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Marie Salomea Sklodowska-Curie was born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland (Borzendowski 2009, 1890). Of all the notable scientists in history, she is perhaps the strongest representation of a woman succeeding against all odds to change the field of physics forever. Her discoveries led her from a childhood of obscurity to being one of the most well-known scientists of all time.
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Curie’s father taught Mathematics and Physics as a secondary teacher, and shared his passions and knowledge with his children (Curie 1937, 59). These were unusual subjects for girls to study at the time and Curie went on to achieve degrees in both because of her father’s influence. Unfortunately, Curie’s family became lost everything when the principal of the school her father worked at, turned him in for being loyal to Poland, which was illegal under the Russian rule (Borzendowski 2009, 1894). Marie spent the rest of her youth struggling to fund her education.
Marie Curie was an extremely intelligent woman who devoted her life to the pursuit of knowledge. She learned to read by the time she was four, “without even trying, it seemed” and soon she could read better than her older sister (Borzendowski 2009, 1892). At this young age she dreamed of becoming a scientist, even though such a dream would be difficult in her male dominated society. She received a general education in local schools and scientific training from her father (Curie 1937, 59). In 1891, Curie was finally able to continue her studies in the Sorbonne University, in Paris, where she studied and earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in physics and mathematical sciences. Curie continued to further her education throughout her life. One of her greatest accomplishment’s occurred after her husband’s death when she succeeded him as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne. In another moment of success she took her husband’s place as Professor of General Physics in 1906, the first woman to ever be given this position.
Marie Curie had one great love in her life – Pierre Curie. They met at university and quickly discovered a shared interest in magnetism (Ogilvie 2004, 30). They fell in love and were soon married but their relationship went further than just that of a husband and wife. They became partners in science and discovery and many of Curie’s greatest achievements were developed with her husband. The couple had two daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie and Ève Curie, who went on to have very successful careers themselves (Ogilvie 2004, 41). Sadly, this happy family could not continue as disaster struck in 1906 when Pierre Curie was run over by a horse-drawn carriage and died (Ogilvie 2004, 76).
After the loss of her husband, Curie was devastated and turned to his friend Paul Langevin to help her with her grief. This friendship quickly developed into a relationship for which Curie was publicly despised. She was a widow, but he “was married and the father of four children” (Quinn 1995, 14). The French press used this information to vilify her and to bring up people’s negative attitudes towards “godless intellectuals and emancipated women” (Quinn 1995, 14).
Contribution to Science
Marie Curie made one of the greatest discoveries of her time when she theorized that “radioactivity was an atomic rather than a chemical property” (Ogilvie 2004, ix). She was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, winning numerous awards and becoming “the first woman Nobel laureate” in 1903 with her shared award in physics, alongside her husband Pierre Curie and colleague Henry Becquerel (Goldsmith 2005, 111). Marie Curie went on to win another Nobel Prize in Chemistry, this time as the sole recipient. She also discovered the elements polonium and radium (Ogilvie 2004, 57).
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Contribution to Society
Marie Curie was continuously struggling to be seen and recognized for her great achievements. At the time it was an extremely unusual for a woman to take part in such a male dominated field. On May 13th, 1906 that changed. “[T]he council of the Faculty of Science unanimously decided to maintain the chair created for Pierre Curie, and to confide it to Marie” (Curie 1937, 253). This was the first time a woman had been given a visible role in French higher education. The fact that this vote was unanimous shows that Marie Curie was recognized as a scientist with enough talent to merit the possible backlash from a more conservative community.
Curie was also altruistic. She donated her award money and pushed for the use of mobile radiography units during WWI to treat wounded soldiers. She wanted radioactivity to be used to treat cancer and devoted her life to finding benefits to these new properties that she had discovered (Curie 1937, x). Despite all of this, Curie still struggled with being accepted in the scientific community. For instance, it is interesting to notice that her early awards were almost always awarded to both her and her husband. In fact, “Marie Curie had not been nominated” for the 1903 Nobel Prize despite the fact that she had worked on the discovery (Ogilvie 2004, 66). It was not until her husband said “I very much with to be considered together with Madame Curie” that she was thought of and her nomination from the year before was used (Ogilvie 2004, 66).
Marie Curie is easily one of the most prominent female scientists of all time. Her notoriety has been earned through her numerous awards, honorary degrees, and memberships to various learned societies. Most notably she was “the first woman Nobel laureate” in 1903 in physics and she then went on to win another Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It is important to note that she was awarded Nobel Prizes in two different categories, which is rare in itself, the fact that she was a woman doing this early in the twentieth century makes it all the more remarkable. Curie was also awarded the Davy medal, with her husband, in 1903. This award is “one of [the Royal Society of London’s] highest awards” (Curie 1937, 208). In 1904, she was awarded the Matteucci Medal by the Italian Society of Sciences, again with her husband and in 1909 she was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal by the Franklin Institute. Marie Curie was also awarded countless honorary degrees and memberships across the world for her achievements. For instance, she received many honorary degrees and awards from countless schools and organizations. (Curie 1937, 406).
Without the knowledge of radiation we have now, Curie took no precautions to avoid poisoning. To make matters worse, when she first began her research she had very little funding. Even if she had wanted to take safety precautions, she would not have been able. She did not even have a laboratory to perform her experiments, instead having to content herself “with a shed for their experiments” (Curie 1937, 186). Due to this, her notes, and even her cookbooks from the 1890’s, are too radioactive to be handled (Bryson 2003, 140). Curie died July 4, 1934 from aplastic anemia because of this exposure to radiation (Ogilvie 2004, xiv). Sadly her passion for science and discovery had resulted in her death. Sixty years later, in 1995, the remains of the couple were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris, out of respect of their achievements. Currie was the first woman to ever receive this honor which cemented her position not just as a scientist, but as a symbol of possibility for women in the future (Borzendowski 2009, 1888).
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