Natural Born Scientist
Marie Curie like many of the featured women in this series was a pioneer. The ease of which she interpreted the scientific world earned her the type of recognition that was traditionally only reserved for her male counterparts. The phrase “Maybe she’s born with it” could be used to describe her family lineage which is responsible for five nobel prizes. Two of which were awarded to Curie herself.
For Curie, there are many ‘firsts’ associated with her name. She was not only the first woman to earn two Nobel Prizes but the first person to ever be granted with such an honor. She was also the first person to earn the Nobel Prize in two sciences, both physics and chemistry. Curie was also the first woman to become professor at the University of Paris. Even after her death the celebrations of her accomplishments didn’t end. She was the first woman to be laid to rest at the Panthéon, a distinction made for only the most distinguished French Citizens, despite her Polish roots.
Curie’s life from the early days until her death seemed to be one of destiny. Fraught with challenges, Curie endured financial and discriminatory road blocks from her childhood on. Her family’s Polish National pursuits condemned her generation to one of hardship and lack of opportunities. Much of their property and fortunes had been lost. To further complicate her upbringing, both her mother and older sibling were taken from her due to illness before her adolescent years.
Despite these hardships, Curie excelled regardless. After graduating from secondary school with a gold medal she sought ways around a system that prevented her from the privilege of higher education. When there is a will there will inevitably be a way. Curie and her sister eventually found a clandestine university that allowed female students.
Understanding the obstacles they faced, Curie took work as a tutor and governess to support her sister so that she could go on to study medicine in Paris. A sisterly sacrifice that ultimately came back when she left Poland to start a new life in Paris with her sister’s help. There she studied physics, chemistry and math at the prestigious University of Paris. She did so on very little resources. Often fainting from hunger and suffering from cold winters.
Unstoppable by hunger or cold she went on to earn a degree in physics and another one in 1894. She began her scientific career and met her future husband in the same year. Both were fascinated by the natural sciences and quickly became collaborators.
Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells.
Then, in December 1903, Marie Curie made history. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics. Becoming the first woman ever to achieve such a prestigious acknowledgement.
Curie who was never one to settle with her accomplishments showed no signs of slowing her pace of research after receiving her first Nobel Prize. As her body of work grew so did her international recognition and in 1911 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored her a second time, with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Curie’s humanitarian efforts continued on in World War l. She developed mobile radiology centers known affectionately as “petites Curies” to assist battlefield surgeons on the front lines. Curie knew that the best chance a wounded soldier had was to receive operation treatment as soon as possible. Curie directed the installation of 20 mobile radiological vehicles and another 200 radiological units at field hospitals in the first year of the war. It is estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated with her X-ray units.
Marie Curie was now recognized worldwide as one of science’s “greats.” She traveled widely to talk about science and to promote The Radium Institute which she founded to carry out medical research.
Marie was one of the small number of elite scientists invited to one of the most famous scientific conferences of all-time – the 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons.
Curie’s legacy lives on through a number of biographies, locations, monuments and institutions that bear her name. Even several works of art, stage plays and an Oscar nominated film have been made in her honor. Curie’s likeness has even appeared on postage stamps, banknotes and coins from around the world. Now that is one fierce woman whose works will continue to inspire for generations to come.