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I have hesitated about writing a diary on Marie Curie.  With the possible exception of Rachel Carson, more has been written about her than any other female scientist.  She was the winner of not just one, but two Nobel Prizes and was a major player in the delopment of physics in the 20th Century.

Maria (later changed to Marie when she moved to France) Salomea Skłodowska-was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. She was the fifth child of Bronisława and Władysław Skłodowski. Her father, Władysław, was a teacher of mathematics and physics. Unfortunately the Russian authorities put an end to laboratory studies by Polish students and so Władysław brought the now banned equipment home where he instructed his daughters in its use.  Marie's mother died of tuberculosis when she was 12, following by two years the death of Marie's sister Zofia from typhus. Infectious desases took their toll into the middle of the Twentieth Centuries; my own grandmother's first husband died of rabies and my father's first wife of tuberculosis. A friend of the family died of polio in the 1950s.  One reason I favor vaccinations! But of course, with the exception of small pox, there were no vaccinations available in the early 1880s.  

Marie studied in the Floating University, a clandestine institution in Warsaw.  She then trained in physics at the Sorbonne in Paris after following her older sister Bronisława there.  In Paris she lived the life of the starving student, suffering from hunger on a number of occasions, but somehow she survived to graduate in 1893 with a degree in physics.

From this point on her accomplishments followed rapidly on top of one another.  She went to work on the properties of steel and in 1894 took her second degree.  She met Pierre Curie about this time and he offered her space in his small laboratory.  They soon became involved, although Marie was determined to return to her native Poland and thus turned down his offer of marriage.  On a visit to Poland she quickly discovered that Polish universities had no place for women.  She returned to Paris and completed her Ph.D. in 1895, followed by her marriage to Pierre.

In the same year as their marriage Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays and the Curies soon focused on the new field of radioactive elements, with Pierre becoming involved in 1898, the year after the birth of their daughter Irène, who became a famous physicist in her own right. In 1898 they published the announcement of a new element, Polonium, named after Marie's home country (and in hopes of bringing world attention to its partitioning between three empires.)  By the same year they had isolated traces of Radium, but it was contaminated with Barium.  Marie finally isolated Radium  in 1910, after the tragic death of Pierre. The Curies worked on radioactive materials in a shed with no protection. They had no idea that radioactive materials were dangerous and would adversely affect their health.

Marie was appointed as the first female professor at École Normale Supérieure in 1900. In 1903, Pierre and Marie shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for their work in radioactivity.  In fact Marie had not been included in the original decision of the Nobel Committee, but they relented after Pierre protested. With all the work she had done it was still difficult to get recognition for a woman.  However after 1903 Marie was rapidly becoming the most famous female scientist in the world. In 1904 she gave birth to a second daughter, Ève Denise Curie, who later became a writer, journalist and pianist.

Pierre was killed in a road accident in April of 1906. Marie was devastated.  Despite this she accepted the appointment as professor at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) to replace Pierre, in part to develop an institute in Pierre's name. She finally, after a long struggle, succeeded and the Curie Pavilion was founded under the joint administration of the University of Paris and the Institute Pasteur.  The latter had forced the issue by offering Marie a position there, complete with institute. Marie also later developed a government-sponsored laboratory - the Radium Institute.

Marie soon isolated Radium and became, in 1911, the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes, this time unshared and for chemistry, for the discovery of both Polonium and Radium.  Only Linus Pauling has since won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields! Unfortunately the Nobel Committee learned of a year-long affair that Marie had with a married physicist, Paul Langevin, and they asked her not to attend the ceremony.  She went anyway.

With two Nobel Prizes Marie was the most famous female scientist on the planet and she was given numerous honorary degrees and awards, too many to recount here.  However she was snubbed by the French Academy of Sciences, and it was one of her students who became the first female scientist to be elected to that august body, fifty years after Marie had been rejected!

Marie died in July of 1934, after a last visit to Poland. She was suffering from aplastic anemia, almost certainly from overexposure to radiation. Long after her death she continued to be honored and her body was finally entombed at the Panthéon in Paris, the first woman to be so honored.  The year 2011 was declared the Year of Marie Curie in both Poland and France, and the Year of Chemistry worldwide. A unit of radioactivity was named the curie, perhaps after both Marie and Pierre- it was never made clear. An element, Curium, was also named after Marie and Pierre.

Marie Curie had outlived the rumors of her being Jewish, the affair with Langevin, and the general prejudice against women to become one of the most famous and accomplished scientists of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps Albert Einstein gave her the best tribute in saying that Marie Curie was probably the only person who could never be corrupted by fame.  

I can only give a few of the many references available on Marie Curie.

If I have made any errors of fact or omitted any thing of importance, please feel free to correct me.

Internet References:

Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity

Marie Curie

Marie Curie: The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903

Literature Refences:

Goldsmith, Barbara. 2001. Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. W. W. Norton reprint.

Redniss, Lauren. 2010. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. It Books.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun May 05, 2013 at 06:20 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, and Community Spotlight.

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