Wednesday Geek Woman: Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winning physicist

The Wednesday Geek Woman series is mostly on hiatus. Remaining WGW posts will appear sporadically over the next few months.

This is a guest post by Jennifer, an Australian actuary and feminist who blogs at Penguin Unearthed. She is currently travelling the world with her family and is blogging about notable women of history as she travels. This post originally appeared on her blog.

Photograph of Marie Curie, ca 1898

Photograph of Marie Curie, ca 1898

Marie Curie has been a hero of mine for as long as I can remember. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (for Physics), and then went on to win another Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for discovering two different new elements – polonium and radium.

Marie Curie was born Marie Skladowska in Warsaw, in 1867, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire (the country that had been and would become Poland was split between three different empires at the time). Her parents were schoolteachers, and quite poor, with the family having lost much money supporting various Polish patriotic causes over the years. So after she finished school, she and her older sister agreed to fund each other through University. Her sister went to Paris first, and studied to become a doctor, and then after a few years as a governess, Marie travelled to Paris in 1891, at the age of 24, to study at the Sorbonne.

After finishing two degrees, she married Pierre Curie, and they devoted themselves to science. They were very poor, and spent long hours experimenting in a very basic laboratory. They studied the phenomenon of radioactivity (a word with Marie Curie coined) and realized that it was did not come from molecular interactions, but from inside the atoms themselves. They also realised that pitchblende, a uranium rich mineral, was more radioactive than could be accounted for by its uranium, but that there must be some other radioactive element or elements emitting more radiation. They spent long hours chemically analysing tonnes and tonnes of pitchblende in order to separate out first polonium, and then, after Pierre was killed in a tram accident, Marie continued alone to separate radium.

Marie and Pierre won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, shared with Henri Bequerel, for their discoveries and descriptions on radioactivity. And then Marie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on her own in 1911, for discovering Radium. Despite the two Nobel Prizes, the French Academy of Sciences refused to elect her as a member, as she was a woman.

Marie Curie's Birthplace At the time, nobody knew how dangerous radioactivity was. Marie Curie died of leukemia in 1934, probably because of her exposure to radioactivity. Her notebooks remain too radioactive for safe use even today.

She and Pierre had two daughters, both also extraordinary. Irène, the older, won a Nobel Prize of her own (shared with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie), and Eve was elected an officer of the French Legion d’Honneur for her work with Unicef.

Marie Curie was a driven woman; driven by her devotion to scientific discovery. She won her second Nobel Prize one hundred years ago this year. To do what she did, she was in almost completely unchartered territory to be a woman in science. But she didn’t just succeed. She surpassed. She is still the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

Wikipedia: Marie Curie

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2 thoughts on “Wednesday Geek Woman: Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winning physicist

  1. Yvonne Carts-Powell

    Thank you! Marie Curie is also a hero of mine.

    She was also an inspiration to my mom, who bucked social expectations to get advanced degrees necessary for her work in the Green Revolution. And when Mom quit her job to raise us kids, she made sure to tell us about Madame Curie.

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