Today marks a posthumous birthday of Marie Curie, a trailblazer in the sciences who ended up winning the Nobel Prize. A foremost woman scientist and one of the world’s most famous scientists of all time. She did her groundbreaking work in the male dominated field. Albert Einstein described her as probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame. In commemoration of her birthday, EMEKA CHIAGHANAM writes on the challenges, sacrifices, and legacies of the woman who has become an inspiration and icon in the scientific world.
Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, besides, the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. When it comes to line of work, women’s expectations of excelling in certain areas were below average, particularly in the days gone by when the society perceived women’s work as revolving around the house only.
Before the call for gender equality and women’s rights became popular in the 20th century. Before women’s liberation movement and activism began to spread across the globe, some women have proved their worth to the highest level of any field of endeavour, such was with Marie Curie.
Remember the much publicized September 1995, United Nations, Fourth World Conference on Women, popularly referred to as ‘Beijing Declaration.’ Decades before that, some women have trailed the blaze in all male dominated science world, among women who overcome numerous obstacles to achieve their goals, Marie Curie’s name featured prominently in that category.
Before the word computer programming became part of our technology lexicon, British born Ada Lovelace, was the first person to recognise that machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and such published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such machine.
Before Ada Lovelace, there was a Greek born, Hypatia of Alexandria, considered the first notable woman in mathematics. Since the recording of women’s contributions to science, Marie, best known as the discoverer of the radioactive elements; polonium and radium, took it to another dimension in the early 20th century.
Marie’s work on radium offered scientists such as Ernest Rutherford with sources of radioactivity with which they could probe the structure of the atom, resulting in Rutherford’s experiments with alpha radiation where the nuclear atom was first assumed. In medicine, beside her research into the treatment of tumors with radiation, the first of its kind, the radioactivity of radium appeared to offer a means by which cancer could be successfully attacked.
Born Maria Sklodowska in 1867, in what was the Kingdom of Poland under the control of Russia Empire, to a well-known teacher parents who encouraged her interest in the sciences, the youngest amongst five children, her parents lost their teaching posts and had to take in boarders, where young Maria worked long hours, helping with the meals.
Marie lost her mother at the age of 10 and at age 15, the academically sound Marie graduated from high school. Marie’s quest for higher education met two obstacles; Poland of her time had no provision for girls to further their education beyond secondary school. Besides, her father lacked finance to pay for her ambition to go to university.
Denied admission at the Krakow University for the fact that she was a woman, she enrolled at a Warsaw’s clandestine Flying University, where she began her practical scientific training. The Flying Universities, also known as Floating Universities ,were an underground educational enterprise that operated until 1905.
The institutions provided Polish youths with an opportunity for an education within the framework of traditional Polish scholarship for young poles to obtain higher education.
As a conquered territory as it was common practice in Europe then, Russia made great efforts to strip Poland of heritage and culture, among other policies, access to higher education became difficult and for women, it was prohibited to go beyond secondary school education. The Flying Universities gave equal chance to both sexes.
These lectures and seminars taught by Polish professors, historians and philosophers celebrated Polish heritage, free from the influence of outside powers. These secret classes that took place in private homes had to be moved from one location to another frequently to avoid the watchful eyes of the Russian authorities.
Maria worked as a tutor and children’s governess for five years to support herself and help pay for her elder sister, Bronisława’s medical studies in Paris. Bronisława would return the gesture as soon as she finished her training and began to earn money. Marie was passionate about science and wanted to continue learning about it.
In the evenings, she studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics textbooks, besides attending lectures and laboratory practicals in one of the flying universities. In 1891, aged 24, she followed Bronisława to study in Paris.
She enrolled at the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry, and mathematics. She registered under the name Marie, the French spelling of her name. She briefly stayed with her sister before renting accommodation closer to the university. At the university, she studied hard with barely enough resources, coupled with the harsh winters.
She graduated in 1893 with a degree in physics, finishing top in her school. She continued studying at the University of Paris, and with the aid of a fellowship, her thirst for knowledge pushed her to earn a second degree in 1894, in Mathematics, this time finishing second.
She was awarded industrial funding to investigate how the composition of steel affected its magnetic properties. This was to find ways of making stronger magnets. After a year of working in Paris, she returned to her homeland hoping to find work in a university but couldn’t because of the same reason of gender that disqualified her from acquiring a university education.
A letter from Pierre Curie convinced her to return to Paris to pursue a Ph.D. in physics. The same year, she married Pierre Curie, who had just obtained a Ph.D. in physics had proposed to her before she travelled to Poland. Pierre was a respected scientist and inventor who, at the age of 21, had discovered piezoelectricity with his brother Jacques.
In 1896, the couple began work on radiation. They built their work on the results of German physicist, Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered X-rays, though the mechanism behind its production was not yet understood and French physicist, Antoine Henri Becquerel, who discovered that uranium salts emit similar, unusual radiation that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power.
Influenced by Wilhelm Roentgen and Antoine Henri Becquerel, Marie decided to investigate whether any other elements emitted these rays, using innovative techniques to investigate samples. She decided to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for a thesis.
She used a version of the electrometer, a sensitive device for measuring electric charge her husband and brother-in-law had developed 15 years earlier for her works. She discovered that uranium rays caused the air around a sample to conduct electricity and that the number of rays coming from uranium depended only on the quantity of uranium present.
She also discovered that thorium also emits radiation and found that the mineral that the uranium minerals pitchblende and torbernite have more of an effect on the conductivity of air than pure uranium does. She coined the term radioactive for the substances that gave off these rays.
Her hypothesis that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction of molecules but must come from the atom itself was an important step in disproving the assumption that atoms were indivisible.
Marie and Pierre decided to search for the new element they suspected might be present in pitchblende. In 1898, they announced their discoveries; polonium and radium. The first chemical element, polonium, was named by Marie to honor her homeland of Poland.
They found polonium was 300 times more radioactive than uranium. The second element the couple discovered was radium, which they found in several million times more radioactive than uranium.
They also found that radium’s compounds are luminous and that radium is a source of heat, which it produces continuously without any chemical reaction-taking place. They named radium after the Latin word for ray.
The couple invented a new word for their discovery; radioactivity, which is produced by radioactive elements such as uranium, thorium, polonium and radium. The couple was able to extract radium which allowed doctors to locate shrapnel in injured soldiers and to help treat cancer, as well as other illnesses. Marie and Pierre decided not to patent their discoveries so that everyone would benefit from it.
In 1903, Marie Curie made history when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist, Henri Becquerel for their joint researches on the radiation.
The Nobel Committee was at first only going to give prizes to Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel but Pierre insisted that Marie must be honored.
Marie and Pierre continued working together and their happy life together was shattered in 1906, when Pierre was ran over and killed by a horse-drawn carriage. She took over Pierre Curie’s post at the University of Paris; becoming the first woman to teach there, also achieving the first woman professor at the university. In 1910, Marie worked with French chemist, André Debierne to isolate pure radium metal.
By In 1910, Marie now has gained global recognition, isolated a pure sample of the metallic element, radium for the first time and in 1911,was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the “discovery of the elements, radium and polonium, the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of the element.
Her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, 27 years later, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1935, making them the first of such to win the Nobel Prize, in the same category. Marie Curie’s life exemplifies that any woman can excel in any field.
In 1914, the University of Paris built the Paris Radium Institute to provide laboratory space for research on radioactive materials. The institute was later renamed Curie Institute in honour of Marie and her husband.
The institute, which prides itself in physics and chemistry research has produced five Nobel laureates, among them, Marie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. The element, curium, discovered in 1944, was named in honor of Marie and her husband, Pierre.
Marie died on July 4, 1943, at the age of 66 from over overexposure to radiation. She had everal cataract operations because of the long exposure to radioactivity; probably the cause of the leukemia she died of.
On the orders of the French President, Mitterrand, in 1995, Marie and Pierre Curie were reburied in the Pantheon – the Paris Mausoleum, reserved for France’s most revered dead. She became the first woman to be awarded a place in the
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