Our first entry in the ‘Heroes of Science’ series was about Galileo, whose life and work I had been interested in for a while. The next post in the series will focus on someone whose fame is well-known, but whose life and work I didn’t know much about until this week. Even at the completion of International Women’s day last week, there is still a lot of discussion within science and engineering about getting women more involved and how to keep them in research positions. In the midst of hearing about the challenges women face in today’s research environment, I thought back on what the challenges might have looked like over a hundred years ago, when the number of women scientists was far fewer than now, and pondered what it meant to be one of the best scientists (not just one of the best women scientists but one of the best scientists, period) to emerge from that time.
*Disclaimer: As with our previous Heroes of Science post, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography, but is meant only as an overview of Marie Curie's life as a scientist and why she can be considered a Hero of Science. The information presented here comes from our favorite source of fun facts, and there are lots of other resources if you are interested in reading more about Marie Curie.
Even if you don’t know her history, you’ve seen Marie Curie’s name everywhere. Her name (as well as her husband’s) can be found on metro stations, airplanes, research institutions, fellowships, hospitals, and the list goes on and on. But before she was Marie Curie, she was Maria Salomea Skłodowska, born in Warsaw in 1867. Maria was part of a family of teachers who had an enthusiasm for science, but unfortunately who had also lost property and status in Russian-occupied Poland while she was growing up. Her father taught math and physics, and when his school had to stop doing lab experiments by order of the Russian government, he brought his chemistry lab equipment home instead.
Maria attended boarding school but found herself unable to enroll at a university in Poland because of to her status as a woman. She became involved with Poland’s ‘Flying University’, an underground nationalistic Polish university, but her older sister inspired her to earn enough money working as a governess in order to move to Paris and study there. It took a year and a half of work for Maria to make enough money to join her sister in Paris, meanwhile taking the initiative to educate herself with books and self-tutoring in her spare time.
Maria moved to Paris (and thus became Marie) while she was in her mid-20s and enrolled at the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry, and math. She spent her nights tutoring so she could earn money while studying and in 1893 got her degree in physics and soon started work at an industrial lab. She then earned her second degree and soon afterwards met Pierre Curie, who was an instructor in the school of physics and chemistry. Marie was looking for a bigger lab to work and was introduced by a colleague to Pierre. Pierre himself didn’t have a lab of his own, but he did help find a place for Marie. Their mutual love of chemistry and curiosity about the natural world led to a deeper friendship, and Pierre proposed to Marie. She turned him down, as at that time still intent on moving back to Poland. After going back to Poland to visit family, she soon realized that her dream wasn’t achievable: she was denied a place at Jagiellonian University in Krakow because of her status as a woman. Pierre sent her a letter asking her to come back to Paris to work on her Ph.D. and to marry him, and this time she obliged.
For her PhD thesis, Marie decided to study uranium rays, thanks to inspiration from recent discoveries about x-rays and uranium. Using an electrometer similar to the one from her father’s old lab equipment, she was able to determine that the amount of radiation from the uranium was proportional to the quantity of the material, so she hypothesized that the rays weren’t from chemical interactions but solely from the atoms themselves. This was a groundbreaking way of thinking about atoms and was just the start of the groundbreaking discoveries that would lead her to two Nobel prizes. During her dissertation work, she had her first daughter and worked as an instructor at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). The school didn’t have a lab, so she did her work in a converted shed next to the chemistry department. Her school also didn’t sponsor her research, so she worked to get subsidies from mining companies and governments who were interested in her work. She soon became entrenched in a systematic search for substances that could emit radiation, and also inspired Pierre to join in her endeavors.
Pierre and Marie worked together and wrote numerous papers as they worked to discover the element that was responsible for higher activities than others. Through their work they discovered the element Radium and also coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’. They published 32 scientific papers in the time span of 4 years, including a ground-breaking medical paper demonstrating that exposure to radium destroyed tumor cells faster than healthier ones. In 1900, she became the first woman faculty member at ENS and later received her doctorate in 1903. She was invited to the Royal Institute in London to present her dissertation work, but due to her status as a woman Pierre had to speak on her behalf.
Thankfully, Marie wasn’t denied a Nobel prize due to being a woman, although it did almost happen that way. In 1903 she shared the prize with her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radiation. The award was almost only given to Pierre and Henri, but one member of the Nobel committee was an advocate for women scientists and made sure that she was on the list, too. Pierre and Marie used their prize money to fund their lab and to continue their great work. Unfortunately, in 1906 Marie had to continue their incredible work on her own after Pierre died in an accident. Marie was left devastated but still determined to keep working. Before his death, Pierre was ready to accept a new position as Chair of Physics at the University of Paris, a position which the university instead offered to Marie. She took up the role and was determined to use her work and her lab as a tribute to her husband.
While her work continued to flourish with the establishment of the Radium Institute, the successful isolation of radium in 1910, and working to define international standards for radioactive emissions, she still faced adversity. Marie was never admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, in part due to her status as a woman but also from strong xenophobic tensions, which also led to France occasionally shedding a poor light on her great work when receiving national awards. Despite both professional and personal adversity, her work was always on point, and she received a second Nobel prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911—and to this day she is one of only two people to win Nobel prizes in two different fields.
At the start of World War I, she worked on developing equipment to help battlefield surgeons, and was the first director of the Red Cross radiology department. Wanting to give everything she had to the allies’ cause, she even offered up her Nobel prizes to support the war effort. While her direct efforts to support soldiers and doctors on the front lines was at the time left relatively unrecognized by the French government, she continued to be a leader both in wartimes and as the leader of an institute which churned out four more Nobel prize winners, including her own daughter.
While there are numerous legacies that Marie Curie left behind from her work, what stands out to me is her perseverance as a scientist. She was described as honest and modest, which seems to hold true when you see how she always invested prize money into her and Pierre’s work and worked to build others up in their institute instead of keeping it all for herself. She refrained from patenting her radium-labelling isotopes so that other scientists could more easily do the research they needed to. She also worked in a world that continually told her no, simply because she was a woman. The fact that she continued her research, which was both ground-breaking and Nobel prize-winning work, is proof of her dedication to her role in science and not to society’s expected role for her in the world.
Marie Curie wasn’t just amazing because she was the first woman to do so many things in science, but because she provides an example for all of us, man and woman alike, of how we can let our passions and our curiosities drive us instead of letting ourselves be limited by the expectations of the world around us. She goes to show all of us that where you end up isn’t determined by what gender or economical status you’re born into, it’s instead driven by your ambitions and your goals, and the dreams of what you want to achieve, learn, or accomplish. Marie and Pierre also illustrate a great relationship in science—having someone that is your teammate and collaborator, and a person that inspires you to do your best and that helps you accomplish amazing things. Whether it’s your life partner or your science best friend, being in an inspiring and supporting relationship can make all the difference in helping you succeed.
I have never been a very outspoken feminist, especially in the context of women in science, but I was really inspired by Marie’s story and the energy she put into working towards a goal, regardless of the obstacles in her way. Despite the challenges that women and other under-represented groups face in the sciences today, the world looks quite different than it did 100 years ago thanks to the pioneering efforts of early women in science. My PhD advisor told me about her days as a Masters student, when she would have lunch with the only other female in the graduate department. I see both her and Marie Curie not as pioneers for women in science but really as pioneers, period: people that go into a place that’s new and unfamiliar and that let themselves and their work shine, regardless of gender, nationality, or any other status. Maybe that’s why science is such a great place for everyone that works there, because it’s the merit of the work that’s the focus, not the person who does it.
If you have another scientist in mind that you’d like to see featured in our Heroes of Science series, email your suggestion to science.with.style.blog[at]gmail.com and we’d be happy to feature it in an upcoming post. Until then, we hope you have an enjoyable Easter holiday—whether you get time off from the lab or just enjoy some spare time while eating your weight in chocolate eggs!