Marie Curie: First Lady of Science

Lawrence E. Vaught
Dec. 5, 2003
History of Geology 521


Image of Marie Curie The Nobel Foundation 2003

Childhood

Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867. Her mother, Bronislawa was a music teacher, and her father, Vladislav, taught physics and math. The Sklodowski children were instilled with a deep love of learning--Marie began to read at the age of four. Marie's family was very loving and close-knit so she and her siblings learned to respect and care for their fellow-man. Vladislav also taught his children the meaning of patriotism.

Poland, during Marie's upbringing, was literally, a country divided. It was split into three sections that were ruled by three different governments--Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Warsaw was located in the central area of Poland, which was ruled by Alexander II, the tsar of Russia. While Marie was a child, the Russian government passed a law that the Russian language was to be taught in schools instead of Polish.

"When Marie was small, the Russians laid down new rules. They tried to make the Polish people more like other Russians and less of a separate group. They hoped the Poles would soon forget that they had been a nation" (Birch, p.12).

"Czar Alexander II preferred to wear a military uniform. When the Czar was assassinated by revolutionary students in 1881, Manya and her best friend Kazia celebrated by dancing around the desks in their classroom" (AIP). Image of Tsar Alexander II " The American Institute of Physics 2000-2003."

Marie's father, Vladislav, supported his family on a teacher's salary that deteriorated over the years because he was forced to take lower paying positions as he fought to keep Polish patriotism alive through education. After he lost his wife to tuberculosis in 1878, he and the children became even closer.

"...the children honored him for nurturing them emotionally and intellectually. On Saturday nights he read classics of literature to Maria and her siblings. He also exposed them to the scientific apparatus he had once used in teaching physics but now kept at home, since the Russian authorities had eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish curriculum" (AIP).

Marie finished secondary school at the age of fifteen, but women were not allowed to attend university in Poland. Her only option would have been to attend school in another country, but the costs of furthering her education was beyond her family's financial resources. At the age of sixteen, Marie joined a local student group of revolutionaries, called the "Floating University, "who were against Soviet rule. These young people met in secret to hold lectures, to read books that were forbidden by the Soviets, and to discuss their own ideas. Marie Curie stated in a letter dated years later, in 1924:

"I have a lively memory of that sympathetic atmosphere of social and intellectual comradeship [at the 'Floating University']. ...I persist in believing that the ideas that then guided us are the only ones which can lead to true social progress. We cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individual" (Birch, p.15).

In 1886, at the age of nineteen, Marie left home to work as a governess. She planned to save enough money to help send her sister Bronya, to Paris to study. Once settled, Marie planned to join Bronya and continue her studies. Marie prepared herself for university studies by reading history, sociology, and science books, but she discovered she was more interested in physics and math, her father's subjects. During this time, Marie taught herself to do simple scientific experiments with a chemistry book as a guide.

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Marie in Paris

In 1891, Marie entered the Sorbonne in Paris. She was impressed with the freedom of expression in Paris. People could read and study whatever they liked, and openly discuss their ideas. Unlike Warsaw, they were not restricted to speaking one language. However, Marie's self-study program in Poland did not prepare her for studies at the university. She knew the rudiments of the French language, but the spoken language in her class lectures was difficult to understand. Marie had to work diligently to overcome any gaps in her education, and she had to improve her French, as well. She became so absorbed in her school work that she would forget to eat, at times--she never gave up.
"The diligence paid off. Marie finished first in her master's degree physics course in the summer of 1893 and second in math [in 1894]. Lack of money had stood in the way of her undertaking the math degree, but senior French scientists recognized her abilities and pulled some strings. She was awarded a scholarship earmarked for an outstanding Polish student. Before completing the math degree she was also commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to do a study, relating magnetic properties of different steels to their chemical composition. She needed to find a lab where she could do the work" (AIP).

In 1894, Marie's need for a lab led to her introduction to Pierre Curie, a brilliant French scientist who was the laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Curie had made important discoveries in his studies of magnetism, and he developed ideas about "the fundamental role of symmetry in the laws of physics" (AIP). Marie, who was usually shy around strangers, found that she was comfortable with Pierre when she worked with him in the lab. She shared his consuming passion for science, and this led, ultimately, to their marriage in 1895.

Marie and Pierre during the early years. She strugged for a year before she
decided to marry him--marriage meant she would never return to Poland (AIP).


Marie began to work on her doctorate's degree in 1896. X-rays had been discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895, and French scientist Henri Becquerel had tried to find out where the X-rays came from. Becquerel experimented with various metals and discovered that the substance called uranium emitted a "powerful, invisible ray" (Birch, p. 30). Other than his report on these findings, Becquerel did no further work to find out what the rays were Marie decided to use Becquerel's report as the foundation for her first research into metals. Marie recieved permission to use a storeroom at the Paris School of Physics and Chemistry in order to carry out her experiments.
"Radioactivity, a name coined by Madame Curie, was the discovery of Henri Becquerel. The Curies devoted their lives to it. Using radioactivity as a thesis topic, Marie sought to determine if this property discovered in uranium could be found in other matter. She discovered thorium's radioactivity at the same time as G.C. Schmidt and turned her efforts to minerals, beginning with pitchblende. Pierre focused on the physical study of these materials while Marie sought to obtain pure radium in its metallic state. With the help of one of Pierre's students, she succeeded, and received her doctorate of science in 1903. She and Pierre shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 with Becquerel" (Yafie).

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Major Contributions

Marie Curie was one of the most important contributors to the field of science. Her study of minerals in the geological field led to the discovery of radium. Her work has given scientists insights into the inner world of the atom, and has helped doctors treat illnesses. Marie was also a humanitarian. She considered her scientific work to be important for others without regards to monetary gains. Marie Curie opened the door to women in the field of science and education when she became the first female to hold a professor's position and to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris. In her first lecture, on November 6, 1906, Le Journal of France stated that:

"Today has seen...'a victory for feminism.' If a woman is allowed to teach advanced studies to both sexes, where afterwards will be the pretended superiority of man? I tell you, the time is near when women will become human beings" (Birch 1990, p. 51).

Sadly, her passion for her work led to her death in 1934. After many years of working with the radium without protection, she died from the many years of radiation exposure.

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