We’re History: Marie Curie Led Science—and Women Scientists—to a New Age

March 1, 2011 - New York, NY

From Chemical Engineering Progress, March 1, 2011, p. 72

By Michal Meyer, Editor-in-Chief, Chemical Heritage magazine

When the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set their sights on an International Year of Chemistry celebration (see related story on page 61), the year 2011 was selected—in part because it marks the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize in chemistry being awarded to one of the field’s enduring icons: Marie Curie.

Madame Curie is deservedly recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. And, as her title indicates, she was also a female scientist.

Would Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867–1934) have won two Nobel prizes (or even one) if she had not married Pierre Curie? Probably not. This is not to say that Pierre singlehandedly turned his wife into a great scientist, but is rather a comment on the social structures of the day. Women could receive advanced degrees in science and could even get jobs in science—but they could not become professors at the Sorbonne or members of the Academy of Sciences (although Marie eventually managed the former). . . .

The increasing professionalization of science in the late 19th century should have made life easier for women pursuing science, except that women generally were not allowed to join professions. Women could become teachers at girls’ schools (Curie studied for a teacher’s certificate, allowing her to teach in a girls’ high school), but only men became professors.

After receiving degrees in physics and the mathematical sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris, Curie intended to return to Poland to teach. But she met Pierre Curie, and a match made in scientific heaven was born. That same year, a mysterious force made its first appearance.

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays and took the first, famous X-ray—of his wife’s hand. This peek inside the living human body galvanized scientific and public interest in the unseen. Suddenly, there were more things in heaven and on earth than anyone had dreamed of.

Initially, it seemed as though uranium salts could produce something similar to X-rays. While Henri Becquerel unknowingly discovered radioactivity via his uranium salts, Marie Curie’s PhD work on pitchblende and its emissions led her and Pierre to discover two new elements, polonium and radium, and to introduce the term: “radioactive.”

The Curies had pried open Pandora’s atomic box, and others (including their daughter and son-in-law) would peer deep inside. Marie went on to isolate radium, the cornerstone of a new field of science. In 1903, the Curies, along with Becquerel, won the Nobel Prize in physics (her chemistry Nobel came later).

Wrapped up with Marie’s work is a life that moved from triumph to tragedy to scandal and back to triumph in a powerful narrative arc. Part of what makes Marie Curie such an interesting figure outside the scientific community is what almost destroyed her within it. In 1906, Pierre died in a street accident, and Marie was devastated. Several years later, she found some comfort in an affair with scientific compatriot Paul Langevin. Scandal later ensued, to the extent that Curie was warned not to turn up in Stockholm to pick up her 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry. A man would probably not have received the same advice. Times have certainly changed since then.

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