’s death and became the first female professor at Sorbonne University.

Soon after Marie received her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911, Sorbonne University built their first Radium Institute which included two labs. One was devoted to the study of radioactivity and directed by Marie, the other was tasked with investigating the use of radioactivity to treat cancer.

During World War I, Marie and her daughter Irene developed mobile x-ray units to treat soldiers. She equipped ambulances with them and drove them herself at the front lines.

In the later part of her life, Marie devoted most of her research at the Radium Institute to medical applications of radioactivity like the treatment of cancer. She died 1934 due to leukaemia which was caused by the years she spent investigating and handling radioactive substances. Famously, her cook book and chair are still slightly radioactive today.

Her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie would go on to win her own Nobel Prize together with her husband Frederic Joliot for the ”discovery of artificial radioactivity”. But this is another story.





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