It cannot be denied that pre-1950’s, women had an extremely raw deal in science. But despite, or perhaps because of, this a number of women have made some very significant contributions. Stepping into the technological and scientific age that we live in, it is hard to imagine a world in which these immense contributions to medicine, engineering and scientific research were ignored, cast aside or stolen due to the fact their protagonist was female. The raw deal? Throughout most of our history, women have been confined to home and hearth.
I’d like to take a look at just one of these women, whose dedication and work ethic has given us some of the things we take most for granted today: the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. One of just two people in the history of the Nobel Prize to have won Nobel prizes in two different scientific fields; Physics and Chemistry: Marie Sklodowska-Curie.
Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, on the 7th November 1867. Having excelled in physics and mathematics at school, subjects in which her father taught, Marie dreamed of attending Krakow University to continue her studies in physics. Because of the social attitudes of the time, she was rejected on the basis of her gender. As she did not come from a very wealthy family (both of her parents worked as secondary school teachers) she was forced to work for a few years as both a nanny and a teacher, before she had enough money to move to Paris and continue her scientific studies at the Sorbonne.
By 1894, Marie had been awarded degrees in both Physics and Mathematics, and in the same year met the man who was later to become her husband, Pierre Curie, who was working as a tutor in the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris. They shared a great interest in magnesium and uranium, and were married the following year. In her professional life, Marie picked up on the work of Henri Becquerel, who had discovered that uranium salts gave off rays which appeared to originate from within the salts, and not from an external force. She discovered that these rays were not from molecules in the uranium, but instead from much smaller atoms, and also deduced the link betwe
en the size of the reactive sample, and the dose of radiation released. This discovery won her the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1897, along with Pierre and Henri Becquerel.
After this, in 1898, Marie continued her research with radiation - teaming up with Pierre, who had
dropped his own work with crystals to join her. It was in this year the duo announced that they had discovered two new radioactive elements, radium and polonium, which Marie named affectionately after her home country.
Unfortunately, in 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in a street accident in Paris, an event which understandably devastated Marie. From this point, she threw herself even further into her studies. In recognition of her life’s work, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.
In the time after this discovery, Marie wrote many times on the events and experiments which led her to her ground-breaking discoveries. One thing she made impeccably clear was that these discoveries were her’s, and that - unless stated - her husband was not involved in her research. Why did she feel the need to emphasise this point? Perhaps it stemmed from her rejection from the University in her home country, forcing her to feel that she must defend her work as her own. Marie wrote on numerous occasions that she wanted her discoveries to be “attached” to a woman, and not in any way associated with any man… not even her husband.
She went on to do many notable things, such as using her fame to build two world renowned research centres in France and Poland, and helping the French army to develop “Petites Curies”, mobile radiography units for use in World War One. She also raised a lot of awareness of her work and secured financial help for herself and others studying similar research.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that Marie died because people were not aware of what we now know; that continued high exposure to radiation can cause a plethora of health issues. Marie died on the 4th July 1934 of aplastic anaemia, a blood disease which we know today can be caused by radiation exposure.
Marie Sklodowska-Curie was one of the first in what has now become a long tradition of female scientists in Europe and around the globe. She is remembered for her brilliance, determination and kindness to others; also being a mother of two, and having worked for years prior to moving to Paris in order to fund her sister’s studies, as well as to earn money for herself. It is important for young women today to have strong female role models to look up to in science, as unfortunately, women are still largely underrepresented in most STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.