Marie Curie, née Maria Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. She abandoned her family’s Roman Catholicism to become an agnostic as a teenager and received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. In 1891, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne where she obtained Licenciateships in Physics and the Mathematical Sciences. She met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics in 1894 and in the following year they were married.
Marie broke many barriers for her sex, becoming the first European woman to earn a science doctorate. She is most notable for the discovery of polonium, radium, and coining the term “radioactive.” Together with her husband, she was awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, for their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize.
In 1906, her husband Pierre was tragically run over and killed. Marie took over his professorship of general physics, winning another first for women. When she won the 1911 Nobel Prize for chemistry, she was the first person, male or female, to have received two Nobel Prizes. Despite the impressive feat of being the first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes, she was barred as a woman from the Academy of Sciences, which was an all-male organization. Marie continued on to become the director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris in 1914.
The importance of Curie’s work is reflected in the numerous awards bestowed on her. She received many honorary science, medicine and law degrees and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout the world. In addition to the two Nobel Prizes, she also received, jointly with her husband, the Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1903 and, in 1921, President Harding of the United States, on behalf of the women of America, presented her with one gram of radium in recognition of her service to science. In August 1922, Marie Curie became a member of the newly created International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. In 1924, she penned “What Do I Read Next”, a memoir of Pierre Curie. In the memoir she stated, “Pierre belonged to no religion and I did not practice any.”
In 1925, she visited Poland, to participate in the ceremony that laid foundations for the Radium Institute in Warsaw. Her second American tour in 1929, succeeded in equipping the Warsaw Radium Institute with radium; President Hoover of the United States presented her with a gift of $50,000, donated by American friends of science, to purchase radium for use in the laboratory in Warsaw. The Warsaw Radium Institute was opened in 1932 and her sister Bronisława became its director. In 1930, Marie was elected a member of the International Atomic Weights Committee where she served until her death.
Throughout her life, Marie actively promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering and during World War I, assisted by her daughter, Irene, she personally devoted herself to this remedial work. She spent much of the remainder of her life pursuing her humanitarian goal of “easing human suffering.” Due to repeated and long term exposure to radiation, Marie died in 1934, at age 67, of leukemia. She became the first woman to be interred at the Pantheon on her own merits.
In her final moments, Marie worked on a book, “Radioactivity”, which was published after her death. The following year, Curie’s oldest daughter, Irene, with her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for work in artificial radioactivity. Eve Curie, in her memoir of her mother, Mme. Curie (1937), described all of her family members as rationalists.
“Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.” –Albert Einstein
Let us never forget those who sacrificed it all to make the world a better place, not for a posthumous reward, but for the sake of being good.
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