The Only Woman You Need to Know

Young Marie Curie Kto8d5W

Ask any stranger to name a female physicist and their response will be Marie Curie.

Manya Sklodovska, as she was called by her family, was born in Warsaw, November 7, 1867 the fourth girl of a moderately successful Polish headmaster who taught his children science, history, music, and poetry. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was ten. After finishing what we would term High School, Marie made a pact with her sister, Bronya.  Since they were too poor for both of them to go to college, simultaneously, Marie would work as a governess (a lowly position) and send money to Bronya, so that Bronya could go to college in Paris.  To the credit of both young women, after Bronya graduated, she reciprocated and supported Marie.  Marie Sklodovska first enrolled in Physics, Mathematics, and Chemistry at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) at the age of 24.  It was 1891.

The search for lab space led to a fateful introduction. Marie mentioned her need for a lab to a Polish physicist who though his colleague, Pierre Curie, might be able to assist her. The meeting between Marie and Pierre would change not only their individual lives but also the course of science. In a civil ceremony in July 1895 they became husband and wife.

Pierre and Marie Curie, 1896  Credit:  Corbis
Pierre and Marie Curie, 1896 Credit: Corbis

Marie Curie (1867-1934) and her husband Pierre continued the work on radioactivity started by Henri Becquerel. In 1898, they discovered two new elements, polonium and radium, which they predicted would display an unprecedented degree of the property that Marie christened “radioactivity”. They name Polonium in honor of Marie’s home country. Marie did most of the work of producing these elements, and to this day her notebooks are still too radioactive to use. She went on to become the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in France. In 1903 they shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Becquerel.

Pierre and Marie Curie in their lab, 1898  Credit:  Bridgeman Art Library
Pierre and Marie Curie in their lab, 1898 Credit: Bridgeman Art Library

Sadly Pierre Curie was killed by a horse-drawn vehicle in 1906.  Marie, 38-years old, was left with two daughters to raise on her own.

Marie Curie with her daughters Irene and Eve, 1908.  Credit:  Corbis
Marie Curie with her daughters Irene and Eve, 1908.

Marie continued her work after her husband’s death and won a second Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911.

Marie Curie with her daughter Irene.  Credit:  Art Resource
Marie Curie with her daughter Irene. Credit: Art Resource

Irene (1897-1956) became a nuclear physicist, and worked as her mother’s assistant at the Radium Institute, Paris. In 1935 she shared the Nobel prize for Chemistry with her husband Frederic Joliot, for their work on synthesising new radioactive elements.

Marie was persuaded to embark upon a speaking tour in America and launched a campaign to raise $100,000 from the women of America. Mrs. Herbert Hoover arranged a bequest from the American Association of University Women. Mrs. Edsel Ford sent Marie a car.

The Polish-French Marie Curie became a scientific celebrity whom American woman could see as one of their own.

Madame Curie surrounded by press aboard SS Olympia, May, 1921  Credit:  Image Images
Madame Curie surrounded by press aboard SS Olympic, May, 1921 Credit: Image Images
Marie Curie with her daughters, May 1921  Credit:  Library of Congress/Corbis
Marie Curie with her daughters in New York on the White Star SS Olympic Credit: Library of Congress

 

With President Harding at the White House on May 1, 1921 after her presented her with a vial of radium.      Credit: Bettmann/Corbis
With President Harding at the White House on May 1, 1921 after he presented her with a vial of radium. Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Marie died in 1934 due to the exposure of radiation – including carrying test tubes of radium in her pockets during research and her service during World War I in mobile x-ray units (which she created). By the time she died Marie had received no less than 129 awards of national merit.

A 1967 commemorative medal to honor the centennial of Marie Curie’s birth  Credit:  HIP/Art Resource
A 1967 commemorative medal to honor the centennial of Marie Curie’s birth Credit: HIP/Art Resource
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