Celebrating women in science: Marie Skłodowska Curie, a historic role model

Celebrating women in science: Marie Skłodowska Curie, a historic role model

Elena Giusto, PhD

Marie Skłodowska Curie is without a doubt one of the most well-received figures within the scientific community. She stood out not only for her brilliant talent and dedication, but also as an inspiring woman in science. Her pioneering studies on radioactivity significantly contributed to the development of anti-cancer therapies. In 1903 Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in physic), and just eight years later, she was awarded her second Nobel Prize (this time in Chemistry); she is one of just four people who have received this prize twice, and only two of them have shined in different subjects.

Marie was also the first woman to lecture at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris and the first lady whose remains have found shelter within the suggestive walls of the Parisian Pantheon. Her name is worldwide associated with several Cancer Research Institutes and with some of the most competitive fellowships a researcher can long for.

Things like these do not happen by chance, neither do they come easy!

Marie's radiant way to science

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7th, 1867. Her parents, both teachers, provided Maria and her siblings (one brother and three sisters) with a well-built education. As a child, Maria embraced the study of physics and maths, and very soon her exceptional interest in learning came to surface. Two premature losses - her eldest sister first and her mum later - scarred Maria’s personality, and she often suffered from depression. Fortunately, Maria found comfort in her sister Bronislawa, with whom she established a special connection as they both were ambitious and resolute at earning a university degree. Sadly, at that time Warsaw was under Russian domination and women were not allowed to receive high-level education. Therefore, Maria and Bronislawa started attending the so-called “flying-University”', a secret organization aimed at providing education outside of Russian control -and so “flying” between different locations. The two sisters did not give up their dream and finally worked out a mutual promise: Maria would help fund her sister's studies (working as a governess during the day and studying till late at night), and Bronislawa would return the favour shortly after. And so it was!

In 1891 Maria - now Frenchified as Marie - could finally walk in the Sorbonne University and formally begin her journey in science. In 1893 Marie obtained her degree in Physics, redoubling, the following year, with a second degree in Maths.

Pierre Curie and the perfect match

In 1894 Marie was looking for a lab space and she found love instead! Pierre Curie, a French physicist, had just discovered the phenomenon of piezoelectricity and was starting his studies on magnetism, when his attention was attracted by Marie and her interest in the radioactive properties of uranium. Marie and Pierre established an instant close-knit friendship and formed a tremendous working team; they eventually got married in 1895.

The sturdy couple ground away at their research and it did not take long for them to realise that pitchblende, the mineral from which they were extracting uranium, was also the source of additional radioactive elements. With that in mind, they began a strenuous job of isolation, crystallization and purification, working in suboptimal conditions and exposing themselves to lethal doses of radiation: amused by the feeble and suggestive light emanated by the tubes they were carrying in their pockets, Pierre and Marie were unaware that their lives were at risk! Eventually, they achieved their goal and added two new radioactive elements to the periodic table: polonium (a tribute to Marie’s homeland) and radium. However, it would have taken years, and tons of pitchblende, before they could obtain the tiniest amount of these elements in their pure forms. Marie and Pierre noticed that radium was able to kill tumour cells faster than healthy cells and immediately understood the clinical potential of this element. Nevertheless, they purposely decided to not claim a patent for their discovery and allow the scientific community to have free access to polonium and radium.

1903 was a great year for the Curies: in June Marie obtained her doctoral degree, while a few months later the couple were awarded, together with Becquerel, the Nobel Prize in Physics, as a recognition of their valuable work on radioactivity. Notably, Marie was initially excluded from receiving the prestigious medal. It was only thanks to Pierre’s stubbornness that Marie’s contribution was appraised and finally recognized as a legitimate winner of the Prize. This came together with a career advancement for Pierre, who was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Paris.

A dramatic turn of events and the second Nobel Prize

Suddenly, a terrible misfortune hit the family as Pierre was killed in a road accident in 1906. Marie, shocked and with two young girls to raise by herself (Irene, born in 1897 and Eve, born in 1904), took a long break before stepping back into the empty lab. In the same year, Marie was offered the position left vacant after Pierre’s loss, thus becoming the first woman teaching at the Sorbonne. Urged by a desire to pay homage to her departed husband, Marie pursued her intense studies, and finally succeeded at isolating a small amount of pure radium and determining its atomic weight. The discovery of radium sparked immediate and vast interest, to the point that the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris worked together to build a new institute, the Radium Institute, where Marie could finally find an appropriate space to work.

1911 was a paradoxical year for Marie: while on one end she was awarded with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, on the other she provoked a huge scandal when her relationship with Paul Langevin - former student in Pierre’s lab and father of four children - came out in the open. Once more, Marie pulled herself together, encouraged by the supportive words of exceptional friends, among which Albert Einstein.

The war and the Petites Curies

World War I represented an unusual payback for Marie, who decided to pause her studies and help the surgeons at the front. She and her eldest daughter created the first radiological mobile stations by supplying some vehicles with portable X-ray machines (called Petites Curies). This allowed surgeons to easily identify broken bones and plunged bullets, and was clearly not an easy task! Marie had to persuade wealthy people to donate vehicles, electric generators and all the necessary equipment to stay at the front. Also, Marie had to learn to drive, study human anatomy and train a team of women to use the new installations. This epic effort led to outstanding results: it is estimated that a million soldiers were saved thanks to the Petites Curies. To help the French government re-emerge after the War, Marie offered to donate her medals, but the proposal was not accepted. However, she still managed to hand out part of her money.

Marie's post-war fame

After the war, Marie returned to her brand new lab at the Radium Institute and picked up where she had left off. But her reputation had reached every corner of the world. In 1921 Marie made a trip to the United States, where she was welcomed like a celebrity. She received a gram of radium as a result of a spontaneous whip-round supported by American women and was able to collect enough money to fund the creation of the new Radium Institute in Warsaw.

Among the many honours she received, Marie was assigned a place in the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, successively known as UNESCO, as well as in the International Atomic Weights Committee. The immense contribution of both the Curies to science was later returned in a number of ways: a new radioactive element discovered in 1944 was called “Curium”, and “Curie” is one of the units used to measure radioactivity. The name Curie also appears in many Institutions, museums and even on metro stations. Also, Marie has been represented on many monuments and commemorative plaques. Finally, the remains of both Pierre and Marie have been buried at the Pantheon, an extreme eulogy to two people that, armed with extraordinary curiosity and sense of humanity, dedicated their own lives to science and changed the lives of many after them.

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About the Author

Elena received her PhD in Experimental Neuroscience at the San Raffaele Institute, Italy. She then moved to Cambridge (UK) for her postdoc and finally to Brighton (UK) to work as a lab technician. Her main interest has been focused on translational neuroscience, and she has been working with stem cells and animal models of neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

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