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Madame Curie: Most Famous of All

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. As you may have noticed, the women you've been reading about are in alphabetical order. Today on the program is the letter M, which means that we are halfway through the alphabet. On this occasion, I wrote about the most famous female scientist of all time – Marie Curie.

 

Marie Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Congress Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire. She was the youngest of 5 siblings and her parents, both working in the field of education, lost their fortunes due to participating in the Polish national uprisings, and bad investment. Marie's parents and teachers recognized her intellect, her father advising her to continue studying even after her mother and sister had passed away around the time she was just 10 years old. In 1883, she graduated with a gold medal and went on to spend a year in the countryside focusing on her mental health.

After her return to Warsaw, Marie and her sister Bronisława started attending Flying University, a Polish patriotic educational institution, because they admitted women. Marie spent some years working as a governess, financially supporting Bronisława during her medical studies in Paris. In 1891, her sister returned the favor, inviting Marie to live with her and her husband to Paris, so she could begin her studies at the Sorbonne. Soon, Marie decided to rent a garret, meaning she would live closer to the university and have the opportunity to focus on her studies in solitude. In 1893, she gained her degree in physics and earned a second degree one year later.

Researching magnetic properties and looking for larger lab space, Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie, but it turned out that he had barely enough space for his work, let alone someone else's. They quickly grew closer, Pierre mesmerized by Marie's passion for science. His proposal of marriage was declined at first since Marie didn't intend to stay in France forever. While spending the summer in her homeland, Marie realized that in Poland she wouldn't be able to get a position in her chosen field. A letter from Pierre convinced her to come back to France, marry him, and pursue a doctorate.

Influenced by the recent discoveries of Röntgen and Becquerel, Marie chose to research uranium rays for her thesis. She used an electrometer, an invention of her husband and brother-in-law, to study samples of uranium. Marie deduced a hypothesis that the radiation of uranium was solely due to its atoms, not because of any interaction of molecules, (which laid the ground for the later discovery that atoms aren't indivisible,) and that its intensity was reliant only on the quantity of the element, on which she built her following research.

After she found out that pitchblende and chalcolite emit more of this kind of radiation than uranium itself, she knew there had to exist another radioactive element. By 1898 she had discovered the radioactivity of thorium and even though she rushed to publish the paper, one German chemist had already written about the same discovery weeks earlier. In July of 1898, together with Pierre, they published another paper, this time declaring the existence of an entirely new radioactive element – polonium, and in December of that year, they announced their discovery of radium and Marie coined the term 'radioactivity'.

Thanks to these accomplishments, the Curies got to share the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for the discovery of radioactivity. Although it's sad to learn that Marie originally wasn't considered for the prize because of sexism, one member of the committee stood up for her and thus she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize.

The Curies continued their work, studying the properties and effects of these new elements and their potential use in medicine, while also trying to isolate them in their pure form, which practically meant manually processing tonnes of pitchblende.

In 1906, Marie received the tragic news of her husband's accidental passing and was left in deep depression with their 2 daughters – Irène and Ève.

In 1910, Marie succeeded in isolating radium, which led to her winning the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the first person to win 2 Nobel Prizes.

World War I broke out and Marie quickly sprung into action. Knowing the benefits of having X-ray scans before operating, she developed mobile radiography units and became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service. It's estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated by her units.

Recognizing her fame abroad, Marie went on a tour around the USA, raising money for the purchase of radium, and was also gifted 1 gram of the element by the U.S. President. She became a fellow of the French Academy of Medicine and a member of the League of Nations' International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation. In 1932, after a second American tour, she equipped the newly open Radium Institute in Warsaw with radium.

Two years later, Marie died of aplastic anemia, meaning her body could not produce a sufficient amount of blood cells. It is believed she developed this condition because of the years-long exposure to radiation. She was buried next to her husband and the couple was later moved to the Panthéon.

Marie Curie never had it easy, growing up poor and of oppressed nationality, having to fight for a voice and recognition in the science community as a woman, and losing her beloved husband – all while her health slowly deteriorated. She devoted her entire life to researching something that nobody knew was so dangerous. Nowadays her papers are studied while wearing protective suits because even after almost a century, they are still radioactive from a substance she sometimes used to carry around simply in her pocket. Although costing them their health, Marie's and her husband's work meant the start of a new era in physics, leading to discoveries ranging from the nuclear atom to a way to attack cancer cells. Remembering and celebrating this remarkable woman is the smallest of 'thank you's for her immeasurable contributions.



 

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