Our woman hero of November is Marie Curie! She was a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. Marie Curie was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes.
Marie Curie was born on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire, as Maria Salome Sklodowska. Marie’s father taught mathematics and physics, subjects that Maria was to pursue, and was also director of two Warsaw gymnasia for boys. Since she was a child, Marie’s father often brought home laboratory equipment and instructed his children in its use.
After graduated from a gymnasium for girls with a gold medal, Marie was unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher education because she was a woman. Marie and her sister Bronislawa became involved with the clandestine Flying University, a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women student.
In late 1891 Marie joined Bronislawa and her husband in Paris, France and enrolled at the University of Paris. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann. Meanwhile, she continued studying at the University of Paris, and with the aid of a fellowship she was able to earn a second degree in 1894. Then Marie met Pierre Curie, an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry. Their mutual passion for science brought them increasingly closer, before finally getting married on 26 July 1895. Marie worn a dark blue outfit instead of a bridal gown, and she worn the same clothes as a laboratory outfit for many years.
In 1895, Marie decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis. In July 1898, she and her husband published a joint paper announcing the existence of an element which they named “polonium”, in honor of her native Poland, which would for another twenty years remain partitioned among three empires (Russian, Austrian, and Prussian). 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”.
In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics. At first the committee had intended to honor only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, but a committee member and advocate for women scientists, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, alerted Pierre to the situation, and after his complaint, Marie’s name was added to the nomination. Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
On 19 April 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a road accident. Marie was devastated by her husband’s death. On 13 May 1906 the physics department of the University of Paris decided to retain the chair that had been created for her late husband and to offer it to Marie. She accepted it and became the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. In 1910 Marie succeeded in isolating radium; she also defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named for her and Pierre: the curie.
International recognition for Marie’ work had been growing to new heights, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored her a second time, with the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 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. Curie’s second Nobel Prize enabled her to persuade the French government into supporting the Radium Institute, built in 1914, where research was conducted in chemistry, physics, and medicine. During World War I, Marie developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.
On 4 July 1934, Marie died at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, Haute-Savoie, from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were not known at the time of her work, which had been carried out without the safety measures later developed. She was interred at the cemetery in Sceaux, alongside her husband Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honour of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Panthéon, Paris. She became the first woman to be honoured with interment in the Panthéon on her own merits.
During her life, Marie Curie often facing obstacles due to being a woman. But she never let it stop her from pursuing her research and her lifelong passion. She inspired us that women can succeed in the field of science, one of the fields that until now are still dominated by men. Marie Curie changed the scientific world forever with the results of her research. If she can, then we can do it too!
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