For most scientists, winning the Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of their career. It is a feat second to none, bolstering their status as a pioneer in their respective fields and cementing their legacy in the annals of the scientific world. However, there was one scientist who surpassed them all. A female scientist—the youngest of 5 siblings, born to poor parents who couldn’t afford to send their children for higher studies. A scientist, who won not only one, but two Nobel Prizes in her lifetime—that too in different fields (Physics and Chemistry). A brilliant scientific mind and a dignified, unassuming personality, Marie Curie truly revolutionised the scientific world and inspired millions of female scientists to choose the field of science and research.
Marie Curie (born Marie Sklodowska) was born in Warsaw on 7 November 1867. Marie took after her father, who was a math and physics teacher. She was a deeply curious child who excelled in sciences. At that time, Warsaw was captured by the Russians, and they halted many educational programs running in the country—reducing the research output of Poland to a bare minimum. Harbouring a dream to pursue higher studies from the best universities abroad, but facing a paucity of funds at home, Marie made a deal with her elder sister Bronya. Marie would work while studying to support her elder sister’s studies – who would then return the favour when Marie grew older. For five years Marie handled double duty as a student and a tutor – till 1891 when she finally made her way to Sorbonne University in Paris to study physics.
A tryst with radioacitivity
After graduating with a master’s degree in physics, Marie took up research at the physics laboratory at Sorbonne University in Paris. There she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, the chief of the lab. Both were enamoured by the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896, and focused their research in the same area. Working on a lump of uranium, Marie noticed that the atomic radiation emitted from uranium was always constant, whatsoever be the composition of uranium. Moreover, these radiations were found to penetrate metallic objects and even the human body. The discovery of radioactivity also gave birth to the concept of atomic physics, a modern take on physics in contrast to classical physics, which disregarded the role of an atom.
For her groundbreaking discovery of radioactivity, Marie Curie along with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel (the discoverer of radioactivity), were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.
Shunning the fame and laurels that came her way after winning the award, Marie instead decided to donate the entire prize money to research institutes for further studies. She also revealed her research to the world, strongly objecting to patents and campaigning for collaboration and sharing of research to benefit humanity.
Discovery of new elements
Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, Marie suffered a terrible tragedy when her husband was killed in a road accident. Despite immense grief, Marie still continued with her research and took over as the first female professor at Sorbonne University.
Till now, Marie had been able to establish the theory behind radioactivity – compounds of uranium and thorium emitted radiation with strength proportional to the amount of radioactive element present in these compounds. However, some compounds exhibit unnaturally high radiation.
Marie discovered this occurred due to presence of minute quantities of certain naturally occurring elements not known to mankind. With great effort and technique, Marie managed to isolate and discover two new elements. She named one polonium, as a tribute to her motherland Poland. She named the other radium, after the phenomenon of radioactivity on which it was based.
Marie’s tremendous efforts won her another Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911—the first person to achieve the feat—thus cementing her legacy as one of the greatest scientists of the century. Her fame spread far and wide, and in recognition of her efforts, United States gifted Marie one gram of radium to further her research on its properties and uses.
Dedication to humanity
As Marie’s career was flourishing, France became engulfed in World War 1, which started in 1914. Determined to play her part, Curie took it upon herself to establish mobile X-Ray units to detect shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers and army personnel. Curie’s assistance paid rich dividends to humanity – over a million soldiers underwent treatment at her X-Ray centres.
Curie was honoured with numerous accolades during her lifetime. Most importantly, she defied all odds to emerge as one of the most sought after and renowned scientist in the male dominated scientific field. In addition, Curie founded the Radium Institute in the University of Paris, dedicated to research in the fields of physics, chemistry and medicinal biology.
Curie’s endless service benefited humankind to no end, however it also had a lasting impact on Curie’s health. After years of carrying sample of highly radioactive substances in her coat pocket and performing research with her bare hands, Curie was exposed to high quantity of radioactive substances. She developed aplastic anaemia, which is believed to be the result of long-term exposure to radiations.
However, Curie’s legacy stays on. A 2009 poll conducted by New Scientist on ‘The most inspirational woman in science’ saw Curie win by a landslide—winning nearly double the votes then the runner up. Even almost half a century after her death, Curie’s inventions are a gift to mankind and she remains a perfect example of a female who shattered the glass ceiling and achieved her full potential.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.