The First Lady Of Everything Nobel – Marie Skłodowska-Curie

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There are a lot of historical folk who the majority of people don’t realise were Slavs. Maybe it is because the word ‘Slav’ is so harsh sounding, I don’t know. Either way, the one who arguably surprises people the most in this case is Marie Skłodowska, known to the world as Marie Curie. Despite spending the majority of her working life in France, she was born in Warsaw, Poland, and was as proudly Polish as you could find. But who was Marie Curie? Something to do with science right? Cancer? Well, notwithstanding how vague ‘something to do with science’ is, yes, Marie Skłodowska-Curie was a Polish physicist and chemist, and she pioneered research in radioactivity, a term she in fact coined with her French husband, Pierre. Skłodowska-Curie was a true pioneer in science in a time when opportunities for women in science were few and far between.

Born Marya Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw on the 7th of November 1867, Marya was the fifth and youngest child of a couple o’ teachers, born at a tough time in Polish history. Although reading through Polish history you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Polish History’ was just another term for ‘tough time’. Poland was occupied by Russia at the time, and what was once the largest state in Europe had been wiped from the map. The Kingdom of Poland had become Vistula Land (or Privislinsky Krai, to be exact), and understandably there were a number of Polish national uprisings at the time.

Marya’s parents would lose their fortune and property due to their involvement in these. Her Papa was reduced to teaching physics in school, but those pesky Russians weren’t finished. They eliminated lab work from school, a particularly annoying turn of events because lab work is the only thing anyone really enjoys during physics at school. Still, this led Marya’s father to take all the equipment home, where he was able to teach Marya and her siblings. He was soon fired for pro-Polish sentiments, although with the treatment of Poles at this time he could have been arrested simply for being Polish. Her eldest sister Zofia died of typhus when Marya was 10, followed by the death of her mother of tuberculosis when Marya was but 12 years old. Her mother’s struggles with tuberculosis were on the long and drawn out side, and the distance this created led to Marya believing that her mother did not love her. A cruel childhood and he family deaths pushed Marya away from Catholicism and towards becoming an Agnostic.

Marya’s troubles would continue when she was refused permission to attend university on the grounds of her gender. A scientific career in Warsaw for a Polish woman was as good as unthinkable back then. Marya suffered with deep depression which was only slightly alleviated when she became involved with the Floating University, a clandestine educational movement in Warsaw. It was named as such due to the lack of constant location, the classes taking place different buildings every time so as to avoid the wrath of the Russian authorities. Her sister Bronislawa had already began the same path, and they reached an agreement to financially assist each other through their studies in Paris. It was during her time at the Floating University that Marya fell in love for the first time, to Kazimierz Zorawski, who would go on to be an important Polish mathematician. They considered marriage on a number of occasions, but each time the plan was rejected by Kazimierz’s family due to Marya’s poverty. This despite their respect and admiration for her intellect, the power of social standing was too strong.

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In 1891 and after working for five years as a housekeeper, Marya finally left Poland for France. She immediately joined the community of Poles who had also left to work and study there, making the most of mutual respect between the two nations as a result of Poles fighting with France during the revolutionary wars of the late 18th and early 19th century. Marya wisely avoided all talk of politics on the advice of her father however, choosing instead to focus on her scientific career.

Marya began studying at the Sorbonne in November 1891, but initially she found it tough. Skłodowska was a fine student but nonetheless was far behind her colleagues, due to her minimal lab experience and poor grasp of mathematics. She wasn’t helped by her poverty, and to pay her way in the city she took up tutoring in the evenings, meaning she was non-stop science. The exhaustion would have lasting effects on her health.

Skłodowska was working before she graduated (1893), finding employment in an industrial lab for Sorbonne Professor Gabriel Lippmann. A second degree followed in 1894. Her scientific career truly began not long thereafter, as she began investigating the magnetic properties of various steels, and it was through this research she would meet Pierre Curie. A professor had arranged financial assistance for Marie to get on with investigating the magnetic properties of steel, and Pierre came forward to give up a small part of his lab for her. Their love blossomed, and after a quick courtship (this was 19th century after all), Pierre decided to propose, to which Maria answered no. She was planning on returning to Poland, and although he was willing to follow her, there was still no dice. She indeed went home, but it quickly became apparent that she would be unable to work in her preferred field in her home country. Pierre sent her what I can only assume was a heart-wrenching letter, and she was convinced to return to Paris. On the 26th of July 1895, they married.

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A little bit about Pierre? A little bit about Pierre. Born in Paris in 1850, Pierre Curie was the son of a doctor and a supervisor at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Thus ends a little bit about Pierre.

Now known as Marie, her scientific career exploded in 1896. A year earlier, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays, and in 1896 Henri Becquerel was to discover that uranium salts emitted rays similar to x-rays. This inspired Marie to delve deeper into uranium rays as a potential thesis, quickly discovering that they cause air around the sample to conduct electricity. After much work, she hypothesised that radiation must come from the atom itself. Her studies revolved around 2 uranium minerals, these being pitchblende and tobernite. Her electro meter showed that pitchblende was 4 times as radioactive as uranium itself, and tobernite twice as active. She began to search for other substances in them that could emit radiation. Pierre became more and more intrigued by her work, and indeed dropped his own work on crystals in 1898 to join her. In an article published on April 12th, Marie Curie introduced the term ‘radioactivity’ to the world. This same year saw the discovery and publishing of a paper that changed everything for the Curies.

The month was July, and Maria Skłodowska had come across her greatest discovery to date. She quickly published a paper announcing the existence of a new element, an element she named Polonium after her native country. This was a fairly easy discovery (by her immense standards, personally I think its probably slightly beyond myself), but her next proved more evasive. This was the discovery of Radium, her second new element within a year. This discovery required the isolation of radium salt, a process I know nothing about but which must be pretty freakin’ difficult. Naturally, this was followed by a flurry of recognition, and in 1900 she became the first female faculty member at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and in 1902 she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Paris. Her biggest award to date would come in 1903. She was, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel, awarded the joint Nobel Prize in Physics. She was the first female to be awarded a Nobel Prize. What is quite amazing throughout all of this is that she didn’t even have a proper laboratory at this time, still working in a poorly equipped shed. She also had 2 daughters, named Irene and Eve.

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Tragedy struck in 1906 when her husband Pierre was knocked over by a horse wagon and killed, a cause of death that seems all to frequent in this tome. Marie would continue struggle with depression, understandably, and plunged herself deeper into work. She took over Pierre’s chair at the Sorbonne, and pledged to create a world-class laboratory in tribute. She became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. In 1910, she achieved a life’s work and isolated radium, defining the international standard for radioactive emissions in the process, a standard known as the ‘curie’. Difficult times continued in 1911 when it was revealed that she had a yearlong affair with physicist Paul Langevin, who was estranged from his wife at the time. Her academic opponents, proving that being an academic does not stop you from being a complete gossip, exploited the ensuing press scandal as Marie was portrayed as a Jewish home wrecker. Throughout her career she encountered a huge amount of xenophobia, as well as blatant press hypocrisy. When she was nominated for awards within France, she was always portrayed as an unworthy foreigner. However, when nominated for international awards such as the Nobel Prize, she became a French hero. We are fickle, fickle beings. Speaking of Nobel prizes, she went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, becoming the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. To this day, she is one of only two people to have been awarded Nobel prizes in two different fields. Shortly after winning the prize however, she was hospitalised with depression and serious kidney issues.

As with pretty much everything else, World War One put a bit of a stop on her scientific activity, but certainly not her activity in general. In many ways, this was her finest time. She was director of the Red Cross Radiology Service, and set up France’s first military radiology centre in the process. She also directed the installation of around twenty mobile radiological vehicles in the first year of the war alone, and trained other women as aides. Over one million soldiers were treated with her x-ray units during the war years. She even attempted to donate her Nobel Prize medals to the war effort, but the French National Bank refused them. Her wartime experiences are compiled in a book entitled ‘Radiology in War’, published in 1919. Despite her immense efforts, she never received a single bit of formal recognition from the French government for her contribution, mostly because of the hypocritical xenophobia that still plagued her.

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After the war, her work spread internationally, and she went on to lecture all over the globe. She made more and more public appearances, something that she despised but saw as a necessary evil for the improved resources it allowed her. She penned a biography of Pierre in 1923, imaginatively titled ‘Pierre Curie’. In 1934, she would visit her native Poland for the very last time. Within a few months, Marie Curie was dead. The official cause of death was given as aplastic anaemia. As expected, this was brought on by her long-term exposure to radiation without the proper safety precautions. The damaging effects of radiation were not really known at this time, and she wasn’t helped by the fact she was working in a glorified shed. She was also constantly exposed to x-rays during her wartime work. She died aged 66. Initially interred at the cemetery in Sceaux alongside Pierre, they were both moved to the famous Pantheon in 1995.

The accolades have flooded in since her death, with statues, museums and even postage stamps coming out in her honour. And rightly so, as Marie Curie was a trailblazer in every possible sense in the word, and in every possible field of work that she existed in. She pushed the boundaries in Physics, Chemistry, and also Gender. 

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