Women’s History Spotlight: Marie Curie

Before dual Nobel prize winner and physicist Marie Curie (born Marie Sklodowska), there was no other choice but rebellion. The political landscape of 1860s Poland was dominated by the Russian czar who restricted education and her gender did not improve matters. It was under the tutelage of her parents, both teachers, that instilled Curie's hunger for education and support of Polish nationalism.

For years Marie worked as a governess and self studied chemistry and physics in her spare time. After obtaining two Masters degrees, Sklodowska set off to find a suitable lab, meeting future partner and husband Pierre Curie, the laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics through a mutual friend. At the time, Curie had already conducted groundbreaking research on magnetism. The couple who married in July of 1895 worked together to flesh out his research.

The winter of 1895 proved revolutionary in the scientific field when Wilhelm Roentgen found that x-rays could move through wood and skin and Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium gave off invisible waves. Marie took inspiration from these studies and decided to focus her attention on uranium, noting the strength of the rays correlated with the quantity of uranium. She called this phenomenon radioactivity. Noting her success, Pierre abandoned his own study and he and Marie went on to discover a new elements which they called Polonium and radium.

In 1903 the Curies won a Nobel Prize in physics for their research in radioactivity with Henri Becquerel, making Curie the first woman in history to win such an award. After the tragic death of her husband, three years later Curie took over his position at the Sorbonne. She was the first woman in the history of the university to teach there.

Marie went on to win her second Nobel prize for the discovery of Polonium and Radium. She made sure to mention the critical assistance of her late husband in her speech. She was the first person in the history of the award to win for two different subjects.

Marie made an effort to make the world a better place through science till her dying day. During World War I she encouraged the use of portable x-ray machines to help nurses on the battlefield. The called them "Little Curies."

Unfortunately Curie's dedication to her work was also her downfall. In 1934, she died of health issues caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie picked up the gauntlet winning a Nobel Prize in chemistry a year later.


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