A Woman of Great Importance: Marie Curie

The 7th of November marked the 150th birthday of Marie Curie (née Maria Skłodowska), one of the world’s most remarkable women. Curie grew up in Warsaw in the Russian partition of Poland, where her fiercely nationalist family suffered due to their love of Poland: her father was forced to resign from a teaching position at the university, causing the family to struggle financially. By age eleven, Curie’s sister died of typhus, while her mother died of tuberculosis soon after. This did not stop Maria from studying hard and getting the highest honours in school. However, as women were not allowed to enrol in Warsaw university, Maria moved to Paris where she became known as Marie.

Her time in Paris was not to be a romantic one: she had little money, a flat without heating, and barely enough food so that she would sometimes faint with hunger. But, being used to hardship, Curie studied during the day and tutored in the evening to make ends meet. She obtained a degree in physics and fell in love with Pierre Curie. When he proposed to her, he told her he would sacrifice everything and move to Poland with her, aware of her patriotic devotion. However, after Marie failed to enrol in the Warsaw University once more due to her gender, she decided to study for her PhD in Paris.

After Becquerel discovered the power of uranium rays, Curie decided to investigate further. She carried out her work not in a laboratory but in a poorly ventilated shed that leaked, unaware of the damage that exposure to her work would cause. Her work with two uranium minerals showed that there was another, much stronger element present. She named this element Polonium, after the very country where her loyalties lay. Her research led to the discovery of another element Radium, as well as a greater understanding of radioactivity. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. Not only was she the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but to date she is the only person to win two in different scientific categories. She was also the first female professor of the University of Paris in 1906, replacing her husband who had died earlier that year.

Exposure to radiation caused Curie to die from aplastic anaemia, aged 66. Despite Curie’s modesty – apart from Nobel Prizes, she rarely accepted awards for her work – she is remembered as a pioneer both in feminism and science, and her impressive work leaves an enormous legacy that is still radiating today, one hundred and fifty years after her birth.  

[Liam Caldwell] 

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