When I was in the fifth grade, I read every single biography in our school’s library. I remember reading a lot of baseball players’ biographies. I only remember three women’s biographies: Helen Keller, Ann Sullivan, and Madame Curie.
I really enjoyed reading about Marie Curie, but had no understanding of her incredible contributions and obstacles until much later. A few years ago I read Obsessive Genius: The Inner World Of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith. I almost always think of her when I’m having x-rays and when the Nobel Prizes are awarded. Today I was happily surprised by a Google doodle dedicated November 7 in honor of her 144th birthday.
Marie Sklodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw. Her father taught mathematics and physics at the university and her mother ran an elite boarding school for girls. She had an agreement with her older sister: she would work to provide financial assistance while she pursued her medical training in Paris in exchange for her sister to reciprocate financially for her higher education two years later. This was an incredible commitment in an era where women weren’t expected nor encouraged to be educated, certainly not in the sciences.
After earning her degree in physics (1893) and later mathematics (1894) in Paris, she returned to Poland hoping to teach at Krakow University. She was denied the position only because she was a woman. She returned to Paris and the rest is history.
Here are some highlights:
- Married Pierre Curie, her instructor in physics and chemistry, in 1895.
- Their partnership discovered the elements polonium and radium in 1898, both radioactive substances, radioactivity being a term she coined.
- The Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, along with her mentor Henri Becquerel. Marie Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize.
- She received a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry in 1911. She is the only person to receive Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.
- By World War I, radium was used for medical diagnostics. She pushed for the use of mobile radiography units for the treatment of wounded soldiers.
- She was effective is raising funds for various laboratories dedicated to furthering research and treatments.
- Her oldest daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie and son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie, followed in her scientific footsteps, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
- Her granddaughter, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, is a nuclear physicist in France and her grandson, Pierre Joliot is a noted biophysicist.
- The only non-scientist in the family was her younger daughter, Eve Curie, was a pianist and journalist. She also wrote a, excellent biography of her mother, Madame Curie: A Biography.
Marie Curie died in 1934 from the effects of unprotected exposure to radioactive elements. In fact, her scientific papers and even her cookbook are so contaminated with high levels of radioactivity they must be stored in lead boxes.
The Curie’s scientific contributions are among the greatest of the twentieth century and fundamental to advancements we’re seeing in the twenty-first century. Many of the advancements in oncology alone are a direct result of the work begun by Marie Curie, with future contributions by her daughter and granddaughter! We will continue to benefit from her life’s work and her legacy for generations to come.