Features

Women in Science: Marie Skłodowska Curie

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A photograph of Marie Curie. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Marie Skłodowska Curie was an innovator, made groundbreaking scientific discoveries and advancements, and took momentous steps for women in science.

Marie Skłodowska was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw in modern-day Poland. She was the youngest of 5 children. She was a top student in her secondary school, but could not further her education and attend the University of Warsaw because it was open only for men at the time. She continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” and took informal classes that were held in secrecy underground.

Marie and her sister made an agreement with each other that they would each help support one another’s educations, and Marie worked as a tutor and a governess to support her sister’s education. In her free time, Marie read about and studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Finally, in 1891, Marie went to Paris and enrolled at Sorbonne University. In 1893, she completed her masters degree in physics.

In July of 1898, Marie discovered Polonium. Marie used pitchblende, a mineral that is a byproduct of mining uranium, cobalt, and copper, to discover Polonium. At the time, pitchblende was considered useless and unimportant, and a great deal of it was piled up in mines in northwestern Bohemia. Marie concluded that there was some substance inside of the pitchblende that caused it to be radioactive. Marie named this substance Polonium, after her native country, Poland.

Later that year, on December 26, 1898, Marie and her husband Pierre Curie discovered radium, another element that was unknown at the time. Although Marie and her husband knew that these elements existed, they had a difficult time of producing proof of them. On March 28, 1902, the Curies produced 1/10 of a gram of radium chloride.

Several years later in 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie were awarded with half of the Nobel

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Marie Curie’s birthplace and museum in Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of Brewminate.

Prize in Physics, and the other half was awarded to Professor Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie made history, and was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

In April 1906, Marie’s husband was killed in a tragic accident in Paris, and due to his death the Sorbonne offered Marie her husband’s professorship. Marie Curie again made history, and became the university’s first woman professor since it was founded in 1257.

In 1911, Marie Curie won another Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry. She received the award for her discoveries of Radium and Polonium. Marie Curie was the first person, man or woman, to win the award twice. To this day, she remains the only one to be honored for her accomplishments in two separate sciences.

Another aspect of Marie Curie’s life was her service as a nurse during World War I in France. She contributed to scientific advancements during the war by placing hospital X-ray units in automobiles to help those who were wounded in the battlefield, and this provided doctors with more information before performing surgeries on soldiers. Marie and her daughter helped to treat more than ten thousand soldiers.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia. It is believed that this was caused by her prolonged exposure to radiation from the elements that she worked with during her career. Even though it is almost one hundred years since her death, Marie Curie is still inspirational and remains a role model for all women today who are in the field of science.

By: Bernadette Goratowski ‘19, Guest Writer

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