Women’s History Month: March
Aviators, Educators, Inventors, Journalists, Nurses, Physicians, Scientists, and Soldiers
“History is herstory, too.” ~Anonymous
Marie Salomea Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was born youngest of five children, in Warsaw, Poland, Russian sector, to Władysław Sklodowski, a math and physics instructor, and his Catholic wife, Bronislawa. She did her practical scientific training at the underground Floating University in Warsaw, then at age twenty-four went to the University of Paris, Sorbonne, for her formal education. Evidently taking after her dad, she graduated with a degree in physics (1893) and another in math (1894); she was the first woman in Europe to receive a Doctorate in Science (1903). She married French physicist Pierre Curie (1895). There is no doubt that he admired her intelligence. “Women of genius are rare” (Pierre Curie). Besides spending hours together in the lab, the two shared long bicycle rides, journeys abroad, and two daughters. Marie gave birth to the older daugher, Irène Joliot-Curie, in 1897; to the younger, Ève Denise Curie Labouisse, in 1904.
The discovery of radioactivity by Antoine Henri Becquerel (1896) inspired Pierre and Marie to do more research. Together they published a paper (July 1898) announcing the discovery of a new element polonium (Po, 84); then the discovery of yet another element (December 1898), radium (Ra, 88). Both Pierre and Marie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903), along with physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel. As a result, Pierre was appointed to a professorship at the Sorbonne and given a laboratory; the school also hired Marie to head the lab.
It was 1905 before Pierre and Marie felt well enough to go to Sweden to pick up their prize. After working in the lab one April morning (1906), Pierre headed to the library, slipped on a wet street, and fell beneath a horse-drawn wagon; he died instantly. Marie succeeded him, becoming the first female professor of physics at the Sorbonne; she never remarried but continued her scientific research. She was the sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911), the only woman to win in two fields and the only person to win in multiple sciences. Besides discovering the two elements (polonium and radium), she developed the theory of radioactivity (a term she coined) as well as techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. She conducted the first studies in treating neoplasms with radioactive isotopes; founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centers of medical research to this day; and published her work in papers and scientific journals.
Though she became a loyal citizen of France, Marie never lost her Polish identity. She taught her daughters to speak Polish and took them on trips to her native country. When Germany invaded France (August 1914), the school was immediately affected, forcing her for the time being to find other work. During World War I she pushed for mobile X-ray machines. She became a member of the Committee for a Free Poland and was appointed director of the Curie Laboratory in the Paris Radium Institute (1914). US President Herbert Hoover gave her (1929) $50,000 from American friends of science to purchase radium for use in the lab in Warsaw. Marie founded (1932) the Warsaw Radium Institute, headed by her physician-sister Bronisława Sklodowska (two siblings were physicians). At age sixty-six, in Savoy, France, Marie died of aplastic anemia brought on by overexposure to radiation; she was buried next to Pierre. The following year, in like fashion as her parents, Irène and her huband, Frédéric Joliot, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1935). The younger daughter, Ève, was not a scientist; her gifts were art and music. She was the only family member who did not receive a Nobel, but her husband Henry Richardson Labouisse Jr did: the Nobel Peace Prize (1965). When both Pierre and Marie Curie were reinterred (1995), Marie became the first woman laid to rest under the famous dome of The Panthéon, Paris, on her own merit.
“Isn’t it amazing the way the future succeeds in creating an appropriate past?” ~John Leonard
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee