December 16, 2015

Women of Doubt: Marie Curie radiates

Okay, maybe that headline is a bit of a silly pun, but I love it nonetheless. #NoRagrets

Today we're going to talk about Marie Curie, an extraordinary woman of doubt, in my opinion. She faced so many obstacles, and not unlike the radiation she studied, passed through all of them.

Early Life

On November 7, 1867, Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland4, to teachers Bronsilawa and Wyladyslaw.3

Her mother and father encouraged her interest in science3, and Marie (the name she would later officially adopt) "received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father".4

Maria was the youngest of five siblings, born after Zsia, Józef, Bronya, and Hela.5

Her family was fairly traditional, although there's some speculation as to her father's beliefs:

Curie, being Polish and living most of her life in France, was surrounded by Catholicism and her mother was an active Catholic. Her father, who was a physics professor in Warsaw, is cited as having been a “freethinker,” which is code for atheist.2

It should be noted that "freethinker" does not always denote  nonbeliever, but there can be a strong correlation. It can also be expended to include other labels, like Deists.

When she was only 10, her mother Bronislawa lost her life to tuberculosis.5

Marie began attending a boarding school before moving on to a gymnasium, or a "selective school fro children who were strong academically."3

She would graduate from high school at just 15, "with a gold medal as a top student and burning interest in science."3

Struggle for Education

It's honestly amazing how much this woman fought for her education.

Despite being academically gifted--top student, remember?--she was denied entrance to university in Poland because she was female.

She was not alone in this struggle:

Both Curie and her sister Bronya dreamed of going abroad to earn an official degree, but they lacked the financial resources to pay for more schooling.5

Together, though, the sisters hatched a plan:

Undeterred, Curie worked out a deal with her sister. She would work to support Bronya while she was in school and Bronya would return the favor after she completed her studies.5

To support her sister, Curie took work as a tutor and children's governess, allowing Bronya to study medicine in Paris3:

For roughly five years, Curie worked as a tutor and a governess. She used her spare time to study, reading about physics, chemistry and math.5

In 1891, Bronya came through, offering Curie the chance to lodge with her in Paris "with a view to going to university", and Curie "grasped the opportunity and moved to France."6 She began studying both Physics and Mathematics at the Sorbonne.4

Curie completed her Master's degree in Physics in 1893, with another degree in Mathematics the following year.5

Atomic-Crossed Lovers

Having completed her Master's, Curie moved on to working on a doctorate, a research-based degree:

Around this time, she received a commission to do study on different types of steel and their magnetic properties. Curie needed a lab to work in, and a colleague introduced her to French physicist Pierre Curie.5

Needless to say, this was a fateful move. A romance quickly kicked off between the two, and they married on July 26, 1895.5

Curie was very open about the secularity of her marriage, saying "Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any." Indeed, their ceremony was civil and nonreligious.2

Curie would succeed Pierre as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne.4

At the beginning of their marriage, Marie and Pierre worked on separate projects. It was during this time that Marie became interested in the work of Henri Becquerel, "a French physicist who discovered that uranium casts off rays".5

Curie explored this concept in her own work:

Curie took Becquerel's work a few steps further, conducting her own experiments on uranium rays. She discovered that the rays remained constant, no matter the condition or form of the uranium. The rays, she theorized, came from the element's atomic structure. This revolutionary idea created the field of atomic physics and Curie herself coined the word radioactivity to describe the phenomena.5

As Marie dove deeper into the subject, Pierre eventually joined her, opting to support her work instead of continuing his own. Their first daughter, Irene, was also born during this time, in 1897.

The Curies were engrossed in their study:

The work was heavy and physically demanding – and involved dangers the Curies did not appreciate. During this time they began to feel sick and physically exhausted; today we can attribute their ill-health to the early symptoms of radiation sickness. At the time they persevered in ignorance of the risks, often with raw and inflamed hands because they were continually handling highly radioactive material.6

Despite the physical toll it was taking, the work surged ahead:

Working with the mineral pitchblende, the pair discovered a new radioactive element in 1898. They named the element polonium, after Marie's native country of Poland. They also detected the presence of another radioactive material in the pitchblende, and called that radium. In 1902, the Curies announced that they had produced a decigram of pure radium, demonstrating its existence as a unique chemical element.5

In 1903, Marie's work earned her a Doctor of Science.4

It was also in 1903 that Marie Curie made history as the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in physics.5 Technically, she and her husband shared half of the award, with the other half awarded to Henri Becquerel.4

The following year, their second daughter, Eve, was born.4

During their work, the Curies stumbled across a use for radiation that hadn't been explored yet:

Marie Curie became aware that the rays coming from radioactive elements could be used to treat tumors. She and Pierre decided not to patent the medical applications of radium, and so could not profit from it.3

Inarguably, this move severely impacted their financial security but made further research into radiation therapies for cancer possible at lower costs. The number of lives this selfless move from the Curies impacted is truly incalculable.

Not Even Grief Can Sideline Her

In 1906, Pierre Curie inadvertently stepped in front of a horse-drawn carriage. He was killed, leaving Marie with two small children to provide for.5

Despite her grief, Curie "took his place as Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, the first time a woman had held this position"4, and she didn't slow down there.

In 1911, she won a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, and she is the only woman to have one a prize in two separate fields to date.4 Even in her success, though, she remembered her loss:

While she received the prize alone, she shared the honor jointly with her late husband in her acceptance lecture.5

With the onset of World War I in 1914, Curie began to focus on how her discoveries could help the French war effort.5 She "worked to develop small, mobile X-ray units" which she outfitted on vehicles.6 Marie did much of the fundraising for this effort herself and it paid off:

In October 1914, the first machines were ready, and Marie set off to the front. She worked with her daughter Irene, then aged 17, at casualty clearing stations close tot the front line, X-raying wounded men to locate fractures, bullets and shrapnel."6

1914 was also the year that saw her appointed as Director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris.4

Even as she continued to prove herself, Curie faced overwhelming odds because she was a woman:

Despite her brilliance, Curie was denied a place in the French Academy of Sciences, with the stated reason being:
Women cannot be part of the Institute of France.
As a result, she wouldn’t allow the Academy to publish her work for the next ten years.2

Last Days and Legacy

The dangers of which Pierre and Marie had been unaware of finally caught up to her:

All of her years of working with radioactive materials took a toll on Curie's health. She was known to carry test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat. In 1934, Curie went to the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France, to try to rest and regain her strength. She died there on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.5

It's hard to say whether the disease was slow or quick--it can either progress over weeks or months or onset acutely. Even today, aplastic anemia can still be a side effect (although often temporary) of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.1 The most successful treatment for prolonged episodes of the malady, bone marrow transplants, was still more than 20 years in the future.

Curie made an undeniable impact on the fields she participated in, and on science at large. Her mere presence made huge strides for women in the sciences, and she also passed her love of science down to her children. Her daughter Irene won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with her husband, in 1934, the year after her mother's death.5

In 1995, in recognition of their contributions to science, Marie and Pierre's remains were interred at the Panthéon in Paris, "the final resting place of France's greatest minds." Like so many other facets of her life, Curie is also the first (and to date only) woman to be laid to rest there.5

As for religion:

Curie herself was not religious, and is often considered an atheist, but it seems more likely given her scientific worldview that she was more of an agnostic.2


1 "Aplastic Anemia" <> Accessed December 16, 2015.

2 Kershaw, Tom. "The Religion and Political Views of Marie Curie". <> Updated January 13, 2013. Accessed December 16, 2015.

3 "Marie Curie" <> Accessed December 16, 2015.

4 "Marie Curie-Biographical". <> Accessed December 16, 2015.

5 "Marie Curie Biography" <> Accessed December 16, 2015.

6 "Marie Curie the Scientist" <> Accessed December 16, 2015.

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