by PAC Intern Eliseo Nesci
Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was a pioneer in the fields of physics and chemistry. For her discovery of radium and polonium, she was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize. A dedicated scientist endowed with a strong work ethic and indomitable spirit, Marie Curie Skłodowska is admired to the present day. While she pursued her scientific career in France, she always remembered her Polish homeland.
Born in 1867 in Warsaw under the Russian partition, Skłodowska had to struggle against the limitations imposed upon her family by the occupying authorities from an early age. Her family had been deeply involved in Polish patriotic activities and had participated in the 1863 January Uprising, for which they were disenfranchised by the Czarist authorities. Her father Władysław Skłodowski, who taught mathematics and physics in Warsaw, was removed from his position for pro-Polish sympathies.
Skłodowska struggled in her early years, particularly after the deaths of her mother and eldest sister. Because she was a woman he was barred from pursuing higher education and enrolled in the clandestine Flying Univerisity, which was a patriotic Polish institution of higher education that enrolled women students.
In 1891 she left Poland for France where she studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics at the University of Paris. Her hard work paid off, and in 1893 she was awarded a degree in physics and began her scientific career in Paris studying the magnetic properties of various steels. After she was refused a teaching position in Krakow University she returned to Paris and married French Physicist Pierre Curie, with whom she would have two daughters.
While pursuing her Phd, Skłodowska-Curie developed an interest in uranium rays began research for her thesis. Without a stable laboratory, she conducted her research in a rundown shed, unaware of the detrimental health effects of radiation exposure. Amongst her many accomplishments, the most important were the discoveries of new elements, including radium and polonium, which Skłodowska-Curie named in honor of her partitioned homeland. She and her husband were the first to use the term ‘radioactivity.
In 1903 she won the Noble Prize in Physics along with her husband, Pierre, becoming the first woman to ever receive the honor. After the tragic death of her husband in 1906, Skłodowska-Curie was given his chair at the University of Paris, becoming the first woman to be appointed professor at the University of Paris. In 1911 she was honored once more with the Noble Prize, this time for her advancement in the field of chemistry. While she gained renown and recognition for her accomplishments she also had to contend with popular misogyny and sexism.
During the First World War, she advocated for the need to install radiological centers near battlefields to treat wounded soldiers. Skłodowska-Curie became the director of the Red Cross Radiological Service and it is estimated that around one million French soldiers were treated with her x-ray units throughout the war. Despite her great efforts she never received official recognition from the French government for her efforts. While she loyally supported the war effort of her adopted country, France, she never forgot about her Polish homeland. During the war, she was an active member of the Polish community in France and advocated for the Polish cause of independence.
After the war, Skłodowska-Curie continued with her scientific research and became more widely recognized for her accomplishments. In 1922 she became a member of the League of Nations International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, coordinating with other scientists such as Albert Einstein, Hendrik Lorentz, and Henri Bergson. In 1925 she traveled to the newly independent Poland to participate in a ceremony laying the foundations of Warsaw’s Radium Institute.
On the 7th of November 1934, several months after her last visit to Poland, Marie Skłodowska Curie died due to complications related to overexposure to radiation. She is remembered to this day across the world as a trailblazing scientist and an inspirational woman who persevered in spite of much opposition, prejudice, and personal tragedy. In Poland, she is proudly remembered as a national icon.