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Marie Curie

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Marie Curie Throughout the ages, there have been many notable scientists who have made lasting impressions on society. These scientists made countless discoveries and their contributions advanced scientific theories, concepts, and laws; be it Galileo’s theory of atoms or Newton’s laws of motion. One such scientist is Marie Curie. Known for her discovery of radium and polonium, Marie Curie is a strong representation of a woman who went against the odds and changed the study of physics in a mostly male dominated field. Curie encountered various challenges and hardships in her lifetime, but conquered them vigorously. Her hard work and dedication led to a lifetime of success and she left a lasting impact on society and other scientists around the world. Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. Her father was a mathematics and physics teacher and her mother was the head of a prestigious boarding school. Her parents valued academics and were scholarly, which, without a doubt, was a key factor in Curie’s fascination with academics. Her father often encouraged her studies but was unable to send her to a private school due to financial circumstances. He instead taught her how to read and secretly educated her on certain subjects that were forbidden by the Russians. However, since during this time period Poland was under the command of Russia, Curie’s father was faced with many difficulties. He ended up losing his teaching position because of his loyalty to Poland. He continued getting demoted to lower jobs. The already financially struggling family faced even more hardship when Curie’s mother died “of tuberculosis when Marie was ten years old” (Des Jardins). Curie was “the star student in her class” (Gingo) and she did not let her personal losses dictate her success. She graduated school at the age of fifteen but was not able to go to medical school because women were not welcome there. Curie wanted to be a teacher like her father, but her gender and lack of money “prevented her from a formal higher education” (MarieCurie.org). Up until the age of twenty-four, Curie worked as a governess for a rich family in an attempt to save money to go to college. She was able to save up enough money and enroll at Sorbonne University in Paris in 1891. Curie lodged with her older sister for a bit and then rented out an attic in a house to be closer to the university. She was incredibly studious and completely immersed herself in her work. She was frequently exhausted and at one point “collapsed of weakness” (Des Jardins). However, Curie’s hard work paid off and she earned herself a degree in physics in 1893 and a degree math in 1894. It was during this time that Curie met her future husband Pierre Curie in 1894. He was a “professor in the school of physics” (NobelPrize.org) and had discovered piezoelectricity years earlier with his brother. They shared a lab together and Pierre was “taken by Marie’s uncommon intellect and drive” (Des Jardins), so he proposed to Curie the following year. They both resumed their research together at the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris “[where] they began their pioneering work into invisible rays given off by uranium” (MarieCurie.org). Their early research was often done in unfavorable conditions, but nonetheless, they were able to make impressive discoveries. One such discovery was that of polonium, named after Marie’s native country. This new chemical element inspired them to further their research and the Curies found another element within polonium. This element would come to be known as radium. The work that the Curies did in order to prove the existence of this new element was physically demanding. They often “began to feel sick and physically exhausted” (MarieCurie.org). Their decline in health can be attributed to early symptoms of radiation sickness. They did little to protect themselves against the harmful radiation. Even though their research was dangerous, they both continued to work with radium and the Curies were eventually able to determine its atomic weight. Pierre and Marie were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 along with Professor Becquerel for their combined work with radium. Not only was Marie the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, she was also the “first woman in France to earn a PhD in physics” (Des Jardins) after she passed her doctorate thesis. Her thesis was about radiation and it was deemed “the greatest single contribution to science ever written” (Des Jardins) by other doctoral professors. However, Marie had many adversaries at this time. There was a notion that she was merely an assistant to Pierre and some men did not believe she was a true scientist. She also was not promoted, unlike her husband who was made a full professor. However, Pierre appointed Marie to be the head of the laboratory and for the first time ever, she got paid for her research and experiments. Their successful collaboration ended abruptly when Pierre was struck by a carriage in 1906. Although Marie was faced with yet another hardship, she did not waver. Instead of just accepting a widow’s pension, she “took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences” (NobelPrize.org). She was the first woman to teach at Sorbonne and hundreds of people eagerly lined up to hear her first lecture. Her determination and endeavors awarded her a second Nobel Prize in 1911 in Chemistry “for creating a means of measuring radioactivity” (MarieCurie.org). Yet again, Curie faced skeptics who thought “she had been rewarded the Nobel Prize only out of pity” (Gingo). Others said she was morally unfit because of an affair she had with a married man. Marie’s reputation was almost ruined and she lost some respect from other scientists and colleagues. “When the scandal broke, no one in the physics community supported Marie” (Gingo). Curie’s image as a home wrecker dwindled and Sorbonne built the first radium institute with two laboratories. One was solely for “the study of radioactivity under Marie Curie’s direction” (MarieCurie.org). Curie worked to develop small X-ray systems that were mobile and could used to diagnose injuries in the First World War. She was assisted by her daughter Irene and she “actively promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering” (NobelPrize.org). Curie was the Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service and went all over Paris asking for money, supplies, and vehicles that could be converted to help with the war efforts. She was extremely altruistic and donated her award money as well. The first portable X-ray machines were ready for use in October of 1914 and she worked with her daughter to treat wounded men who had fractures, imbedded shrapnel, and bullet wounds. Her work was monumental and she became the head of the Paris Institute of Radium in 1914. She also helped found the Curie Institute. She wanted radioactivity to be used to treat cancer and she devoted a large portion of her life to finding benefits of her newly discovered property. After World War I, Curie was unable to afford radium. Since her and her late husband had not patented the purification process, “other scientists and U.S. chemical companies were producing radium…then selling it for $100,000 per gram” (Des Jardins). A journalist in New York named Missy Meloney took it upon herself to create the Marie Curie Radium Fund. Her mission was to raise money so that Curie could continue her research. Meloney portrayed Curie as a “benevolent healer” (Des Jardins) with the intent of using radium as a treatment for cancer patients. Curie did not approve of the publicity campaign done by Meloney and did not intend for radium to be used directly for medical purposes. However, Meloney was successfully able to raise more than $100,000 within months on Curie’s behalf. She was able to buy a gram of radium for the Curie Institute in Paris and Curie was invited to the United States. Curie “embarked on a whirlwind tour” (Des Jardins) around the States and was finally able to take the radium back to Paris. It was presented to her by President Harding at the White House in 1921. Curie maintained her enthusiasm for science and was able to establish a radioactive laboratory in her hometown. In 1929, President Hoover presented her “with a gift of $50,000 donated, by American friends of science, to purchase radium for use in the laboratory in Warsaw” (NobelPrize.org). Curie was held in high regards and admired by numerous scientists around the world. She continued her scientific research until her death in 1934 in Savoy, France. She died of aplastic anemia, “a condition she developed after years of exposure to radiation through her work” (MarieCurie.org). Sixty years later, both her and Pierre’s remains were relocated to the Pantheon in Paris out of respect for their achievements to the science community. This mausoleum is reserved only for France’s most esteemed dead. Marie Curie was the first woman ever to be awarded a place in the Pantheon. Marie left behind two daughters, Irene and Eve. They both pursued careers dealing with science. Irene and her husband won a Nobel Prize for their work on the nucleus of the atom. They are also credited with “the discovery of artificial radiation” (MarieCurie.org). Like her mother, Irene died of an illness related to radiation- leukemia. Marie Curie could be dubbed as the most prominent female scientist of all time. She is called “a martyr to science” (Des Jardins) and contributed greatly to society. Curie’s research helped with the atomic theory and it allowed for treatments for certain kinds of cancer. The importance of her work is reflected upon the multitude of awards she received. She was awarded “many honorary science, medicine, and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world” (NobelPrize.org). She has many tributes as well- a unit of radioactivity is named after her, an element named curium, numerous locations around the world are named after her, there are several institutions that bear her name along with two museums, and many other homages.
Marie Curie’s life as a scientist was a flourishing and profound one because of her “ability to observe, deduce, and predict” (MarieCurie.org). She made such a significant contribution to science and was able to advance a woman’s place in the scientific community, which was mostly male dominated. Her career as a scientist benefited society as a whole because she had to overcome barriers that were in place because she was a woman. As Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” She practiced what she preached and was able to understand chemistry and physics in a way that no one had done before. Her work and research make her one of the most notable female scientists in history. Her dedication led to her success and her lasting impression can be seen in the science communities around the world.

Work Cited

"A Brief Biography of Marie Curie." Marie Curie the Scientist. Marie Curie Cancer Care, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2014

Des Jardins, Julie. "Madame Curie's Passion." History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2014

Gingo, Matt. "Marie Curie." Marie Curie. N.p., Nov. 2000. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.

“Marie Curie – Biographical”. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 7 Nov 2014.

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