Maria Skłodowska-Curie: The Nobel Pioneer
portrait, Maria Skłodowska-Curie:
The Nobel Pioneer, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, Birmingham, 1913, photo: Emka Studio Publishing House, center, maria sklodowska curie fotobiografia 4_6102442.jpg
The first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics and the only one so far to have been awarded the accolade in two different areas (Physics and Chemistry). The first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne and the first lady among the members of the National Academy of Medicine in Paris. She was also the first woman whose ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born in Warsaw as the youngest of five children to Władysław, a Physics and Mathematics teacher, and Bronisława née Boguska, who ran a girls’ boarding school. Maria is a talented, hardworking child with a brilliant memory. She attends a gymnasium and graduates with a gold medal. Later on, she continues her education at the Flying University.
She is ten years old when her mother passes away. Six years later, Maria writes a critique of the deceitful Church practices in her diary. She also rewrites excerpts from the iconoclastic Ernest Renan book Life of Jesus. It’s at that moment when she decides to her replace her faith in God with science.
In 1886, Maria finds work as a governess with a wealthy Żorawski family in Szczuki near Ciechanów. She falls in love for the first time with Kazimierz, her employers’ son. Kazimierz studies at the University in Warsaw (and will later become a brilliant mathematician). However, their wedding plans are shattered by young man’s parents.
After three years of work, Maria comes back to Warsaw. She studies chemistry and physics in the laboratory at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture, run by her cousin Józef Boguski, the former assistant to Dmitri Mendeleev. Maria absorbs knowledge under Boguski’s guidance and is taught chemical analysis by accomplished scientist Napoleon Milicer.
The University of Warsaw under the Russian occupation does not accept women, so Skłodowska decides to follow the footsteps of her sister Bronisława, and in 1891, she moves to Paris.
At the Sorbonne, Skłodowska obtains degrees in Physics and Mathematics, graduating respectively with the first- and second-highest score in her year. In 1985, she marries scientist Pierre Curie, who is eight years her senior, in a civil ceremony and acquires French nationality. For their honeymoon, Mr and Mrs Curie cycle to Brittany.
Soon, their family grows as Marie gives birth to their daughters, Irène and Ève. In 1897, Maria Skłodowska-Curie publishes her first academic paper on the magnetic properties of hardened steel. Her further research focuses on Antoine Henri Becquerel’s discovery of the radioactivity of uranium.
She works together with her husband, carrying out intensive research despite their Spartan conditions. Their work will lead to the discovery of a metal characterised by high radioactivity and chemical properties close to bismuth. To honour her homeland, Maria calls it polonium. Further research allows her to extrapolate an even more important element: radium, a metal whose chemical properties are similar to barium (1898).
The Curies believe their discoveries should serve humanity and science, so they never patent them and choose not to receive any financial gain from them.
The Nobel laureate
Their research on radioactivity earn the Curies (and Becquerel) the Davy Medal and Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Marie Curie obtains her PhD for the thesis titled Research on Radioactive Substances. She becomes the lab chief at the Sorbonne’s Physics Faculty, a department created for her husband.
After Pierre’s tragic death in 1906, Maria takes over the faculty. She applies for membership of the French Academy of Sciences. She already is a Nobel Prize laureate, holds three awards from the Academy of Sciences in Paris and holds doctorates from a number of universities, including Edinburgh, Geneva, Manchester, and others. She is the member of Academies of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, Bologna, Prague and the Academy of Learning in Kraków. The French Academy, however, turns her candidacy down.
The tabloids bring to light her one-year-long affair with the physicist Paul Langevin. Paul is married and four years her junior: he abandons his family for Maria. Aggressive articles appear on the front pages of all newspapers, while her response, saying her private life should be of nobody’s concern, is printed on the last page.
The attacks stop after Maria receives her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry. During her acceptance speech, she emphasises that her discoveries were made together with her husband, and therefore she accepts the prize in honour of Pierre’s memory. One year later, Maria Skłodowska-Curie initiates the construction of the Radium Institute in Paris.
During World War I, she organises the radiology service for army hospitals. She actively participates in the installation of the facilities together with her daughter Irène (who will later become a chemist and the second, after her mother, female recipient of the Nobel Prize in science)
Maria Skłodowska-Curie maintains a close relationship with her home country: Polish academics receive scholarships to work at the Laboratoire Curie in Paris. The Warsaw Scientific Society appoints her the head of the Mirosław Kernbaum Radiological Laboratory, albeit remotely. In 1932, Maria Skłodowska-Curie establishes the Radium Institute in Warsaw and donates 1 gram of radium she receives from her donors.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie dies on 4th July 1934 at the Sancellemoz sanatorium in the French Alps. She dies of severe anaemia caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, and is buried in the Curie family grave in Sceaux near Paris. In 1995, the remains of Maria and Pierre Curie will be enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris.
After she passes away, Albert Einstein writes that Madame Curie was the only person he knew who was completely unspoiled by fame.
Translated by Agata Zano