The First Female Nobel Prize Winner: Marie Curie

The name Marie Curie is no doubt a well known name in history. For myself, I first learned about her in my seventh grade science class. But in my case, I only learned the highlights. I was briefed on her role in the discoveries of new elements, portable x-ray machines, and receiving a Nobel Prize. These achievements alone are incredible, but her entire life story is one that I have come to love. I hope you all come to love her as much as I do.


Our story begins on November 7, 1867. The Polish couple, Wladyslaw and Bronislawa Sklodowski welcomed their fifth and final child to the world. They named her Maria Sklodowska, nicknamed Mania. During this time, Warsaw and Congress Poland as a whole were under control of the Russian Empire. Put simply, this meant that everyone in Poland were pushed to reject their Polish identity and submit to the Russian Empire rule. For people like Wladyslaw and Bronislawa, however, this would never happen. The two as well as their respective families were proud of their country and proud of their nationality and were willing to face any sacrifices that came with this fight.


Due to their protests and fights to regain Poland's independence, the Sklodowski family would face many struggles through their lives. Wladyslaw and Bronislawa were both working in the education system. Wladyslaw was a math and physics teacher as well as the director of two secondary schools for boys. Bronislawa ran a very prestigious boarding school for girls in Warsaw. Wladyslaw was eventually fired for him teaching positions as a result of his fight for Poland's independence. Bronislawa stepped down from her position at the girl's boarding school after Maria was born. On top of it all, the family found themselves making a bad investment choice, resulting the loss of a large amount of money.


As they say, just when you don't think it can get any worse, it does. Bronislawa became sick with tuberculosis and died in May of 1878 when Maria was just ten years old. Without a mother to help raise her and not much money coming in, Maria was sent away to a boarding school followed by a secondary school. During this time, Maria also lost her eldest sibling. Her sister Zofia contracted typhus and died less than three years after their mother died. While Maria and her siblings had been raised Catholic, these two very difficult losses led her to reject Catholicism and instead identify as being agnostic.


While her home life was difficult, Maria's time in school had been a great success. She excelled in school and by the time she graduated from the secondary school on June 12, 1883, she received a gold medal with her graduation. Unfortunately, as much as Maria enjoyed learning and being in school, she was unable to attend a regular university in the area because she was a woman. So following her graduation, Maria spent some time with relatives out in the country as well as with her father in Warsaw.


Maria and her sister, also named Bronislawa but nicknamed Bronia, had a great passion for learning and education. The two began attending the Flying University, sometimes referred to as the Floating University. This was a sort of underground education system that allowed women to gain a higher education without having to travel elsewhere.

The two girls loved it and wanted to continue their education, but knew they couldn't afford to leave and go on to school. This wouldn't deter the two determined young women. Instead, they came up with a plan. Maria would take a job working as a governess for a family. The money that she earned doing this work would be sent to her older sister Bronia to pay for her schooling. Then, once Bronia finished school and began working, she would send for Maria and pay for Maria's schooling.


With the plan moving ahead, Bronia headed for Paris and Maria began working as a tutor and a governess. Even though she wasn't in school, Maria did not get lazy with her studies. She continued to study to stay sharp.

At one point, Maria began working as a governess for the Zorowski family who were relatives of her father. While working for the family, Maria fell in love with their son, Kazimierz Zorowski. Unfortunately for the two, however, Kazimierz's parents did not approve of the relationship. Maria and her family were very poor and in the eyes of the Zorowski's, marrying someone so poor was unacceptable. This proved to be very difficult on both Maria and Kazimierz. Even many years later when Kazimierz was an elderly man, he could be found sitting before a statue of Maria that was much later constructed, suggesting that he had never gotten over his love for her.


By early 1889, Maria returned to Warsaw to be close to her father. Maria continued to tutor and work as a governess while continuing her studies at the Flying University. Around that same time, Bronia was married to a man named Kazimierz Dluski. Following their marriage, she wrote to Maria to invite her to come join the two of them in Paris. However, Maria was still unable to afford schooling in Paris, so she had to decline the offer. The next year or so, Maria continued working and saving up her money while her father also helped with her savings. Thankfully he had found work that had once again been more profitable for him. Finally by 1891, Maria was ready to make her way to Paris and start the next part of her journey.


Upon her arrival in Paris, Maria stayed with her sister Bronia and her new brother-in-law until she could afford a place of her own. She also right away was enrolled in Sorbonne University, which is now known as the University of Paris. As she got settled in, she found a small place of her own to live in near the university.

Maria was passionate about learning and determined to get a full education in the subjects that she enjoyed and found important. While she took classes in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, Maria continued tutoring in her evenings. She knew that she needed to find some way to make ends meet. Even with her extra work, she continued to take extra measures to watch her expenses. When the weather was cold, Maria would bundle herself up in multiple layers to avoid paying for any sort of extra heat. She also would eat very small and inexpensive meals, such as just buttered bread and tea. There were also times that she found herself so invested in her work that she would forget to eat at all.

In 1893, Maria graduated with a degree in physics and began working for Gabriel Lippmann in his laboratory. But her studies did not stop there. She continued attending Sorbonne and finished a second degree the following year in mathematics.


Upon graduating from Sorbonne, Maria began working on studying different types of steels and their magnetic properties. She found herself in need of a larger laboratory which is when her colleague Jozef Wierusz-Kowalski introduced her to Pierre Curie. At the time, Pierre was working as an instructor at The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Education Institute (ESPCI). Maria's colleague felt that Pierre may have access to a larger lab for her to work or know how to help her. And that's exactly what Pierre did. He was unable to provide her a lab space to work in, but he was able to find some space for her to do her work.

While the two worked so closely with one another, they found that they shared common interests within the science field. This sparked a romance between the two, but when Pierre first proposed marriage to Maria declined. She had intended on going back to her home country of Poland and working there. For Pierre, however, this was not just a fleeting romance. Pierre loved Maria and wanted to spend his life with her. He offered to go with her to Poland, even if it meant giving up his career in the world of science and instead becoming a French teacher in Poland. He would do whatever he had to do to be with Maria.


During a break in the summer of 1894, Maria traveled back to Poland to visit her family. She took this time to begin her plan to go move back and start her career in Poland. Much to her dismay, Maria found that she would not in fact be allowed to work at the Krakow University as she had been hoping and planning simply because she was a woman. Pierre, still in France, wrote to Maria while she was in Poland and convinced her to come back.

Upon returning, the two encouraged one another on. Pierre encouraged Maria to pursue a PhD while Maria encouraged Pierre to get his doctorate for the work he did with magnetism. Maria considered Pierre's discoveries with magnetism his biggest discovery.


On July 26, 1895 Maria and Pierre were married. It was also around this time that she began going by Marie, which was the French version of Maria. The two were a perfect pair. They enjoyed working on their labs together, making new discoveries. And when they looked for a break from work, the two enjoyed traveling and taking bicycle rides together. The two were in sync with one another as they ventured through life.


This was a very big time in science. There were groundbreaking discoveries being made. In 1895, a man named Wilhelm Roentgen first discovered x-rays. The following year in 1896, a man named Henri Becquerel took Roentgen's discovery one step further and found that uranium salts had similar penetrating powers as x-rays have.

Marie wasn't going to let the men have all the fun. In search of a topic for her thesis, Marie looked at the work done with uranium and decided to dive a bit deeper. She used an electrometer that her husband and his brother had created a number of years prior to run tests. This machine was designed to measure electric charge. With her work, she found that uranium rays caused the air around the sample to conduct electricity. This reaction, she hypothesized, did not come from the molecular level. She theorized that it was in fact coming from the atom. At that time, it was believed that atoms were indivisible. This theory was a step in discovering what we now know atoms are made of: Protons, neutrons, and electrons.


In 1897, the Curie family grew as their daughter Irene was born. This did not slow Marie down, however, as she continued with her research. If anything, it pushed her to work harder to help support her now growing family, taking a job teaching at the Ecole Normale Superieure. She and her husband also converted a shed next to Pierre's workplace at the ESPCI into a laboratory to work. The shed, not meant to be used as a lab, was not well ventilated at all. However, the couple did not realize what the effects of extensive radiation exposure would do to themselves.


Marie began working with a mineral called pitchblende. From doing test on pitchblende with the electrometer, she found that pitchblende was far more reactive than uranium. While she knew that uranium was a part of pitchblende, the way it reacted made her conclude that there had to be something else mixed with uranium to create pitchblende. However, it was something unrecognizable, leading Marie to suggest that she may have found a new chemical element.

At the time, Pierre had been working on his own work, but Marie's discoveries were becoming increasingly fascinating. Eventually, Pierre set his work aside and decided to join Marie in the work that she had started. The two ran experiment after experiment breaking down pitchblende in different ways.


Finally, they were able to extract a black powder that was 330 times more radioactive than uranium. The couple decided to name it Polonium, paying homage to Marie's home country of Poland which even then was still under the rule of others and not yet independent. The Curies announced their discovery in a paper they wrote together that was published in July of 1898.


Their work was not done with pitchblende, however. They found that even after they had extracted the polonium, the liquid left behind was also radioactive. Even more so than the polonium. On December 26, 1898 the couple announced the second element that the two discovered. This element they named Radium.


The couple continued to learn more and run more tests and experiments on their new discoveries. One such discovery was that radium destroyed tumor-forming cells quicker than healthy cells. The Curies, however, found themselves often feeling sick or exhausted while they worked in their labs. Even when their skin was tender and raw, they continued to handle the materials, unaware that it was the materials themselves that were making them so sick.


In December of 1903, Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on radioactive materials. Initially, the committee intended on leaving Marie out of being awarded. However Pierre was tipped off about this and went on to insist his wife would also receive the award. Thanks to the support and insistence from her husband to be awarded, Marie was the first woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize. While the couple did not attend the award ceremony, stating they were too busy with their work, they took the money they received and put it toward the work they were doing together in their lab.


The following year in December of 1904, Marie gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Eve. When it came to raising her daughters, Marie felt it was important that they knew about their Polish background. Marie even hired a Polish governess to teach her daughters Polish.


Sadly for Marie, her partner in her lab and in her life was killed in 1906. Pierre was accidentally hit by a horse drawn carriage. His skull was fractured, causing his untimely death. Marie, understandably, was devastated. About a month after Pierre's death, the physics department at the University of Paris contacted Marie. They offered her the position that Pierre had held up until that point. She accepted with plans to honor Pierre's memory with the work she did in that role and was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris.


In 1909, the director of the Pasteur Institute Pierre Paul Emile Roux felt that Marie was not given a proper lab to do her work. He suggested to her that she should leave the University of Paris and come work with him at the Pasteur Institute. The University of Paris, worried that Marie would leave, partnered with the Pasteur Institute to create the Radium Institute (now named the Curie Institute). The Radium Institute was a lab created specifically for work with radioactivity and radioactive materials.


By 1910, Marie had succeeded in isolating pure radium and created a unit of measurement for radiation. She chose to name the unit of measurement "the curie" to honor the work that she and her late husband Pierre had done.


The following year, news broke that Marie had been a part of relationship for the past year with a man named Paul Langevin. Langevin was not only a former student of Pierre's, but he was also married. While he had been estranged from his wife, the tabloids didn't care. Around this time, xenophobia was ramping up in France making her Polish roots make her that much more unfavorable with the public. When the news of the relationship broke, Marie had been away at a conference in Belgium. Upon her return home, she was met with an angry mob that was camped out in front of her home. She and her daughters went to her friend Camille Marbo's house where they could lie low while things calmed down.


This was an increasingly complicated time for Marie and all of France as she was also to be awarded a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. She was to be awarded for her work on isolating radium and measuring reactivity. However, the scandal she was facing due to her relationship with Langevin complicated things. While she was discouraged from attending the award ceremony due to the scandal, Marie did not let that stop her. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and now she would be the first person in history to receive two Nobel Prizes. She was not going to let the public's disappointment in her stop her from attending. While she was the sole receiver of the award, Marie made a point of giving credit and recognition to her late husband Pierre for the work he did with her before his death.


Following her second Nobel Prize, Marie fell into a depression and became a bit of a recluse. She even stayed away from her lab and doing any work for over a year. She took a bit of time in 1913 to travel back to Poland and spend a bit of time in Warsaw.


By the start of World War I in 1914, Marie found new inspiration. She recognized that the best way to help wounded soldiers would be to find a way to operate on them as soon as possible. In order to do that, doctors would need to be able to assess the damage out in the battlefield. Working as the director of the Red Cross Radiological Service, she went around asking for funding and supplies to create a small portable x-ray machine.

By October of 1914, the "Petits Curies," or her first mobile x-ray machines, were constructed and ready to go. Her daughter Irene, who was 17 at the time, came along with Marie and worked along side her to x-ray the injured soldiers. As they continued to produce Petits Curies, Marie went on to train other women to assist.

With Marie's work, many limbs were saved from amputation and soldiers were helped on the battlefield. While she did so much for the French military, the French government never recognized her for her efforts after the war was over.


Following the end of World War I, Marie traveled with her two daughters to the United States in 1921 to tour around the country and raise funds for research of radium. While France had been turning their nose up to Marie and giving her the cold shoulder, the United States gave her a warm welcome.


By 1932, the Radium Institute in Warsaw was opened. Marie's sister Bronia was made the director of the institute. Marie's daughter followed closely in her mother's footsteps. She met a man named Frederic Joliot and the two worked together on radioactive elements, just as her parents had. The two were even awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their work.

Marie's younger daugher Eva became a journalist. While she did not follow in her parents' footsteps with a career in science, she did make a point of writing about it. The first of multiple biographies Eva wrote about her mother was published in 1937.


On July 4, 1934 Marie died at the age of 66 at Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France. The cause of her death was aplastic anemia which was caused from her exposure to radiation over such an extended period of time. Even by the time of Marie's death, the effects of radiation exposure was unknown. She was known to carry radium around in test tubes in her pocket. Today, we would shudder at the idea of doing such a thing. But in Marie's life, the dangers were unknown. This also meant that she did not appropriately protect herself when giving x-rays in the battlefield during World War I.

To this day, the materials from Marie's life are too dangerous for people to handle without protection. Her notes and even the cookbook she would use are all stored in lead cases to protect others from the radiation coming off of them. Even her and Pierre's remains have been sealed in a lead.


Marie was an incredible woman out to make history. She lived in a time and a place where she was not even allowed to gain a college education, but that didn't stop her. She was determined and loved what she did. No matter what challenges stood in her way, she pressed on and found a way to make it happen. Her passion, her spark, her determination is incredibly inspiring to me. I hope many others find inspiration from her life story.


I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.

--Marie Curie


Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/

https://www.biography.com/scientist/marie-curie

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Curie

https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/who/our-history/marie-curie-the-scientist

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