Women and Adversity: Marie Curie
First Woman to Receive Nobel Prize
First Person and Only Woman to Receive a Nobel Prize Twice
I’m choosing one of the most well-known women in the world to feature for this blog, but many facts about her go unnoticed.
Marie Curie’s husband, Pierre Curie, was killed in a horse-drawn wagon accident April 19, 1906. They had married in 1895 and had two daughters. Irène was born in 1897, and daughter Ève was born in 1904. Marie refused the French government’s offer of a state pension to support her and her daughters, saying she was capable of supporting herself and her children. She went back to work the day after Pierre’s funeral, but on May 13, the Sorbonne in Paris offered her the academic post Pierre had held. She accepted, making her the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. Her dream was to one day establish a science laboratory as a tribute to Pierre.
Born Maria Skłodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, she was the youngest of five children. Her father and mother were teachers, but her mother died when Maria was ten. Despite her high intelligence, she was denied admission to University of Warsaw because it only accepted males. Instead, she studied at the “floating university” in Warsaw that held classes in secret.
She didn’t have the funds to study abroad, so she and her older sister, Bronya, devised a plan. Maria would work while Bronya earned her degree, and Bronya would return the favor. Maria worked for five years as a tutor and governess and studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry before she was able to enroll at the Sorbonne in 1891. She earned her master’s degree in physics in 1893, and in 1894 earned a degree in mathematics.
She met Pierre Curie, a French physicist and professor in the school of physics at the Sorbonne. She became known as Marie Curie as well as Madame Curie. Her determination and use of her talents helped her reach extraordinary goals. She conducted extensive research and:
- Investigated French physicist Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity
- Coined the term “radioactivity”
- With Pierre discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium
- Conducted research on x-rays and uranium
- Developed the theory of uranium rays, which created the field of atomic physics
- Studied x-rays and x-ray machines
- Used radium to be the gamma ray source on x-ray machine
- Created smaller x-ray machines to be used in the field during World War I, which saved lives
- Dedicated her efforts to building the Radium Institute in Paris, which was completed in August 1914, days after the start of World War I
Madame Curie received her doctor of science degree in 1903, and that same year she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre. In 1911 she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the only person to have accomplished this feat in two different sciences. That year rumors spread she was having an affair with physicist Paul Langevin, Pierre’s former student and a married man with four children. The scandal took a toll on her health.
Her daughter, Irène, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, sharing it with her husband, Frédéric Joliot. Her daughter, Ève, wrote the biography, Madame Curie, in 1937, and it became a movie in 1943. The 2017 movie, Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge, is based on her life.
Madame Curie died July 4, 1934, at the age of sixty-six in Savoy, France of aplastic anemia, a disorder associated with exposure to large amounts of radiation.
I have featured her in my ebook, Women and Adversity, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers.
For all we have learned of the scholastic and professional roles of this iconic figure, this sketch allows us a glimpse of the woman–her life, spirit and vulnerabilities. Thank you!