The struggles and contributions of Marie Curie
Katarzyna Siewierska writes about Marie Curie as a tribute to all female scientists, who made contributions to science, but also showed strength of character and determination in overcoming the challenges of being a female scientist, inspiring generations of female scientists
The glass ceiling
“In the late 19th century, the Sorbonne enrolled a new female student from Warsaw, Poland. She came to France to study physics and mathematics upon her sister’s invitation after a bad break up with her first love. Her name was Maria Skłodowska.”
The glass ceiling has almost always been blocking women from a successful career in science. When I say almost, I refer to the stories of Pythia – AKA the Oracle of Delphi – and of Hypatia of Alexandria. Pythia was the title of the high priestess famous for her prophecies inspired by Apollo. She was the most powerful woman of the classical world and enjoyed many privileges and rewards. Hypatia was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy, and she is considered the first notable woman in mathematics. She carried out careful astronomical observations which arguably led to her murder by a Christian mob in 415 AD. She was a highly respected figure, but when her teachings were found to contradict the views of the Church, she had to be silenced. To find out more about the life and work of Hypatia I strongly recommend the film “Agora”, directed by Alejandro Amenábar (where Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia), the book “Hypatia of Alexandria“, by Maria Dzielska, and the book “Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr”, by Michael Deakin. The figures of the Oracle of Delphi and Hypatia show that women once could become very powerful and successful, and occupy high positions in society.
Later something changed, and women were banished from scholarship and power. They were forced to remain in the home and focus on looking after their families, giving rise to the glass ceiling. For a very long time that ceiling was completely impermeable. However, in the 19th century a tremendous wave of change swept across the world as elementary education became compulsory for girls and more universities opened their doors to female students. In the late 19th century, the Sorbonne enrolled a new female student from Warsaw, Poland. She came to France to study physics and mathematics upon her sister’s invitation after a bad break up with her first love. Her name was Maria Skłodowska.
The female pioneer of science
“Marie was not allowed to speak, and Pierre gave the talk. Today such a thing would be outrageous. I would like to think that back then Marie also thought that such treatment was outrageous; however, she had to put up with it at least for the time being in order for her work to become known.”
At the Sorbonne, Marie earned two degrees. She came top of the class in physics and second in mathematics. She began her research career with the investigation of the magnetic properties of different types of steels. Marie was looking for larger laboratory space for her work, and she was introduced to Pierre Curie, who was asked to help her. It was their common interest in magnetism that attracted them and they both developed feelings for each other. The couple got married in 1895.
Marie was fascinated by the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, and the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896. This inspired her research into the radioactive properties of uranium ore. Together, the Curies filtered tonnes of uranium ore to isolate small amounts of two new elements, polonium and radium chloride. They wrote many important articles, one of which discussed how, when exposed to radiation coming from radium chloride, cancer cells were damaged faster than healthy cells. Marie and Pierre shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 with Henri Becquerel, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”
This made Marie Curie the first ever woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize. Of course, at first the committee intended to award the prize to the two men; however, one of the committee members alerted Pierre of the situation and Marie was added to the award. In this situation, Marie was lucky that there was someone to recognise her contribution to the research, because, as the reader will find out later, not all female scientists get the recognition they deserve for their work. A few months before receiving the Nobel Prize, Marie was awarded her PhD from the University of Paris. The scientific duo was then invited to the Royal Institution in London to present their work. As a woman, Marie was not allowed to speak, and Pierre gave the talk. Today such a thing would be outrageous. I would like to think that back then Marie also thought that such treatment was outrageous; however, she had to put up with it at least for the time being in order for her work to become known.
Following the tragic death of her husband in 1906, Marie was offered his chair, and she became the first woman professor at the University of Paris. At this point, she was at the peak of her career. In 1910 Marie isolated radium in pure form. This put an end to the comments of some scientists who did not believe radium was a new element at all. She defined an international standard for radioactive emissions, and its unit, the Curie, is named after her and Pierre. The ultimate honour for a scientist of her calibre was to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences, which at the time was one of the most elite societies of scientists in Europe. Marie ran for election in 1911, but lost by one or two votes and decided not to run again. In fact, the first woman was elected in 1962, and it was one of Marie’s PhD students. This reflects the huge conservatism of the elite scientists of the time, which did not allow any “strangers” into their circle.
“She was being discouraged from going to Stockholm to collect the prize; however, she believed that her personal life had nothing to do with her career and that she deserved to go and accept the prize and have dinner with the King of Sweden.”
In 1911 Marie was awarded a second Nobel Prize in chemistry, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”. Marie Curie became the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines. This prize was awarded at the time when a huge scandal which involved Marie hit the newspapers. She was being discouraged from going to Stockholm to collect the prize; however, she believed that her personal life had nothing to do with her career and that she deserved to go and accept the prize and have dinner with the King of Sweden.
Other contributions of Marie Curie were the establishment of the Radium institute, raising money for science, and designing a mobile X-ray machine during the First World War which helped in diagnosing wounded soldiers. During her life, Marie also raised two daughters, Irene and Eva. Irene became a physicist like her mother and was also awarded the Nobel Prize for her work. Eva became a journalist. All of Marie’s achievements make her a true pioneer, as she was the first truly successful female scientist. With the support of her husband and friends she was able to rise to the very top; however, one swallow does not a summer make. The world of science needed more such talented women to shatter the stereotypes. Thankfully, the world did not have to wait long.
Marie Curie has made outstanding contributions to science and society. There are many more brilliant and inspiring female scientists. Overall, the numbers of female undergraduate and postgraduate students are increasing steadily, but the glass ceiling is still intact. There is hope in the fact that universities and other institutions are working towards gender equality in science, especially in physics and chemistry.