Marie Curie is one of the most accomplished scientists of all time, a fascinating woman, with a fascinating life. She is the winner of two Nobel prizes in two different fields and a pioneer in many aspects. Here’s her story.
Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”
This tiny woman with her decigram of radium turned the world upside down, forever changing the way we look at, understand, and use our environment.”
– Mollie Keller
Marie Curie is one of the most famous women scientists of modern times, who managed to impose herself on the male-dominated world of science. Pioneer in research about radioactivity, the queen of modern science, the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne in Paris and the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, Madame Curie has become a role-model who has inspired numerous other women to follow their passions.
Her work has not only exerted strong influence on the development of modern science, but it has also opened the door to a new era in medical research and therapy.
After French physicist Antoine Becquerel discovered in 1896 that uranium emitted a mysterious source of energy that affected photographic paper in the same way as light, Marie Curie has decided to perform more scientific research in this field.
In 1898, with the help of her husband Pierre, Marie Curie found that the intensity of radiation was in exact proportion to the amount of uranium. The radiation was therefore coming from the uranium atoms.
The Curies named this effect radioactivity. They discovered three types of radiation and called them alpha, beta and gamma.
In July 1898, the Curies discovered a new radioactive element, which they extracted from pitchblende, also known as Uraninite, which is a uranium rich mineral. They named it polonium after Marie’s home country, Poland.
In December 1898, the Curies extracted a much more radioactive material from the pitchblende, which they called radium for its intense radioactivity.
To prove their discoveries, the Curries long struggled to isolate radium in its pure metallic state.
In 1902 Marie Curie managed to separate one-tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride from 1 ton of pitchblende.
In 1910 Marie succeeded in isolating pure radium metal.
Despite being one of the greatest physicists of all times whose work established the use of radiation therapy for cancer & lupus, Marie Curie was extremely modest about her scientific accomplishments, and always pointed out that they belonged to science, and not to her.
Marie Curie was the only woman to win the Nobel Award in two different fields.
In 1903 Marie Curie, her husband Pierre, and Henry Becquerel won the Nobel Prize for Physics and shared it with another physicist named Antoine Henri.
In 1911 Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize for Chemistry, this time entirely on her own.
Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska on November 7th 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. She was the daughter of a secondary-school teacher and the youngest of five children. She had 1 older brother and 3 older sisters.
She went to Paris in 1891 to study at the Sorbonne where she obtained Licenciateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences.
In 1894 she met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics, and in 1895 they got married.
Marie and Pierre had two daughters – Irene and Eve. The eldest Irene was a physicist, winner of a Nobel Prize together with her husband Frederic Joliot for their work on the synthesis of radioactive substances, and Eve was a renowned pianist, journalist, and diplomat.
Pierre’s life ended in 1906 when he was accidentally killed by a horse-drawn carriage. After his death, Marie was offered his chair at the Sorbonne as Professor of General Physics, and she accepted. Two years later she was elected full professor, becoming the first woman to hold this post.
The Curie’s research on radioactivity was crucial in the development of x-rays in surgery and this led to the opening of different radium institutes in France and Poland just before World War I. In 1914 the International Red Cross named her head of its radiological service and she and her colleagues held training courses for medical orderlies and doctors to teach them how to use the new technique.
During World War I, Irene Joliot-Curie assisted her mother in setting up mobile x ray machines, which they personally drove to the front lines to help wounded soldiers. These portable X-ray units were known as petite Curies, or little Curies.
In 1932 Marie Curie founded the Radium Institute in Warsaw, Poland. After World War II, the name was changed to “Maria Skłodowska-Curie Institute of Oncology” and it is now the major cancer research and treatment center in Poland.
Marie died on July 4th 1934 from leukemia caused by the overexposure to radioactive materials throughout her life. She is about the first known victim of this.
When Marie Curie was asked in her later years whether she was going to write a story about her life, she replied, astonished: “It will not be much of a book. It is such an uneventful, simple little story. I was born in Warsaw into a family of teachers. I married Pierre Curie and had two children. I have done my work in France.”
Marie Curies is the first woman awarded a Ph.D. in research science in Europe, the first woman professor at the Sorbonne, and the first person to win or share two Nobel Prizes.
In 1911, Marie Curie was denied entry to the French Academy of Sciences by one vote. She was a woman, she was Polish, and there were false rumors that she was Jewish. Emile Hilaire Amagat, who was an Academy member, said of the vote, “Women cannot be part of the Institute of France”. Marie Curie refused to have her name resubmitted for nomination and she did not allow the Academy to publish any of her work for a decade.
Marie Curie, one of the greatest scientists of the world died at the age of 66 without ever having had the right to vote.
The notebooks Marie Curie used are still so radioactive and they cannot be safely handled.
The unit for radiation dosage – Curie (symbol Ci) was named after her and her husband.
Fascinated by the glow of radioactive material, Marie Curie carried bottles of polonium and radium in the pocket of her coat to show how they glowed.
One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products. It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.”
At the age of 16 she won a gold medal upon the completion of her secondary education at the Russian Lycée.
Marie Curie has received 15 gold medal awards, 19 degrees, and many other important honors from all over the world.
One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that may fear less.”
Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”
“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”
“We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium, a benefit for humanity.”
“I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries.”
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.”
“All my life through, the new sights of Nature made me rejoice like a child.”
A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
“Humanity needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.”
I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”
“In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons.”
“There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing from the truth.”
After all, science is essentially international, and it is only through lack of the historical sense that national qualities have been attributed to it.”
“When one studies strongly radioactive substances special precautions must be taken. Dust, the air of the room, and one’s clothes, all become radioactive.”
“I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”
I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.”
Cover photo: womenshistory.about.com
Jessica is a translator who has lived for many years in Asia and South America. She now lives and works in Europe, while preparing her new journeys. She enjoys traveling, meeting new people, exploring different cultures and foods, and being in love.
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