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Marie Curie - A Woman of Firsts

Marie Curie - A Woman of Firsts

By Linda Hedrick

Marie Sklodowska Curie, the chemist and physicist famous for her pioneering work on radioactivity, was the first person awarded two Nobel Prizes (for chemistry and physics); the first female professor at the Sorbonne; and the first woman to be entombed in the Paris Panthéon for herself.  (Madam Sophie Berthelot was the first woman, but was buried with her husband, Marcelin.)

Born in Warsaw in 1867, at age 24 she moved to Paris where she earned her higher degrees and carried out her scientific work.  Her parents were teachers - her father taught math and science as well as directing two gymnasia for boys, her mother ran a prestigious boarding school for girls - and her paternal grandfather taught literature.  In this atmosphere Marie grew up with a solid background in math and science.

Each generation, on both sides of the family, had lost fortunes and property, mostly through Polish national uprisings.  Marie and her siblings had a hard time pursuing their education due to lack of funds.  Marie reached an agreement with her older sister, Bronislawa, to work to put her through medical studies in Paris in exchange for Bronislawa supporting Marie's studies two years later.  She worked as a governess for various families.  When Bronislawa married, she invited Marie to live with her and her new husband.
Marie Curie - A Woman of Firsts
Marie declined because she could not afford university tuition.  She lived with her father, tutoring, studying, and obtaining scientific training in a laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw, run by a cousin.  A year later she moved to Paris, and lived briefly with her sister before finding a place of her own and studying chemistry, physics, and math at the Sorbonne.

She worked hard studying and tutoring and lived hand-to-mouth, but was awarded a degree in physics in 1893.  She earned a degree in math the following year, working at an industrial lab to support herself.  Over a mutual interest in magnetism, she met Pierre Curie, a chemistry and physics instructor at a Parisian school.

She returned to Warsaw where she hoped to live and work, but she was turned down for a post at Kraków University because of her gender.  In her absence from Paris, her feelings for Curie deepened, and after she returned to Paris they married the next year.  They were collaborators as well as marriage partners.  Eventually they had two daughters.
Marie Curie - A Woman of Firsts
In 1896, while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts, physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity.  He had demonstrated that radiation was powered by something within uranium, and not an external source of energy.  Marie decided to do research on uranium rays for her doctoral thesis.

Fortunately, fifteen years earlier her husband and his brother invented the electrometer, a device for measuring electrical charge.  Using this instrument, Marie conducted what became the most important of all her scientific studies - that radiation came from atoms and was dependent on the quantity of uranium present.

Because of the discoveries being made at the time she knew it was important to get her work published right away.  She was, however, late by two months. Gerhard Schmidt had published his finding that thorium also gave off rays like uranium in Berlin.  But no one took notice of an observation Marie had made in her published paper.  She had described that the activities of pitchblende and chalcolite were greater than uranium, thus those minerals may contain a more active element than uranium.
Pierre Curie was so intrigued with his wife's work that he temporarily stopped his own to help her with hers.  They discovered an element they named "polonium" (for her native Poland), and published it in a paper two months after her prior paper.  Five months later, they published their discovery of another element - which they named "radium" for its radioactivity. The Curies worked on separating radium through a crystallization process.

Marie was awarded her Doctor of Science degree from the University of Paris in 1903, under the supervision of Becquerel. That same year she, Pierre, and Becquerel were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their joint work on radiation. The Curies shared the money received with their students and others. They became very famous and Pierre was made a professor at the Sorbonne and allowed to establish his own laboratory, which Marie ran.

When Pierre was killed in a horse-drawn buggy accident in 1906, the Sorbonne physics department decided to keep Pierre's chair and gave it to Marie with full authority over the lab.

Thus she became the first female professor of the Sorbonne, and was able to stand on her own merits.  In 1910 she isolated pure radium metal.  In an altruistic and unusual move, for her time or any, she intentionally did not patent the process so that the scientific community could use it freely.  In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry, making her the first person to share or earn two Nobel prizes, and the first of two people to win two Nobel prizes in different fields.  (Linus Pauling later won two - one each for chemistry and peace.)
Marie Curie - A Woman of Firsts
Finally, Poland sent a delegate to convince her to continue her research there. Instead she used her prestige to convince the French government to fund a private radium institute, the Institut du radium, now called the  Institut Curie.  The Institute has produced four Nobel Prize winners, including her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, and son-in-law, Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

One inadvertent and tragic discovery of hers was the effects of radium.  Much of her work was done in a shed, without the safety measures that are used today. She had remarked on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark, and kept test tubes in her pocket and desk drawer.  In 1934 she died of aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation.

Because of their high levels of radioactivity, her papers are considered too dangerous to handle.  They are keep in lead-lined boxes and anyone viewing them must wear protective clothing.  Her laboratory is preserved at the Musée Curie.

She was interred with Pierre in a cemetery, but in 1995, sixty years later, they were both moved to the Panthéon in Paris.  This is a secular mausoleum for the remains of distinguished French citizens.  Marie was the first woman to be buried there on her own recognizance.

Her contributions to science are well-known and celebrated.  Her contributions to breaking the barriers in academia and the world of science are also well-known but can't be celebrated enough.  She had to fight to pursue her interests in her native country of Poland and also in France.  All of her firsts were hard won and much deserved.

This year, 2011, has been declared the "Year of Marie Curie" by both France and Poland. For women who are still fighting the "glass ceiling" in whatever fields they are pursuing, she is a most worthy role model and archetype for excellence despite all obstacles.

The article was published on Cerebral Boinkfest and is present here by permission of Linda Hedrick. 

>>> Marie Curie in the ILAB Metasearch 

>>> Cerebral Boinkfest 

>>> Musee Marie Curie

Published since 23 Aug 2011