Marie Curie, a well-respected name in Science. Her achievements are nonparallel and inspirational. While we know her as the only woman to achieve two Nobel Prizes, her achievement is immeasurable. Many biographies are based on her life and she is well known as Madame Curie. Let us know more about her.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Early Life In Poland
Madame Curie, originally, came from Warsaw, Poland. She was the fifth and youngest child of the Russian family. Her father and mother lost their family heritage after Poland’s independence. Her father taught mathematics and physics, which heavily influenced Curie. He bought laboratory tools at home and Curie learned to use them. Whereas her mother decided to quit her job after she was born. Unfortunately, Curie lost her mother to tuberculosis at the age of ten. Her mother was Catholic whereas her father was an atheist. After losing her loved ones, she turned to become an agnostic. Soon, she collapsed into depression at the age of eleven. If it wasn’t enough, she soon lost her elder sister after three years.
The road to receiving higher education was not easy for her. According to the Polish law at that time, higher education was illegal for female students. Coping up with loss, Marie wanted to study with her sister. However, in order to avoid detention from Polish authorities, she changed her location from time-to-time. A Polish college for women, Flying University, enrolled Marie and her sisters. Later, she decided to move to France to complete her education. There, she met Kazimierz Żorawski, a future mathematician. Her family, however, did not approve of their match. Disheartened, the relationship ended. During his days as an old professor, Żorawski spent his time near her statue outside Radium Institute.
Her Life In Paris
In late 1891, she enrolled in the University of Paris for her higher studies. She tutored and earned money. She would often comprise her health when it comes to her studies. Due to lack of finances, she wore all her clothes in winter to escape the wrath of cold weather. After getting a degree in Physics, she started working in the lab. However, she continued to study at university and earned a second degree. She worked in Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. Here, she met Pierre Curie. Their mutual interest in natural science brought them closer. Finally, Pierre proposed Marie. However, her love for her native country created a hesitation. Pierre assured her that he will move to Poland even if it meant that he had to teach French.
However, her illusion of working in Poland shattered when she faced sexism at Kraków University. A letter from Pierre convinced her to move to Paris and start her PhD. Marie joined the program and the couple married in Sceaux. Neither of them was willing to have a religious ceremony. Interestingly, Marie Curie wore her dark blue outfit instead of a wedding gown. She honored her time in the lab. The couple loved riding bicycles and taking a trip abroad. Both found happiness in each other as life partners and scientific collaborators. Curie finally found someone to rely on.
Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-Rays was a major achievement. Whereas, Henri Becquerel observed that uranium salts released rays that resembled X-rays. Influenced by these two major findings, Curie wanted to study uranium rays for a thesis. This research contributed to the indivisibility of atoms and the use of X-ray in medical science. There was no committed laboratory for the Curies. Almost all their testing was completed in a barn. Her project was not funded by ESPCI. However, it obtained subsidies from metallurgical and mining firms and from numerous organizations and governments. The shed had poor ventilation and was not even waterproof. With their ongoing risky work with radioactive substances, the Curies were unaware of the effects of radiation exposure. Her thesis gradually fascinated Pierre Curie. Intrigued with her work, Pierre abandon his crystal work to join her.
The Curies tried to isolate polonium and radium in pure form to prove their discoveries. Although it was relatively straightforward to separate polonium, radium was more difficult. At the École Normale Supérieure, Curie became the first woman faculty member to join the University of Paris faculty. After that, she received her doctorate. They had to give a speech on radioactivity at the Royal Institution in London. However, she was not allowed to give a speech being a woman.
Later, Pierre Curie, Madame Curie, and Henri Becquerel won Nobel Prize in Physics. The committee originally intended to honour only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. But a member of the committee and spokesperson for women scientists, Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a Swedish mathematician, alerted Pierre. Committee added Marie’s name after his protest.
Prejudice and Discrimination
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
Given the popularity of Madame Curie as a physicist working for France, the mentality of the population skewed towards xenophobia. She was vilified as a foreigner and an atheist by the right-wing press during the French Academy of Sciences elections. The irony of the French press in presenting Curie as an unworthy foreigner during her nomination for a French honor. But as she won international honors, such as the Nobel Prize, they depicted her as a French heroine. In 1911, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences honored her a second time with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Diagnose with depression and a kidney ailment, she spent a month after accepting her Nobel Prize.
Henryk Sienkiewicz, led by a team of esteemed Polish learners, urged her to pursue her studies in her native country. She was also the director of the Curie Laboratory at the Paris University Radium Institute. As most researchers working for the French Army due to World War One. Later, the French government supported the Radial Institute. Here, she continued research in chemistry, physics, and medicine.
Declining Health and Radioactivity
At the time of her study, the hazardous effects of radiation were unknown. Madame Curie kept radioactive test tubes in the purse. She was exposed to radiation while working in the First World War as a radiologist. Her remains are in a lead box in Sceaux at the graveyard, alongside her husband, Pierre. No wonder that she died from acute exposure to radiation. And her notebooks are still radioactive. They are safe in lead-lined boxes today and are will remain radioactive for a further 1500 years.
“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”
Her contributions are more than science. Using her Nobel Prize money, she purchased war bonds. She developed mobile units of radiography, which were widely known as Petite Curies. It helped her to diagnosis the wounds of soldiers on time. Curie sterilized contaminated tissue with hollow needles of Radon. Due to a quick diagnosis, she cured over a million injured troops. Despite ongoing discrimination, she never wavered from her path. Even after her death, she continues to inspire us. You can watch the movie, Madame Curie. You can also see her documentary.