The Unstoppable Marie Curie

7 years ago

Maria Sklodovska Curie, born in 1867 in Russian occupied Warsaw, Poland is the only person in history to receive two Nobel prizes, each in a different science. In 1903 she received the Nobel Prize in Physics, and in 1911, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Her parents were both well respected teachers, and both had been involved in patriotic national uprisings against occupying forces, consequently all property and assets were taken from them. Further, obtaining a higher education for a woman was very difficult under the occupation. Consequently, The Floating University operated underground, teaching subjects that the occupiers thought seditious and also so that women could obtain higher education. Its courses were taught by the finest intellectuals in Poland, all fierce patriots. Over the twenty years of its existence it taught over 5,000 women and thousands of men.

Marie's own words about the University:

I have a bright remembrance of the sympathetic intellectual and social companionship which I enjoyed at that time. Truly the means of action were poor and the results obtained could not be considerable; yet I still believe that the ideas which inspired us then are the only way to real social progress. You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie also worked and learned at a laboratory in Warsaw, working under the top Polish scientists and mathematicians of her day.

Her sister had moved to Paris, and Maria moved there to study at the Sorbonne. It was there that her name changed from the Polish "Maria" to the French "Marie". She tutored at night and studied during the day, living in a poor garret in Paris.

She said :

All that I saw and learned that was new delighted me. It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.

In 1893, she graduated with a degree in physics and began working at an industrial lab. She then met a professor, Pierre Curie, of another scientific institute, and they discovered that they shared in interest in the properties of magnetism.

But Marie wanted to move back to Poland and to teach in her homeland. But when Krakow University refused her a position solely on the grounds that she was a woman, she returned to France. A year later she and Pierre Curie married. It was a match that seemed made in heaven -- they shared passions for research, travel and the countryside.

Marie discovered that certain compounds gave off "rays" -- and she coined the phrase "radioactivity". She began to focus on radiation in her work. There was no research into how exposure to radiation can cause disastrous health results. So day and night Marie and Pierre labored away in an attempt to prove Marie's theses. Marie discovered both readium and polonium, both radioactive elements that were discovered in pitchblende, a globular black rock. And in an amazing gesture of intellectual largesse, she made public the process by which she had isolated these elements in order to further scientific inquiry. She could have chosen to patent the process, keeping it to herself.

In 1903, when she received her first Nobel Prize, she completed her doctoral dissertation and was granted her PhD. She was the first woman to obtain a doctoral degree in France. She and Pierre gave most of the money prize away to students and fellow scientists who needed support.

Pierre died in an accident in 1906. Marie, the sole support now of their two children, became the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She devoted the following years to the establishment of The Radium Institute as a way to also acknowledge Pierre's work.

In 1914, Germany invaded France. On the battlefield, doctors needed x-rays to help them treat soldiers. And Marie responded:

She knew that doctors could use X-rays to save the lives of wounded soldiers by revealing bullets, shrapnel, and broken bones. The problem was to get the X-ray machines to the doctors near the Front. Curie talked wealthy people into donating their cars, and assembled a fleet of 20 mobile X-ray stations as well as 200 stationary stations.

Her daughter became her assistant. Irene married a scientist as well, and in the Radium Institute discovered artificial radioactivity, for which she and her husband received the Nobel Prize in 1935. But Marie never saw them get that prize.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie died, suffering from aplastic anemia, a blood disease that results from too much radiation exposure. She was buried next to Pierre.

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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