Woman of the Month: Marie Curie

Written by Sophie Holbourne

In 1867, Maria Salomea Skoldowawska was born to a Polish family in Warsaw during the control of the Russian Empire. From a young age, Marie was taught strength and resilience in the face of adversity: her parents lost most of their money after being involved in patriotic uprisings against Russia, and under Russian rule, Marie was prevented from learning physics and chemistry because scientific lessons were banned from schools! It was her father’s defiance of state instructions that allowed Marie to discover her love for science when he set up a laboratory at their home.

Marie faced further battles because university education was limited to boys, forcing her and her sister to enrol at an underground university. When her sister wished to go to university in France, Marie offered to stay behind and work in order to fund her sister’s education. At the young age of 18, Marie selflessly put her own life on hold, working as a governess to help pay her sister's tuition fees. Her life as an adult had barely begun, yet already she had suffered prejudices and restrictions that could have prevented her from pursuing her true passion in science. Yet she carried on, and joined her sister in France once she could afford the fees in 1891. She enrolled at the University of Paris, and in 1893 she was awarded the first of her two science degrees.

A year later, Marie met her future husband, Pierre Curie. They bonded over their love for science, but she declined his first proposal of marriage because she still hoped to pursue a career in science in Poland. This, again, is the mark of an incredible woman - she could have settled down to become the classic housewife and mother that the majority of women would have been expected to be during this time, but instead set her sights high and worked hard for her dreams. She applied for a position at Warsaw University and was rejected because she was a woman. She was devastated by the fact that her gender was the only factor that made the university reject her, despite her extensive work in the field of science.

She was persuaded to return to Paris, and did end up marrying Pierre in 1895. Her marriage turned into a life long partnership, not only in love but in work too. They became partners in science and worked together on many projects. One of the most famous of these was her investigations of radiation inside a shed, which led to her discovering the elements polonium and radium. Pierre was nominated for the Nobel Prize for this, but Marie was not. It was only after he fought her case that the board gave in and Marie became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 alongside her husband.

Marie would come to experience tragedy when her husband died in a road accident in 1906, leaving her to continue their work alone. As well as becoming one of the first pioneering female scientists, she had also given birth to two children by 1904. She had become what is now known as a working mum, and once her husband died, she was a single working mum.

Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood.

— Marie Curie

In 1909, the Radium Institute (now the Curie Institute) was founded in Paris, where she was given a laboratory to allow her to continue her research into radiation. In 1911, Marie became the first ever person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different categories when she was awarded the Prize for Chemistry. And she was a woman, too!

Incredibly, her research into radiation was her life’s work and ultimately caused her death. The unknown effects of unprotected exposure to radiation led to the death of Marie in 1934. She died from bone marrow disease and aplastic anaemia, and it is thought she developed these during her work. It is said that she used to carry radioactive isotopes in test tubes in her pockets! Her body was so radioactive she had to be buried in a lead coffin and her papers from the 1890s are still too dangerous to handle.

Few people have contributed to the welfare of mankind and to the developments within science like Marie did. Despite facing so many obstacles and prejudices throughout her life, she continued to work towards her dreams. Her passion and dedication led to advancements in the treatment of cancer, and her death raised awareness of the effects of unprotected exposure to radiation. In the time period in which Marie worked, her gender led to the majority of her setbacks and even stopped her from pursuing a career in her home country. To the shock of everyone, she showed that a woman could become such a heroine and saviour for humanity! In reality, the fact a woman can be just as successful as a man really isn’t that hard to grasp. We are all human beings, all of us have the potential to do something absolutely incredible and it doesn’t matter what background you come from or what gender you are.

We are all amazing people with lives to live and stories to tell. Everyone experiences struggle and hardship, but we all have the potential to excel and be brilliant!

The Marie Curie charity offers care and support to those with terminal illnesses. Find out more about their work here.

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