Marie Curie might be the single most important female scientist in history.
[Image Courtesy of Wikimedia]
Were she alive today, Curie would be celebrating her 149th birthday.
In her 67 years, the scientific superhero became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. She’s also the only woman to win the award in two distinct categories – both physics and chemistry.
Marie and her husband Pierre initially worked separately in the lab. Marie became intrigued by Henri Becquerel’s discovery of uranium cast-off rays. She took his work one step further by conducting her own experiments on uranium rays.
She discovered the rays remained constant despite the uranium’s form. This idea singlehandedly created the field of atomic physics. From her discovery came the word “radioactivity” to describe her findings. Even after Marie and Pierre had a child in 1897, their work showed no signs of slowing down.
Pierre joined Marie in her studies of radioactivity. They used the mineral pitchblende and discovered a new radioactive element in 1898, named polonium (after Marie’s native Poland). It was Curie’s synthesis of a decigram of pure radium that gave her celebrity.
According to SciShow’s Hank Green:
“Popular culture has not yet designed a female superhero that was more bad-ass than the actual Marie Curie. She was a supergenius…. a super patriot…selfless, a total workhorse. She didn’t care what the world thought of her, and ultimately she left the world a better place.”
The Nobel Prize
In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics. Her husband and Becquerel also won the honor. The Curies became known internationally as scientific innovators. They used their prize money to continue researching radioactivity.
[Image Courtesy of Wikimedia]
The Curies suffered personal tragedy in 1906 after Pierre was killed in an accident. Marie took over his position at teaching at the Sorbonne and became the school’s first female professor.
She won the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discoveries of radium and polonium. She became the first scientist to win two Nobel Prizes.
Curie joined the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck and attended the first Solvay Congress in Physics.
When World War I began in 1914, Curie dedicated herself to the cause. She developed portable X-Ray machines for field medics. The vehicles became known as “little Curies.”
After the War, she went to the United States twice (1921 and 1929) to buy radium and establish a radium research facility in Warsaw.
A Fight for Education
Despite her obvious brilliance, Curie encountered several hindrances due to her gender. She was the top student in her secondary school. However, she couldn’t attend the University of Warsaw due to her being female.
She pursued higher education at a “floating university,” clandestine, informal courses. Curie and her sister made a pact to support each other in getting education abroad. For five years, Curie supported her sister by being a tutor and governess.
Curie finally enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1891, completing a master’s degree in physics by 1893. She earned another master’s degree in mathematics in 1894.