Marie Curie: The Ultimate Over-Achiever

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

– Marie Curie

Marie Curie was a top student, physicist, chemist, inventor, discoverer, two time Nobel Prize winner, wife, mother and professor. Marie began life living in poverty in Poland, was forced to migrate in order to gain an education and worked in a world dominated by men. Marie is as tough and inspirational as they come. This is her story.

Early life

Marie, born Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland on 7 November 1867. She was always an intelligent child, frequently outshining her older siblings. From a young age Marie displayed a specific memory, intelligence and an eagerness to learn. These qualities might have laid dormant if not for the unique traits of her family members and the wider circles she moved in. Marie’s father was a physics professor at a college in Warsaw (there are childhood accounts of Marie helping her father clean and prepare his instruments), her mother was a much admired headmistress of a school for girls and Marie’s aunt, Maria Rogowska, defied the rules of decorum by running family estates, attending university in Geneva and carving out a literary career.

A young Marie completed her education at an oppressive government-run school where she finished first in her class, and was awarded the gold medal, setting a trend for coming first for the the rest of her career. However, Marie’s academic progress came to a grinding halt because the University of Warsaw did not accept women at the time. Fortunately, the Sorbonne in Paris did. Marie developed a plan to to pay for both herself, and her older sister Briona to attend. Marie would work as a governess to support Bronia through her studies. Once Bronia had finished medical school, Marie would then join her in Paris.

University years

After two years, Bronia finally wrote to Marie telling her to come to the Sorbonne to begin her studies. Despite having very little formal training in the sciences, Marie did not let her lack of experience, or her gender, prevent her from taking physics. Marie never focused on her unique position as the only female in class. Her personal correspondence never mentioned the gender ratios. Instead, she worked hard to prove she was equally capable as her male counterparts. However, being the only woman in class was not the only challenge Marie faced on account of her gender. A woman living alone in a foreign country brought its own set of challenges. Simple tasks, such as walking alone and attending events were difficult for young, single women. A fact demonstrated by the language of the time, where the word for ‘prostitute’ and ‘female student’ were the same.  Marie, being the overachiever she was, harnessed this time of forced isolation and threw herself into her studies.

Strangely, Marie’s status as a foreigner worked in her favour and alleviated focus on her gender in one regard: marriage. Since Marie was from Poland she was associated with the Russian students. There was a perception that the Russian students were not vulnerable to ‘cupid’s arrow’, or at the very least, not until they had completed their studies. So Marie’s student community did not expect her to relinquish her studies in favour of marriage.

By the time Marie had completed her university she had two undergraduate degrees and took first place as licenciee es sciences physiques. At this point Marie was prepared to return to Poland and teach. That was until Professor Lippmann (who gave Marie her first job working in his lab) introduced her to Pierre Curie in 1894.  The two shared many similarities including their thirst for education and total devotion to the sciences. It was a meeting of minds and they were married in 1895. They were a very alternative couple for the time, they went on a biking honeymoon and Pierre supported Marie’s desire to continue working and studying after they were married.

Research and married life

Soon after they were married Marie began work on her doctorate, making her the first woman in France to do so. She worked on uranium rays and discovered two new elements: polonium and radium (she named polonium after her homeland). Marie was not satisfied with abstract proof. She soon embarked on the demanding task of physically extracting the elements with Pierre by her side. Throughout their co-authored works, they developed a style of ‘self-citation’ reflecting what each had contributed.  This, as well as reports from colleagues that they listened to each other in their respective fields of expertise, demonstrates a true collaboration. The work suited the unique combination of Marie’s obsessiveness and patience. The Curies carried out the brutal work in a converted shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry. Not only were their facilities unsophisticated, but so was their protective gear, a.k.a., they had none. Marie and Pierre worked with the radioactive elements with no protection and had lesions and sores on their hands because of the work. Due to their limited understanding of radioactivity, they were unaware their work was poisoning them.

In 1903, Marie was awarded her doctorate, and international recognition soon followed.  The Curies and Henri Becquerel (their co-worker) received a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Originally, Marie’s name was left off the nomination until Magnus Gosata Mittag Leffler, a Swedish mathematician, and Pierre, intervened demanding her name be put forward. The trio went on to win the award, making Marie the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Not only was Marie smashing the glass ceiling in the world of hard sciences, but she was also pioneering childcare arrangements. During this time the Marie and Pierre had two daughters.  A governess was hired so Marie could continue working. But leaving the children worried her.  A feeling mothers continue to be plagued by today. Fortunately, Pierre’s father moved in to look after the children. This child-care arrangement was unheard of at the time, but it was necessary for Marie to continue her career. In order to support themselves, Pierre worked as a professor at the Sorbonne and Marie began teaching at the École Normale Supérieure. In the absence of funding from the University, their research was funded by organisations and government subsidies.

Pierre’s death

Sadly, Pierre was killed in 1906 after being hit by a horse and cart when he was crossing a street late at night.  Marie was left devastated, with work to complete and two children to raise.  Many critics thought this would be the end of her career, as they attributed her success to Pierre’s role in the scientific partnership. His death in many ways presented an opportunity to prove she could continue to work and achieve without him. After Pierre’s death Marie was eventually appointed to Pierre’s job, making her the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. While the University was conservative, they were forced to made this move because there was no one else qualified enough to replace Pierre.  Marie’s first lecture attracted a massive crowd. While her lecture may have appeared clinical, few realised her lecture began where Pierre’s last left off. Marie proved to be a popular professor, particularly amongst the women undergraduates.

Marie won her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry. Thus making her the only woman in history to win two Nobel Prizes. This however was not a time of celebration for Marie. Instead, she suffered a physical and mental collapse following the media frenzy concerning her affair with with a younger, married lab assistant. During this time she took a break from researching radioactivity and instead became committed to establishing a national Radium Institute dedicated to medical discoveries. These plans were soon put on hold with the outbreak of World War I.

World War I

Maire’s research had always been driven by a desire to improve medicine and the quality of human life. During World War I, Marie practically applied her life’s work as the Head of the Red Cross Radiological Service. She developed and operated 20 mobile x-ray units, referred to as “Little Curies.” With her 17-year-old daughter, Irene by her side, she trained 150 technicians and established 200 radiological rooms in army hospitals, drove mobile units to Western Front and trained female aids. It is estimated over one million men were treated with her x-ray units.

Later years

After the war, Marie returned to research once more. She became the Head of the Radium Institute and spent a lot of her time making appearances and going on tours to raise money for her expensive research. All this time though, Marie’s life work was ultimately killing her. Marie worked closely with radioactive materials with little to no protection, while remaining largely unaware of the dangers of doing so. The Curie’s work was so dangerous even Marie’s cookbook is radioactive. Today, her research notes can only be looked at if the observer is wearing protective clothing.

Closing thoughts

Marie was a pioneer. Her achievements are not gendered, instead she is considered a great scientist, not a woman scientist. The fact she earned a staggering list of achievements during the 19th and 20th centuries, as a woman and migrant, is testament to her her remarkable status.  Furthermore, she achieved recognition within the scientific community without having to sacrifice her role as a wife and mother. Marie was recognised and continues to be remembered as intelligent and iconic woman and she is clearly deserving of that legacy.

 

Extra for experts

Eve Curie, Madame Curie. Translated by Vincent Sheean. (Surrey, The Windmill

Press).

Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius: The inner world of Marie Curie. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).

Pflaum, Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and her world.  (New York: Doubleday, 1989).

Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (Da Capo Press, 1996).

Robert William Reid, Marie Curie. (London: Collins, 1974).

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