UNKNOWN FACTS ABOUT
I always like to present outstanding women, and this lady is one of them.
Marie Curie is recognized
throughout the world not only for her groundbreaking Nobel Prize-winning
discoveries, but also for having boldly broken many gender barriers during her
seventh of November commemorated the birth of legendary scientist Marie Curie
(born Maria Salomea Skłodowska) 148 years ago. With her husband, Pierre, the
Polish-born Frenchwoman pioneered the study of radioactivity until her death in
1934. Today, she is recognized throughout the world not only for her
groundbreaking Nobel Prize-winning discoveries, but also for having boldly
broken many gender barriers during her lifetime.
became the first woman to receive a PhD from a French university, as well as
the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. Not
only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person
(man or woman)
ever to win the award twice and for achievements in two distinct scientific
Marie Curie’s major accomplishments may be well known, here are several
surprising facts about her personal and professional life that may not be.
1) She Worked Out of a Shack
come as a surprise to know that Marie and Pierre conducted the bulk of the
research and experimentation which led to the discovery of the elements Radium
and Polonium in what was described by the respected German chemist, Wilhelm
Ostwald, as “a cross between a stable and a potato shed.” In fact, when he was
first shown the premises, he assumed that it was “a practical joke.” Even after
the couple had won the Nobel Prize for their discoveries, Pierre died never
having set foot in the new laboratory that the University of Paris had promised
to build them.
Nonetheless, Marie would fondly recall their time together in
the leaky, drafty shack despite the fact that, in order to extract and isolate
the radioactive elements, she often spent entire days stirring boiling
cauldrons of uranium-rich pitchblende until “broken with fatigue”. By the time
she and Pierre eventually submitted their discoveries for professional
consideration, Curie had personally gone through multiple tons of uranium-rich
slag in this manner.
2) She Was Originally Ignored by the Nobel Prize Nominating Committee
members of the French Academy of Sciences wrote a letter to the Swedish Academy
in which they nominated the collective discoveries in the field of
radioactivity made by Marie and Pierre Curie, as well as their contemporary Henri Becquerel,
for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Yet, in a sign of the times and its
prevailing sexist attitudes, no recognition of Marie’s contributions was
offered, nor was there even any mention of her name.
Thankfully, a sympathetic
member of the nominating committee, a professor of mathematics at Stockholm
University College named Gösta Mittage-Leffler, wrote a letter to Pierre
warning him of the glaring omission. Pierre, in turn, wrote the committee
insisting that he and Marie be “considered together . . . with respect to our
research on radioactive bodies.”
Eventually, the wording of the official nomination was amended.
Later that year, thanks to a combination of her accomplishments and the
combined efforts of her husband and Mittage-Leffler, Marie Curie became the
first woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize.
3) She Refused to Cash in on Her Discoveries
discovering Radium in 1898, Marie and Pierre balked at the opportunity to
pursue a patent for it and to profit from its production, despite the fact that
they had barely enough money to procure the uranium slag they needed in order
to extract the element. To the contrary, the Curies generously shared the
isolated product of Marie's difficult labors with fellow researchers and openly
distributed the secrets of the process needed for its production with
interested industrial parties.
During the ‘Radium Boom’ that followed,
factories sprang up in the United States dedicated to supplying the element not
only to the scientific community, but also to curious and gullible public.
Though not yet fully understood, the glowing green material captivated
consumers, and found its way into everything from toothpaste to sexual
enhancement products. By the 1920s, the price of a single gram of the element
reached $100,000 and Curie could not afford to buy enough of the very thing
she, herself, had discovered in order to continue her research.
she had no regrets. “Radium is an element, it belongs to the people,” she told
American journalist Missy Maloney during a trip to the United States in 1921.
“Radium was not to enrich anyone.”
4) Einstein Encouraged Her During One of
the Worst Years of Her Life
and Marie Curie first
met in Brussels at the prestigious Solvay Conference in 1911. This invite-only
event brought together the world’s leading scientists in the field of physics,
and Marie was the only woman out of its 24 members. Einstein was so impressed
by Curie, that he came to her defense later that year when she became embroiled
in controversy and the media frenzy that surrounded it.
this time, France had reached the peak of its rising sexism, xenophobia, and
anti-semitism that defined the years preceding the First World War. Curie’s
nomination to the French Academy of Sciences was rejected, and many suspected
that biases against her gender and immigrant roots were to blame. Furthermore,
it came to light that she had been involved in a romantic relationship with her
married colleague, Paul Langevin, though he was estranged from his wife at the
Curie was labeled a
traitor and a homewrecker, and was accused of riding the coattails of her
deceased husband (Pierre had died in 1906 from a road accident) rather than
having accomplished anything based on her own merits. Though she had just been
awarded a second Nobel Prize, the nominating committee now sought to discourage
Curie from traveling to Stockholm to accept it so as to avoid a scandal. With
her personal and professional life in disarray, she sank into a deep depression
and retreated (as best she could) from the public eye.
this time, Curie received a letter from Albert Einstein in which he described
his admiration for her, as well as offered his heart-felt advice on how to
handle the events as they unfolded. “I am impelled to tell you how much I have
come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty,” he wrote, “and
that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance . . .” As
for the frenzy of newspaper articles attacking her, Einstein encouraged Curie
“to simply not read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom
it has been fabricated.”
is little doubt that the kindness shown by her respected colleague was
encouraging. Soon enough, she recovered, reemerged and, despite the
discouragement, courageously went to Stockholm to accept her second Nobel
Personally Provided Medical Aid to French Soldiers During the First World War
World War I broke out in 1914, Curie was forced to put her research and the
opening of her new Radium institute on hold due to the threat of a possible
German occupation of Paris. After personally delivering her stash of the
valuable element to the safety of a bank vault in Bordeaux, she set about using
her expertise in the field of radioactivity in order to aid the French war
Over the course of the next four years, Curie helped equip and
operate more than twenty ambulances (known as “Little Curies”) and hundreds of
field hospitals with primitive x-ray machines so as to assist surgeons with the
location and removal of shrapnel and bullets from the bodies of wounded
soldiers. Not only did she personally instruct and supervise young women in the
operation of the equipment, but she even drove and operated one such ambulance
herself, despite the danger of venturing too close to the fighting on the front
By the end of the war, it was
estimated that Curie’s x-ray equipment, as well as the Radon gas syringes she
designed to sterilize wounds, may have saved the lives of a million soldiers.
Yet, when the French government later sought to award her the country’s most
distinguished honor, la Légion d'honneur,
she declined. In another display of selflessness at the outset of the conflict,
Curie had even tried to donate her gold Nobel Prize medals to the French
National Bank, but they refused.
6) She Had No Idea of the Dangers of Radioactivity
117 years after the Curies’ discovery of Radium, even the public is kept well
aware of the potential dangers associated with the exposure of the human body
to radioactive elements. Yet, from the very first years during which the
scientists and their contemporaries were pioneering the study of radioactivity
until the mid 1940s, little was concretely understood about both short and
long-term health effects.
liked to keep a sample in his pocket so he could demonstrate its glowing and
heating properties to the curious, and even once strapped a vial of the stuff
to his bare arm for ten hours in order to study the curious way it painlessly
burned his skin. Marie, in turn, kept a sample at home next to her bed as a
nightlight. Diligent researchers, the Curies spent nearly every day in the
confines of their improvised laboratory, with various radioactive materials strewn
about their workspaces. After regularly handling Radium samples, both were said
to have had developed unsteady hands, as well as cracked and scarred fingers.
Though the life of Pierre was tragically cut short in 1906, at
the time of his death he was suffering from constant pain and fatigue. Marie,
too, complained of similar symptoms until succumbing to advanced leukemia in
1934. At no point did either consider the possibility that their very discovery
was the cause of their pain and Marie’s eventual death. In fact, all the
couple's laboratory notes and many of their personal belongings are still so
radioactive today that they cannot safely be viewed or studied.
7) Her Daughter Also Won the Nobel Prize
case of Marie and Pierre Curie’s eldest daughter, Irène, it can safely be said
that the apple did not fall far from the tree. Following in her parents’
sizable footsteps, Irène enrolled at the Faculty of Science in Paris. However,
the outbreak of the first World War interrupted her studies. She joined her
mother and began working as a nurse radiographer, operating x-ray machines to
assist with the treatment of soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
By 1925, Irène had received her doctorate,
having joined her mother in the field of the study of radioactivity. Ten years
later, she and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, were jointly awarded the Nobel
Prize in Chemistry for the breakthroughs they had made in the synthesis of new
radioactive elements. Though it had been Marie’s pleasure to have witnessed her
daughter and son-in-law’s successful research, she did not live to see them win
Curie family legacy is both poignant and appropriately accomplished.
Frédéric Joliot had two children of their own, named Helene and Pierre, in
honor of their incredible grandparents whose deaths were tragically premature.
In turn, Marie’s grandchildren would both go on to distinguish themselves in
the field of science as well. Helene became a nuclear physicist and, at 88
years old, still maintains a seat on the advisory board to the French
government. Pierre would go on to become a preeminent biologist. Today, at the
age of 83, he is a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific
Research and a member of the French Academy of Sciences.
Clancy's comment: Mm ... Must have been tough for these pioneering women. They not only battled science, but also the ignorant men. You have to love their work and their spirit.