Polonium, Radium, Solidarity, and the Nuclear Bomb – Polish Nobel Prize Winners
Writers dominate the list of Polish Nobel Prize winners: so far they have won 4 prizes, most recently in 1996. However, Poland has experienced considerable success in other fields, but counting the final number of Poland's Nobel Prizes for is as complicated as Poland’s 20th-century.
4 Nobel Prizes, 3 extraordinary people, 2 never-ending discussions on the nationality of 2 of the winners, and a winner that seems to be forgotten even though he was the one who was awarded most recently. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?
1. Maria Skłodowska-Curie
Category: Physics (shared with her husband Pierre Curie and Professor Henri Becquerel) and Chemistry
When: 1903, 1911
Why: Physics: ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’.
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.'
Maria Skłodowska-Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes, could also be awarded a third (this time in Peace category) for how much she did for the gender equality movement. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, first to be awarded twice, as well as the first to win a Nobel Prize in two different categories, and finally she was the first women to be entombed in the Pantheon in Paris for her own achievements. Even more shockingly, she did all this despite being born in an occupied country (Poland under the Russian Empire) where women were not allowed to enrol in university.
This is why, after graduating from high school in Warsaw, Maria Skłodowska-Curie decided to leave Poland and start a degree at the Sorbonne. Inspired by the discoveries of Henri Becquerel, who discovered that uranium salts emit rays that resembled X-rays in their penetrating power, she started her research on radiation. At the Sorbonne she met Pierre Curie, who she married and started a working partnership with. In 1898 the Curies published two joint papers: one announcing the existence of a new element—‘polonium’, named after Maria’s native country—and the other on the existence of radium. In 1903, they were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, and in 1911 Maria Curie-Skłodowska received her own award for her further studies (Pierre Curie had died in a car accident in 1906) on radium, polonium and the isolation of radium, and for her work on implementing the use of newly-discovered elements into medicine.
At the beginning of World War I, Maria designed mobile radiography units which worked behind the front lines to help battlefield doctors. Soon, she became director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and cars carrying mobile X-ray equipment became widely known as the petites curies ("Little Curies").
Maria Skłodowska-Curie died in 1934, aged only 66. Her premature death is believed to result from the fact that for much of her research, the harmful consequences of the exposure to radiation were undiscovered. She hardly used any protection and thus contracted aplastic anaemia.
2. Lech Wałęsa
Why: ‘for his human rights activities’
Lech Wałęsa is probably the one who least needs to be introduced. He was the leader of the Solidarity movement and contributed to the eventual downfall of Communism in Poland. As is usual with the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a strong political impulse that affected the committee's verdict. This time, it was the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1983 and Wałęsa’s arrest and 11-month detention.
In the opening part of his Nobel Lecture (which every winner is supposed to give) Wałęsa chose words that couldn’t better describe the meaning of the award for the Poland of 1983:
Addressing you, as the winner of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, is a Polish worker from the Gdansk shipyard, one of the founders of the independent trade union movement in Poland. It would be the simplest thing for me to say that I am not worthy of that great distinction. Yet, when I recall the hour when the news of the prize has spread throughout my country, the hour of rising emotions and universal joy of the people who felt that they have a moral and spiritual share in the award, I am obligated to say that I regard it as a sign of recognition that the movement to which I gave all my strength has served well the community of men.
Wałęsa was unable to go to the ceremony in person because it was the Communist regime’s exclusive prerogative to give or deny its citizens passports and they obviously wouldn’t let their opponent go and speak out against them. Instead, his wife went to Sweden and read his acceptance speech on his behalf.
Solidarity and Wałęsa’s march to freedom was eventually successful, in 1989, they won the first partially free election and abolished the Communist regime in a peaceful revolution.
3. Józef Rotblat
Category: Peace (shared with the Pugwash Movement)
Why: 'for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms'
Józef Rotblat’s biography is the best proof of how hard and risky it is to advocate for peace and reason when it is not in line with the policy of the key political powers.
He was born to a poor Jewish family in Warsaw. Starting from the most basic work as an electrician, he developed an interest in physics which, driven by his intrinsic determination and passion for science, made him graduate from the University of Warsaw and get an invitation to continue his research at the University of Liverpool. He managed to escape Poland just in time—a day before the outbreak of WWII.
The outstanding results of his research got him work at the most prestigious and costly project of 1940 – the Manhattan project. Rotblat’s only motivation, however, was only not to let Nazi Germany invent a nuclear bomb before the Allied forces did. Thus, when it became obvious in 1944 that the Nazi nuclear programme had died out due to the Axis losing on every front, he was the first to leave the Manhattan Project, starting his never-ending quest to diminish the significance of nuclear arms in international relationships.
In 1944, the moment I was informed that Germans resigned from their nuclear programme, I quit [the Manhattan Project]. Throughout these years my only fear was that Hitler, as the last blow of his falling military empire, would drop a nuclear bomb on London. When I came to know the threat was over, I left immediately.
Józef Rotblat became one of the founders and the secretary-general of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, together with which he received a shared Nobel Peace Prize. Moreover, his work on nuclear fallout contributed vastly to the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) which slowed down the nuclear arms race remarkably.
Even though Józef Rotblat died a British citizen in Britain, he always though of himself as a 'Pole with a British passport'. When asked (in English) at a conference few years before his death if he still remembers the Polish language he replied (in perfect Polish):
Oh what a dumb question this is! I am and I’ve always been Polish. Isn’t it obvious that, as an inventor of the nuclear bomb, I couldn’t have lived in Poland [under Soviet occupation]?
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 2 June 2015. Sources: nobelprize.org, noblisci.pl, 'Nobliści znad Wisły, Odry i Niemna'; M. i P. Pilichowie.