“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
– Marie Curie
Marie Curie was a woman, scientist, and fighter at a time when that combination of characteristics was deemed unacceptable. In Warsaw, Poland, where she was born on the 7th of November, 1867, basic education for women was tolerated but of secondary importance. Scientific training was unnecessary. Higher education: scandalous. Not in Maria Sklodowska’s family, fortunately.
Her parents, both teachers, insisted that all five of their children be educated. Her father transmitted his knowledge and love of science to her. Maria graduated first in her class and applied to university. When she was refused on account of her gender, she worked, saved money, and went to Paris.
At La Sorbonne, Maria became Marie and the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. from a French university. She was also the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. And the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in history.
In fact, she would be the only person in history to win two Nobel Prizes, in two separate fields.
The first, in Physics and in 1903, for the research she and her husband conducted on radioactivity. Inspired by the 1896 discovery of this phenomenon by Henri Becquerel, with whom they shared the prize, Marie and Paul’s work led to the isolation of two previously unknown elements, both more radioactive than uranium. Radium and Polonium.
The second prize, in Chemistry and in 1911, Marie would earn for the discovery of those two elements and the documentation of their properties. The Curies’ work would have dazzling implications for the fields of science, industry, medicine.
Marie proceeded to break many more barriers as a woman and scientist, but perhaps her greatest value lies in those she broke as a human.
At the beginning of the first World War, she attempted to donate her Nobel Prize gold to France in order to support the war effort. When her offer was refused, she donated her prize money by buying war bonds instead.
During the war, she focused her research on radioactivity, radium, in particular, to develop mobile X-ray machines. With her daughter, Irene, she built and drove the machines to the battlefield, where she personally treated wounded soldiers with this new technology.
By the end of the war, twenty “Petites Curies” had been built and hoisted onto ambulances, hundreds of field hospitals had been equipped, dozens of doctors and nurses trained, and approximately one million French soldiers’ lives had been saved. France would later try to bestow its highest honor upon her – the La Légion d’Honneur – in recognition of her acts. She would politely decline.
At the expense of making a fortune, in the name of the openness of science, she also refused to patent radium, stating:
“Radium was not to enrich anyone. […] it belongs to the people.”
She held firm to this belief even when the price of radium rose so high she could no longer afford even a gram to pursue her experiments.
There are other stories, of her dignity in the face of dismissal, mockery, slander. Of her passion for science even after she lost her lab and life partner. Of her dedication to raising funds to build radium laboratories in Warsaw and Paris. Of her steadfast belief in the therapeutic properties of radiation. Of the ever-expanding industrial and medical applications of her research.
But those would take too long to tell, so suffice it to say: Marie Curie changed history, as a woman, scientist, and fighter.