Marie Curie: A Fearless Woman of Science

Some of the most inspiring women in history have dedicated their lives to the advancement of science. From our understanding of the structures of DNA to the daunting missions of space exploration, women have made our lives far less mysterious. Their stories are a valuable lesson in perseverance as they defied the odds set against them by the historical current of sexism.

By the late 19th century, the discovery of radioactivity was capturing the attention of the scientific community. It was a woman who dedicated her life and sacrificed her physical health for two of the most valuable pieces of knowledge we often take for granted today: the existence of radium and polonium.

The first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes was born María Sklodowska on November 7th, 1867. Her parents were Polish school teachers whose lack of money left little hope for their youngest daughter’s higher education. However, upon moving to France in 1891, she entered Sorbonne University and married Pierre Curie, adopting the French spelling "Marie" along with his surname. Her story is one of remarkable determination, a love of knowledge and outstanding scientific discovery.

Marie Curie and her husband worked at the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris on the recently discovered rays that emanated from uranium. Upon noticing that there was still more radioactivity in the mineral pitchblende besides that of uranium ore, she was convinced that a new chemical element was awaiting discovery. While other scientists doubted her, the Curies got to work on separating the elements present in pitchblende, which resulted in a black powder that was named polonium, after the scientist’s home country. In 1898, she published her work on the existence of radium, another element she detected during that process.

Marie Curie pushed through the grueling work of isolating the element until 1902 when she determined that its atomic weight was 225.93. For their groundbreaking work on radioactivity, the Curies, and professor Henri Becquel shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. After her husband’s tragic death in 1906, Marie Curie continued his work at Sorbonne earning a 1911 Nobel Prize being, this time in chemistry, for her development of a method for measuring radioactivity. By 1914, she had invented mobile x-ray units for detecting the injuries of the wounded men of World War I and was directing the Red Cross Radiological Service.

Unaware at the time of the dangers of exposure to radioactivity, Marie Curie and her husband suffered from radiation sickness throughout the process of their scientific breakthroughs, which ultimately led to her death by aplastic anemia on July 4th, 1934. Her daughter Irene continued her scientific legacy, as well as her granddaughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot, a nuclear physicist. In 1995, Curie was buried alongside her husband in the Pantheon, making her the first woman to earn her place there on her own merit. To this day, her contributions to the fields of physics and chemistry continue to inspire determination in others, especially young women, and her words beautifully capture the intellectual curiosity that has pushed humankind forward for hundreds of years: "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."

Marie Curie’s name today is associated with a charity dedicated to alleviating the suffering of cancer patients in the UK. Previously, a hospital was named after her and specialized in the treatment of women suffering from cancer, but it was destroyed by an air raid during the war in 1944. To keep the name and mission alive, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation was established, becoming an official charity in 1952. It is now simply known as “Marie Curie” and continues to provide support for terminal patients and their families.

The life and legacy of Marie Curie serve as a reminder to all of us that what we currently know about the world around us has come from a long line of hard work and scientific curiosity. For women, she represents a victory against sexism and prejudice in the workplace. Despite being doubted by others and nearly having her name removed from the Nobel prize, she continued her work on radioactivity and changed the world of science as it was known at that time.

 

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