This is the lead article in our new Diversity in Science series. These articles will explore the contributions and accomplishments of women, minorities, and other under-represented groups to modern science.
From radiotherapy to X-Rays to nuclear physics, one woman’s legacy stands out: Marie Curie. A Polish-French physicist and chemist instrumental in developing the first theories around radiation, Curie’s life gave science some of its greatest discoveries in the nature of the atom and radioactive elements.
Yet her story, like the story of so many other female scientists, was also one defined by overcoming barriers to her sex. Her life and research not only turned science on its head, but proved to those of her time that a woman could be just as brilliant and accomplished – if not more so – than her male peers, during when many women were not even permitted to study at a university.
Curie was born Maria Slowdowska in Warsaw, Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire. Educated by her parents from childhood, Curie was prevented from going to college in Warsaw, as Russia did not allow women into higher education. Instead, Curie moved to Paris, France, where as a woman she could continue her studies. It was in Paris that Curie’s curiosity was allowed to bloom. Enrolling at the Sorbonne, Curie dove into the of study math and physics, achieving both degrees within the span of three years. In that year she also met her husband, Pierre Curie, a scientist at the Sorbonne who would go on to be her close partner in research. In Paris, Maria Sklodowska would become known as Marie Curie, adopting the French pronunciation of her first name.
Early in her career, the discovery of radioactivity by French scientist Henri Becquerel inspired Curie and her husband to study the phenomenon of radiation in their own lab. Working in cramped and often poorly ventilated conditions, Curie and Pierre discovered that certain minerals containing uranium were, in fact, emitting far more radiation than they should have been. The two believed that this hinted at a new element, which Curie named “polonium” after her home country of Poland upon discovering it in 1898. Not five months later, Curie found an even more radioactive element than polonium, which she called radium.
Curie’s research did more than discover new elements – it also hypothesized a new theory of radiation: that the “rays” emitted by elements like uranium and polonium were the product of interactions within the atom itself. This challenged the then-widely accepted belief in the atom as the smallest particle in physics, opening the door to future atomic research. She even coined a name for these elements: “Radio-active”.
Curie’s research on radiation was immediately recognized as one of the greatest discoveries of its time. But when Curie proposed for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, her named was nearly passed over in favor of her husbands. As a man, some members of the committee attributed Curie’s work to her husband, as a woman had never been granted a Nobel Prize before. In the end – and in part due to intensive lobbying on her behalf by Pierre – Marie Curie was awarded in the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Pierre and Henri Becquerel in 1903, becoming the first woman in history to achieve the Nobel Prize.
Not ten years later, in 1911, she received a second Nobel, this time in chemistry and wholly in her own name – making her the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, of any gender.
Despite her accomplishments, to many of Curie’s peers, her gender mattered more than her research. After her husband tragically died of a road accident in 1907, Curie applied for his seat at the prestigious French Academy of Sciences – and was refused by two votes, despite her status as a Nobel laureate. It was also only after Pierre’s death that Curie was permitted full professorship at the Sorbonne, after repeatedly being passed up even as Pierre’s career soared. After taking his vacant seat, Curie became the first female professor at the prestigious university in its 700 year history.
Legacy of a Trailblazer
Curie’s research into radiation would go on to have several real-world applications that we continue to use today. The use of radiation for medicine would go on to save lives in WW1, when “petit Curies” – mobile X-Ray carriages – treated allied soldiers on the Western Front. Today, modern medical radiotherapy, used to combat cancer and tumors, originates from Curie’s research, while her theories that challenged the indivisible nature of the atom would inspire future atomic scientists, giving way to nuclear power as well as, less benevolently, the atomic bomb.
Curie died at the age of 66, likely from her lifetime of radiation exposure. Today, Curie’s legacy is as a trailblazer for women and science, but also as an example of the struggles women have faced to be recognized by the scientific community – a struggle that continues today. For example, since Curie received her first Nobel in 1903, only 53 women have been awarded a Nobel as of 2019. Of these, only four women besides Curie have the received the prize in chemistry – and only two others in physics.
As we remember Curie’s contributions, we must then also recognize that her accomplishments were made in spite of the gender barriers placed against her – barriers still faced by women and underrepresented populations in the sciences, over 110 years later.
Article by Devin Windelspecht