SAVVA POUROULLIS

Marie Curie is by far one of the most accomplished scientists in history. Considering she worked as a scientist in an industry dominated by men during an era dominated by the patriarchy, this is a truly remarkable achievement. Curie has enough awards, research grants, buildings and institutions named after her to ensure her name will be familiar to every scientist for a thousand years to come. She also had her own Google doodle.

Curie, originally Maria Sklodowska, was raised in Poland. Her father, a prominent math and science teacher, brought his scientific equipment home and taught his children how to use it. It was rare for a girl to be taught something so male-orientated at the time. Her father was eventually fired from his job for political reasons, followed by her mother’s death from tuberculosis when Curie was only ten. The family struggled in the subsequent year. Curie’s sister died several years later from typhus.

Despite suffering from depression, Curie performed brilliantly at everything she did, receiving a gold medal in gymnastics and ultimately finding a way to receive a higher education in a time when women were not permitted to do so. Curie attended the Flying University, a pro-Polish tertiary education institution that sympathised with women. Having achieved the “impossible”, Maria moved to Paris to pursue her nascent scientific career.

In France, she changed her name to the now famous Marie Curie. Together with her husband Pierre Curie, she began to study some interesting substances which appeared to have unique properties, seemingly radiating energy from out of nowhere. By continuing the work of her professor at the University of Paris, she coined the term “radioactive” and discovered several elements, an achievement to which very few scientists can lay claim. One of those elements was named after her country of birth: polonium. She also contributed to the now common understanding that atoms are not indivisible, an idea once widely held as law by the scientific community.

The Curie power-couple earned themselves a nomination for the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Interestingly, the committee did not originally nominate Curie along with her husband on the grounds that she was a woman, but one of the committee members, a male mathematician and an advocate for women’s rights, protested and alerted her husband. She was ultimately added to the nomination and eventually won the award. It transpired that the couple was so busy with their work and disinterested in the glory of the award that they never actually collected the award in person. Curie would later become the first person ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice by winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1911. To this day, Curie remains the only person to have won the prize in two different science categories.

Among other things, Curie served during World War One by building mobile x-ray platforms that she could take to the front in order to scan broken limbs. She also used small amounts of radium from her own supply, as a mere one gram was enough to disinfect wounds on the field. Curie set up several radiotherapy centres and trained women to use her techniques of treatment. In total, her centres treated about one million soldiers throughout the war.

The Curie story did not end with a bang, however. The Curies did not yet understand the danger of radioactivity to humans. Curie was known to carry radium samples in her pockets and stored them in her desk drawers. Radioactive materials could be detected everywhere in Curie’s office, kept exactly as it was for tourism purposes by the French government. Curie and her husband eventually fell ill without realising why. Pierre, although ill, died in a traffic collision. Curie herself later died from aplastic anaemia caused by her prolonged exposure to the material. Curie and everything around her was so irradiated that her original papers can only be handled when wearing protective clothing.

Curie achieved significant fame around the world in her lifetime, yet she thought little of awards and personal fortunes. Albert Einstein, who met Curie at an elite scientists’ conference in Brussels, commented that, “Marie Curie is, of all esteemed beings, the one who fame has not corrupted.” It is understood that she also refused to patent her discoveries in her work with radiation so that the scientific community at large could learn and experiment with radiation unhindered. If she had patented most of her work, the Curie family today would receive royalties every time glow-in-the-dark paint or chemotherapy was used.

During World War One, Curie also attempted to give the gold from her Nobel medals to the French government to help with the war effort, but they refused to accept it.

Today curium is named after the Curie couple, as well as three more radioactive compounds. “Curie”, the unit used to describe radioactivity, is also named after her. She is currently entombed at the Pantheon in Paris with her husband. There are two museums dedicated solely to her legacy. Marie Curie was and still is a monumental inspiration to all men and women in the scientific community.

 

Illustration: Faith Honey

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