Celebrating women in science: Marie Curie

The Courier explores the scientific career of Marie Curie.

Maja Mazur
16th May 2022
Credits: Canva and @TheMarylandScienceCentre via Flickr
The first woman to receive the Nobel Prize. The first person to get it twice. The first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. As a Polish woman and someone who attended a college named after her, I grew up in the cult of Maria Skłodowska-Curie. So much has been said about her already but I can't miss the occasion to talk about her remarkable achievements.

Despite what her French name may suggest, Maria (later Francisised into Marie) was born in Warsaw in 1867, when Poland belonged to the Russian Empire. She was extremely talented since childhood but at the age of 11, she had to miss a year of schooling due to depression after her mother and eldest sister died. Years later, she made a pact with her other sister, Bronisława (fun fact, the first female gynaecologist in Poland and one of the first in France), that if one of them would have gone to Paris to study, the other one would have stayed in Poland to support her financially. Maria, always being a rebel, ended up illegally teaching children in villages in Poland.

"If but a small part of Madame Curie's strength of character and devotion were alive in Europe's intellectuals, Europe would face a brighter future."

– Albert Einstein

In 1891 she finally moved to France and enrolled to the University of Paris, studying physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Three years later she met a French scholar Pierre Curie, whom she married – not in a bridal dress though, that would have been too conventional for Maria. Instead, she wore a blue outfit she then used for years in the laboratory. One of my favourite facts about Maria is that on their honeymoon she and her husband decided to cycle around France on bikes received as a wedding gift. Her riding in a shortish dress and without a compulsory hat was seen as a social scandal.

The Curies, together with another scholar Henri Becquere, conducted research on the radiation phenomena, which led to Maria’s first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Sadly, three years later Pierre was killed in a road accident, leaving Maria alone with their two daughters. Despite the mourning, she continued her research in chemistry. One of her greatest achievements was discovering radium and polonium, the latter of which she named after her homeland. These findings brought her second Nobel, this time in Chemistry. During World War I, to save lives of injured soldiers she developed mobile radiography units, known as “Little Curies” and became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service. Her 17-year-old daughter, Irène, took a nursery course to help her mother. Years after, Irène received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Despite all her achievements, Maria was never fully accepted in the Parisienne intelligentsia. Not only because she was a woman, but also due to her foreignness, romance with a married man and rumours about her being Jewish. However, she also had the coolest friend one could possibly imagine – Albert Einstein. During a memorial celebration at New York's Roerich Museum in 1935, he said: “If but a small part of Mme Curie's strength of character and devotion were alive in Europe's intellectuals, Europe would face a brighter future."

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