Marie Curie: Trailblazing Scientist

Real Heroes: Marie Curie

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize — in fact, to this day she remains the only woman to win two — and the first person of either sex to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. These achievements make it all the more noteworthy that her undergraduate education took place at an illegal, private institution.

When I recently learned that the Polish-born and naturalized French scientist Marie Curie attended an “underground” university in the 1880s in Warsaw, I immediately recalled a personal experience. In 1986, while embedded with the anti-government resistance in communist Poland, I met people who were taking classes at such a place, as well as others who had earned their illegal degrees at underground commencement exercises. Little did I know then that Poles have a storied history in what could be termed “educational independence.”

A hundred years before my visit to Poland, Curie’s college years began at the so-called “Flying University” (sometimes known as the “Floating University”). The nation of Poland had formally disappeared in 1795, partitioned for the next 123 years into regions of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia. Warsaw was under Russian occupation when the Flying University began there in 1885. Poles wanted to avoid “Russification” and desired to teach ideas that the Russian authorities officially censored, so they did what daring people do: they published books and created educational programs and institutions without government approval.

"We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained." — Marie Curie  

Both sides of Marie Curie’s family were involved in resistance movements against occupiers and suffered property seizures and hassles with the police for years, which probably explains her lifelong skepticism of central authority and claims of “consensus.” Her own father, a teacher and scientist, was punished and demoted by the Russians for holding views contrary to the powers that be. You can understand, then, why she felt compelled after attending the Flying University to emigrate to France at the age of 24 and earn her graduate degrees in a freer country. This was a young woman determined to pursue her passion for scientific truth no matter what the regime or consensus imposed. She once said,

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty. Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

In 1893, two years after her arrival in Paris, the brilliant but penniless Marie Sklodowska (Curie’s maiden name) earned the first of two master’s degrees at the University of Paris. It was in physics; she would collect the second, in mathematics, a year later. Over the next 40 years, she would accumulate an earned PhD (in physics) from the University of Paris and almost 20 honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions in half a dozen countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Apparent to all who came to know her was her insatiable drive to excel and achieve. “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that?” she said. “We must have perseverance and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

It was also in 1894 that she met another young scientist named Pierre Curie, and in 1895, they married. When a friend offered to gift her a dress for the occasion, she instructed, “I have no dress except the one I wear every day. If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.” She wore that dark blue dress in the lab for many years thereafter.

When it came time to settle on an area of research for her PhD, Curie made a fateful decision. Fascinated by the recently discovered presence of energy emitted by the rare element uranium, she chose to explore the source of this “radiance,” for which she would ultimately coin the term “radioactivity.” What was the nature of these rays? To what purposes might they be employed?

Biographer Robert William Reid notes that though Pierre later put aside his own work and assisted Marie in her initial discoveries, she set the agenda:

The [research] idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity. It [is] likely that already at this early stage of her career [she] realized that … many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved.

Her task required the acquisition of a large quantity of uranium ore known as pitchblende from mines in Bohemia. That posed a seemingly insurmountable cost problem, but shrewd bargaining on Marie’s part combined with the meager savings she and Pierre had accumulated saved the day. Their daughter Eve Curie would later write of this pivotal moment in her parents’ lives:

They were not so foolish as to ask for official credits (or subsidies). If two physicists on the scent of an immense discovery had asked the University of Paris or the French government for a grant to buy pitchblende residue, they would have been laughed at. In any case, their letter would have been lost in the files of some office, and they would have had to wait months for a reply, probably unfavorable to the end.

The “lab” in which the Curies worked was nothing more than a shed that had once been a medical school dissection room. It leaked when it rained and offered no more ventilation than the single door would provide. But it was there that Marie, with the aid of Pierre, began her work on the sacks of imported ore. In the process, she proved that the radiation came from the uranium atom itself, not from some interaction between uranium and something else. She then discovered that other elements, such as thorium, emitted radiation, too.

Curie was convinced that elements as yet unidentified were also sources of radioactivity within the pitchblende ore. In 1896, she ascertained the presence of one and named it polonium in honor of her native Poland. The existence of the other, which she detected and called radium, remained to be proven. In 1902, she succeeded in isolating a decigram of pure radium — a scientific breakthrough of massive significance. Before the year was out, she also announced a finding that would have implications for the next century of medical treatment: when exposed to radium, cancer cells were more vulnerable than normal cells.

In June 1903, Marie was awarded her doctorate from the University of Paris. That same month, she and Pierre were invited to present a paper on radioactivity at the Royal Institution in London, but, as a woman, she was required to be silent while Pierre spoke for them both. Six months later, the couple were declared joint winners, along with a third scientist, of a Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena.”

During World War II, more than a million wounded soldiers were treated with x-ray devices developed by Madame Curie.  

In 1906, tragedy struck when Pierre was killed in an accident with a horse-drawn carriage, leaving Marie with two small children. The University of Paris had been ready to offer Pierre a teaching position. They gave it to Marie instead. She was determined to use it to pay tribute to her late husband.

No doubt Pierre would have been proud of Marie’s subsequent achievements. Her work grew immensely in international stature. She founded and headed the Radium Institute, which advanced scientific study of both radium specifically and radiation in general. She was awarded a second Nobel in 1911 “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” During World War II, more than a million wounded soldiers were treated with X-ray devices that she developed.

She lived another 28 years, dying in 1934 at the age of 66. The cause of death was a form of anemia, brought on by exposure to the very radiation she discovered. To this day, her papers from the 1890s — and even her cookbook — are so contaminated that they’re stored in lead boxes to be viewed only by scientists in protective clothing.

Marie Curie’s discoveries set physics in a new direction by opening the door to atomic energy and the controlled use of radiation for medical treatment. She is regarded by many, with eminently good reason, as one of the greatest scientists of the modern age.

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