Maria Skłodowska-Curie – Women in Science (part I)

I would like to start a series of posts about Women in science; with special emphasis on biology, physics, and IT. Extraordinary women can be found in practically every science field. However, the ‘find’ word is here meaningful. Women are still less acknowledged in science when compared to men.

First, quite obvious, choice for the ‘Women is science’ post is Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s life and work. She was a pioneer for many things including being the first women who won a Nobel Prize. It is quite amazing that you could actually write a post only about Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s firsts. Starting from the most tremendous achievements: she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (not to mention first woman to win two Nobel Prizes and the only person who won Nobel Prizes in two different fields). She became first female professor at the University of Paris and first female faculty member at the École Normale Supérieure. She was also pioneer when comes to studies on radiotherapy for cancer treatment. Not so long ago, in 1995, she became the first woman to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris due to her own achievements.

Vintage french stamp depicting Marie Curie

Vintage french stamp depicting Marie Curie who won two Nobel prizes in Physics and Chemistry for her work on Radioactivity and the discovery of radioactive chemical elements. Fotolia.com #118116932 by mark yuill

Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born on 7th November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland in not very wealthy, but very ambitious, family. Poland was not an independent country back then. She always loved to learn new things, she spoke 5 languages and used to exercise her mind with mathematical brain teasers. Studying was strongly encouraged by her parents – actually both of them were teachers. After graduating from high school, her family was not able to fund her further education. Furthermore, Warsaw University did not accept women as students yet. However, Jadwiga Dawidowa funded secret university for women in Warsaw. Maria attended this university with her sister, Bronia, but they still dreamed about real university, like Sorbonne. Bronia first left Poland to study in France and in 1891 Maria joined her in Paris. She had hard time living in this huge European city where she lived in a small room without heating. However, she was so amazed by the new possibilities and her new academic life that she was not afraid of sacrifices. When Maria was attending Sorbonne, for 1825 students there were only 23 women. Maria graduated in Physics with the first result. She received a scholarship and started to study Mathematics. Then, thanks to her professor Gabriel Lippman, she started to work at Sorbonne. In search for specific equipment to perform experiments needed in her studies, she met Pierre Curie, her future husband. They were joined by love to science. They had two daughters together – Irene, who also became a scientist (and also received a Nobel Prize) and Eve, who became an artist.

For her PhD studies she decided to focus on Becquerel radiation. While studying Uranium, she discovered, with Pierre Curie, Polonium and Radium. At first, other scientists were sceptical toward the research, however, Maria isolated Radium (but never Polonium) and ultimately proved their existence. In 1903, she received a doctoral degree from Sorbonne. For the discoveries, Pierre and Maria, together with Henri Becquerel, received a Nobel Prize, but they did not go to Sweden (only Becquerel did). After that Mr and Mrs Curie became famous, also due to the ‘women scientist’ phenomenon. Pierre finally became Sorbonne professor. Tragically, couple years after, Pierre died in an accident. Maria continued his lectures and herself became Sorbonne professor. In 1911 she was nominated to be a member of French Academy, however due to political reasons, she was not chosen. After long mourning, Maria fell in love with Paul Langevin. Unfortunately, he was married. When wife of Paul Langevin discovered the affair of her husband, she published their love letters what caused huge scandal. It coincided with second Nobel Prize nomination. When Nobel Prize Committee heard about the scandal they asked Maria not to come and resign from the prize. But she did not. She took her daughters to Sweden and picked up the prize.

In 1914 new Institute was founded in France for Maria Skłodowska-Curie research. It was called at first Institut du Radium, now Curie Institute. However, World War I started before Institute started to prosper. Maria returned to Paris after war and started to work with her daughter, Irene. Maria spent the rest of her life trying to adapt Radium for cancer therapy. She paid a terrible price for her passion for science. The elements she discovered turned out to be toxic and both Maria and her husband suffered due to radiation sickness.

If you just use popular scientific papers searches (pubmed, google scholar) you won’t probably find original research papers by Maria Skłodowska-Curie. And even if you do, these articles are written in French (now almost every research is published in English). However, many treatises about Maria Curie-Skłodowska’s work are available.

Next time, I will write briefly about Rosalind Franklin and her role in discovering DNA structure.

Bibliography:

Stine, Megan. Who was Marie Curie?. Penguin, 2014.

 

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