Trailblazers: Marie Curie

Many of you will be familiar with the name of Marie Curie from the Marie Curie Charity, but how much do you know much about their trailblazing namesake?

Well buckle up folks, you’re in for quite a ride…Marie didn’t just see the glass ceiling she went ahead and smashed it.

Marie Curie
Marie Curie c.1898 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw Poland. Her parents Bronisława and Władysław Skłodowski were teachers and encouraged their five children’s educational pursuits. Marie was clearly gifted and devoted to learning, but at this time the political situation barred her from accessing higher education. Poland was controlled by Russia, Austria and Prussia, with Marie’s native Warsaw controlled by Russia. They did not allow women to go to University at all and limited the curriculum for men – as an educated Polish population was probably not going to assist with Russia’s wish to dominate their land. This was one of the first big barriers Marie faced, where was she going to receive the education she desired? This is where the Flying University came in. It began in Warsaw in 1882, where brave Polish educators broke the law to host lectures and seminars for female students. They changed locations regularly to escape the law, which is what gave the clandestine university its name. Marie and her sister Bronislawa attended these classes, taking advantage of an opportunity when it was presented to them. It makes you appreciate how much better education access is in the 21st century where in Poland “the total share of female students reached 57.8 percent” in 2017.

Particularly in her early life Marie never had access to the funds that would give her a better chance to access education. She made a pact with her sister Bronislawa that she would work for two years to support Bronislawa’s education in Paris and then Bronislawa would do the same for Marie. In 1891 Marie made it to Paris after years of hard work privately studying and working by and large as a governess. She attended the well renowned Sorbonne University to study Physics and Mathematics. It was during her time in France that she met her future husband the scientist Pierre Curie. What I love about their relationship was that it was a partnership. Not only did Marie break misogynistic educational barriers, but she also showed what an equal marriage could look like in a period where many women had to obey their husbands wishes.

Pierre_and_Marie_Curie

Pierre and Marie Curie courtesy of Wikipedia

The Curies worked together in trying conditions with little space and poor laboratory equipment so they had to teach to provide an income for their family; they had daughters Irène in 1897 and Ève in 1904. Marie began her work on radioactive substances, and Pierre soon dropped his project on crystals to join her as her work became more fascinating. Then came their big discoveries: the discovery of Polonium and Radium. In 1903 they were award the Nobel Prize for Physics along with Henri Becquerel. This was an immense achievement for Marie, she was the first woman to ever be awarded a Nobel Prize. Not only that, but she won in the Physics category in a time when science was largely dominated by men. Yet it nearly didn’t happen. The committee were originally only going to honour Pierre, but thankfully one of the committee members Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler notified Pierre who then complained that it wouldn’t be right to not acknowledge Marie’s work.

1024px-Nobel_Pierre_et_Marie_Curie_1

Diploma of Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Allies are important for any disadvantaged group, and Magnus and Pierre showed themselves to be great supporters of women as they wanted Marie’s significant scientific contribution to be celebrated. Marie’s achievement cannot be understated, who now could say a women couldn’t work in the sciences? A generation of young girls could now see that, even if they were from impoverished background’s like Marie’s, if they worked hard enough and found opportunities they could also contribute to science.

Being quite the high achiever, Marie then went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911 “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element“. Not only was she first person to win two Nobel Prizes but she remains the only person to win them in two scientific categories. She blazed the trail for women being able to achieve the Noble Prize, an award that offers international recognition. These were amazing achievements, but by no means the only way Marie blazed the way. She was the first women to be a Professor at the Sorbonne, founded the Curie Institute in Paris and Warsaw and made head of the International Red Cross’ radiologic service creating mobile radiography units to be used during the First World War to provide x-rays for wounded troops. She also won a host of other awards like the Davy Medal.

During her life not only did Marie face misogyny but she also experienced xenophobia in France due to her Polish nationality. She also had to contend with a scandal relating to her private life. Pierre tragically died in 1906, and years later Marie began a relationship with the scientist Paul Langevin who was estranged from his wife. Around the time of her second Nobel Prize win the news broke of this affair and she was painted as a home wrecker. The famous scientist Albert Einstein, who had met previously met Marie at an event, wrote her a supportive letter saying “if the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.” These factors were used to smear her reputation, as is the usual pattern when a woman makes great achievements. Marie continued to battle barriers as she conducted her scientific work before tragically dying in 1934 at the age 66 from aplastic anaemia, which was likely the result of long term radiation exposure. In 1995 she and Pierre’s remains were removed from the Sceaux cemetery and interned at the Panthéon, Paris. Marie Curie took the world by storm, making scientific discoveries that have benefitted the world. Her achievements broke barriers, which helped the women following after to pursue the sciences, with her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie winning the noble prize in 1935 in Chemistry.

Today is International Women’s Day, and I’d like to wrap up this post on the remarkable trailblazing Marie Curie in her own words: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

What do you think of Marie Curie? What can we learn from her story?I’d love to hear yor thoughts in the comments below!

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Sources:

‘Female students in Poland 2017, by type of higher education’
Published by Adriana Sas, Mar 8, 2019 https://www.statista.com/statistics/980930/international-women-s-day-female-students-by-type-of-higher-education-in-poland/

‘Marie Curie Got Her Start At a Secret University For Women: The controversial Flying University’ by Eric Grundhauser
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-secret-polish-university-for-women-where-marie-curie-got-her-start

‘Marie Curie’ History Learning Site: https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/a-history-of-medicine/marie-curie/

‘Marie Curie’ Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie

‘Marie Curie’ Nobel Prize Website: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/ + https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/questions-and-answers/

Marie Curie Charity Website: https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/who/our-history/marie-curie-the-scientist

‘December 1898: The Curies Discover Radium’ American Physical Society: https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200412/history.cfm

Read the Uplifting Letter That Albert Einstein Sent to Marie Curie During a Time of Personal Crisis (1911): http://www.openculture.com/2017/12/read-the-dont-let-the-bastards-get-you-down-letter-that-albert-einstein-sent-to-marie-curie-during-a-time-of-personal-crisis-1911.html

‘Marie Curie’ BBC History: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/curie_marie.shtml