Madame Marie Slodowska Curie, most commonly known as an inspirational scientist or a ‘genius’, but less famously known for being a deep lover, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a patriot, and once a servant.
The whole world knows that she was the first and only woman to receive two Nobel prizes, but much less is known about the nights Marie had to sleep on a cold floor and skip meals to pay her tuition fees; the nights she filled her empty stomach with enthusiasm for science and the days when her words were shushed before they left her mouth because according to society, her words were only meant to sing lullabies to her children, not to describe the wonders of our universe. This woman was not an ordinary woman meant to become an idealistic housewife or live within the social norms of society or bake pies for her husband; she was born to be struck as a lightning bolt that would revolutionise the world of radioactivity and create scientific history.
Although discriminated against and looked down upon for being a woman, her perseverance allowed her to beat established men at their own expertise. Never was her spirit fuelled by the determination of rearing profit; her profit lay in making scientific breakthroughs with Pierre, her husband; her profit lay in bringing honour to her country and father; her profit lay in establishing the fact that you do not need to be born wearing a white lab coat and holding a test tube to be a scientist.
On the fateful day of 7 November 1867, Maria Salomea Slodowska opened her eyes into a family of teachers along with four other siblings. Even though the youngest, her mind spoke of brilliance beyond her age. The first spark of what a distinctive personality Marie was to become was witnessed when she was observing her older sister Bronya struggle to read; Marie picked up Bronya’s book and read aloud the first sentence flawlessly. She was four. This intelligence developed even further in forthcoming years as she excelled in school.
She possessed a curious mind which led her to a fateful incident of opening her father, Wladyslaw’s, cupboard without his permission and discovering his laboratory equipment. She fell in love with it. Despite her extraordinary talents, under Russian rule, women had no right to pursue their dreams. Due to these attitudes, Marie faced a lot of criticism in her life, starting from an early age. Despite being a top student, Curie had to furnace her abilities in secret, at the secret Flying University as she was not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw. Financial and social situations may have hindered Curie’s access to state education, but dare anyone who could hinder the bright burning flames of scientific enthusiasm in Marie. She had to put her education on hold due to her job as a governess so she could contribute money for her sister, Bronya’s, education but she never stopped practising the maths and physics problems that her father used to send her.
Marie continued working as a governess and a tutor for roughly 5 years where she fell in love with Casimir, eldest son of the Zorawski family. But again, social status and wealth mattered much more than the deep affection in the couple’s hearts and Casimir gave in to his parent’s unwillingness for them to join. The humiliation, betrayal and torture had built up inside young Curie’s mind and put her in such a dark place that after Bronya completed her medical degree and offered Marie the resources to come to Paris, she declined. Marie was heartbroken. It was during this time when Marie decided to spend some time in her Father’s old lab where science was able to fill the gaps in herlife. This is where she decided to be a scientist.
Finally, she accepted her sister’s offer and went to Sorbonne University in Paris in 1891 where she completed her masters degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics the following year. During this time, Marie had totally thrown herself into her studies, but this dedication came at a personal cost. With very little money, Marie had to survive on buttered bread and tea, sleep on a cold floor without even a blanket and live in a flat where the water used to freeze in the pipes during cold nights. She suffered from malnutrition and often became unconscious. Making scientific history comes with its own sacrifice and who knew this better than Marie Slodowska during during these times.
During 1891, Marie received a commission to study different types of steel and their magnetic properties. This was the fateful event that brought Pierre Curie and Marie together. Marie’s dedication, perseverance, hardwork and her many other attributes were very attractive to Pierre. They instantly understood each other better than words spoke. Pierre may have not come riding in on a white horse, but certainly their deep love for each other against every stereotype could put Shakespeare to shame. Comparing what Marie and Pierre had with the world’s favourite Romeo and Juliet would be an understatement. Their love had a sanctity that no religion or scientific algorithm can explain. They became the dynamic duo, marrying, on 26 July, 1895.
At first, Pierre and Marie worked on different projects. Marie was fascinated with work of Henri Becquerel who discovered that uranium casts off rays, weaker than X-rays. She took this work to the next level by conducting her own experiments and discovered that rays remained constant no matter what condition or form of uranium, to which she theorized, came from element’s atomic structure. This created a new field of physics and Marie herself coined the word radioactivity.
In 1897, little Irene was born in Curie family (who later also became a Nobel Prize winning scientist), but Marie did not slow down with her work. Later Pierre left his own work to help Marie with her exploration of radioactivity. The dynamic duo discovered a new element, polonium, working with pitchblende in 1898. Furthermore, they detected the presence of another radioactive element, radium.
Then came the most difficult task of Marie’s life, extracting pure radium. Many pioneers tried accusing Marie of lying to the public about the existence of Radium and chemists would not believe Marie until they had something they could hold in their hands. Frustrated for not being given the credit for all her hard work, Marie had made it her mission to extract radium. Even though both Marie & Pierre’s health was deteriorating due to exposure to radiation and malnutrition, the Curies worked day and night in the little horse shed they were given. Finally, after working with tons of pitchblende, in 1902, the Curies produced a decigram of pure radium, proving their discovery to the world.
The world was finally acknowledging the tremendous discoveries the Curies had made. Retail companies took huge advantage of radium and sold products such as body creams, toothpaste and make up containing it.
Marie received her first Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 with Pierre and Henri Becquerel, after Pierre wrote a letter threatening to not accept his prize due to the academy ignoring Marie’s contributions (owing to her being a woman.) They used the prize money to continue their research. The following year, they welcomed their second child, Eve Curie.
In 1906, Marie suffered the biggest loss of her life. She lost Pierre. A woman who had never lost her determination no matter the situation, had suddenly lost her reason to live. Marie completely cut herself off from the world. To feel closer to Pierre, she took his teaching post at Sorbonne, becoming the institution’s first female professor.
In 1911, Marie won her second Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of polonium and radium. The same year, she had to face the downside of fame, for her affair with Paul Langevin. Marie’s first mistake was that she was a scientist so some thought she didn’t have the right to live beyond a lab and her second mistake was that she was a woman. Surely she couldn’t be forgiven and French media made sure that she was punished and humiliated. Suddenly, the woman who had just revolutionised the world and given it two new elements was forgotten and had rocks thrown at her house. She was accused of ruining a married man’s life.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Marie devoted herself to helping the cause. She used X Rays to treat the wounded and suffering soldiers in her portable vehicles that she used to drive herself. They became known as ‘Little Curies’.
After all her contribution to the world Curie passed away on July 4, 1934 of aplastic anemia, caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. In 1995, the Curies’ grave was checked for radiation levels so they could be moved to the Pantheon in Paris, the final resting place of France’s greatest minds. Surprisingly, very little radioactivity was detected, with very low half life, suggesting that it was X-rays that actually killed her, not her own discovery, radium.
Today several educational and research institutions are opened in the name of Marie Curie. Well, that is the least the world could do to appreciate her, because the time she was alive, everyone was too busy noticing her gender and affairs and couldn’t honour her talents even though they were staring them right back in the face.
Written for Sheroes of History by Jasmin Kaur, a science student who hopes to study medicine at Oxbridge in order to make a significant contribution in the medical field. (She is also a secret writer after midnight and this is her first non-fictional article!)
Find out more…
Jasmin suggests reading the book Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith which inspired her to write this piece.
The BBC made a drama about Marie’s life, which is now available on DVD. Get it here.
This fun video gives a good overview of Marie Curie’s life: