Marie Curie, the First Woman to Receive a Nobel Prize

We pay tribute to the Polish scientist Marie Curie who, with her discoveries on radiation, became the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes and to change the course of physicochemical research in the 20th century.

Marie Curie, the First Woman to Receive a Nobel Prize
Marie Curie, the woman who changed modern science. Image: Cultura

Marie Curie is well known for having discovered polonium and radium, two elements found in uranium mine tailings; and for being the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, a feat that is repeated on a second occasion (something unusual), but little is known about her personal growth and her abilities to deal with an entirely hostile environment.

Marie Curie's life represents the epitome of the development of modern science and the inclusion of women in it; it was undoubtedly an arduous road Maria Salomea Skłodowski (her given name) had to travel to make her way in a scientific world under male domination. Her introverted character, her great scientific curiosity, her passion, and, above all, her resilience, led Marie Curie not to lose heart in the face of the worst calamities.

She discovered a chemical element that gave rise to the development of a new field of knowledge; she helped her adopted country during the war when French society itself was calling for her exile; she overcame the death of one of the loves of her life, Pierre Curie, only to be pointed out for a long time as his shadow and, sometimes, as the conspirator of his death.

Marie Curie: a Life with a Great Resilience

The daughter of a physics and mathematics professor and a piano teacher, Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, which, at that time, still belonged to the Tsarist Russian Empire.

Marie Curie at the age of 16.
Marie Curie at the age of 16.

During her early years, although she did not come from a wealthy family, she had a great incentive and motivation for education and academic life. After the death of her mother and one of her sisters, family and economic difficulties never took away her desire to study.

After finishing basic education, just because she was a woman, she was not allowed access to higher education. However, that did not deter her passion: she traveled to Paris to enter Sorbonne University and got a place to study physics and mathematics like her father. Meanwhile, she worked as a governess to support herself.

Marie Curie with her husband Pierre.
Marie Curie with her husband Pierre.

Finally, in 1893, Marie, who had already Frenchified her name, graduated in Physics with outstanding grades. A year later, she met her future husband, fellow physicist and scientist Pierre Curie, whose surname she took, and they had two daughters. Marie went further and pursued a doctorate.

"Research on uranium radiation by physicist Henri Becquerel and the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen helped Curie to choose the subject of her thesis: research on radioactive substances. Fascinated by the progress of his wife's research, Pierre decided to put aside his studies on magnetism to help her", commented some historians who reflected on her life and work, for the website canalhistoria.es. And they added: "Personal and professional accomplices, Marie and Pierre Curie worked side by side in conditions that were far from easy. In 1898 they announced the discovery of new elements: radium and polonium, both more radioactive than uranium. However, it was not until four years later that they were able to prove their discovery".

Certification of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903).
Certification of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903).

The year 1903 was the year of recognition for her research. Marie Curie not only obtained her doctorate but also received the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with her husband and Becquerel, for her research on radioactivity. Despite her importance, the University of Paris only appointed her husband, in 1904, as an academic professor and, two years later, she became a member of the French Academy.

Later, due to a horse accident in which Pierre Curie lost his life, Marie took over her husband's chair of Physics at the Sorbonne. In this way, she became not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but also a professor at the Sorbonne.

After the death of her husband, she decided to continue her research. She soon discovered that radiotherapy could be a treatment for cancerous diseases. This made Marie's experiments gain followers and become enormously popular. Thanks to this research, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize. This time, in the category of Chemistry, in 1911.

Marie Curie visits the Standard Chemical Company.
Marie Curie visits the Standard Chemical Company.

Curie was not only a pioneering scientist, but she also played a very important role during the First World War. During that war period, she acquired several automobiles and portable X-ray machines to create "radiological ambulances". Thanks to this, she was able to save the lives of a great many soldiers. Thus, Marie became the director of the Radiology Service of the French Red Cross.

Marie Curie and her daughter Irène, who also devoted herself to science and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.
Marie Curie and her daughter Irène, who also devoted herself to science and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

"After the war, Curie returned to her studies and joined several scientific academies such as the French National Academy of Medicine in 1922 and received countless awards. Unfortunately, due to the radiation to which she was exposed in her experiments, Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934," shared the historians of that historiographic site. In 1995, she was buried with honors in the Pantheon in Paris, together with the remains of her husband.

Marie Curie devoted herself to science in her laboratory.
Marie Curie devoted herself to science in her laboratory.

For her contributions to science and society, and 153 years after her birth, Marie Curie became one of the most recognized and important women in history.

Sources: Cultura Argentina