A Woman In A Man’s World- Marie Curie
Marie Curie is one of the most famous scientists in the world. Yet she faced plenty obstacles being a woman in a man’s world
In the late 1800s, Poland was under Russian rule. Russians had dictated strict rules- no one was allowed to speak Polish and women were not given an opportunity for education. In this difficult times there were two young girls with a thirst to learn more.
The Sklodowska sisters were raised in a family which cherished their Polish origins. Their parents spoke Polish at home and raised their 5 children in that atmosphere. Their parents were teachers and valued education. They were instrumental in instilling the importance of education to their children.
Maria and Bronislawa were taught physics and maths by their father.
On finishing her basic education in Poland, Maria applied for university but was rejected because she was a woman. Some accounts suggest that she then dressed up as a man and attended lectures. She was soon caught.
What is definitely known is that Maria then attended a ‘Floating University’ which met at different places to stay away from government scrutiny. This University allowed female students. However the ‘Floating University’ was not enough.
Maria and her sister then made a pact- Bronislawa would go to Paris, a modern city which allowed female students and learn medicine. Maria would provide her money for her tuition and stay. On graduating Bronislawa would send for her sister.
For 6 years Maria worked as a governess shipping money to her sister in Paris. Her sister got her degree, married and gave Maria a green signal to follow suit.
Life in Paris
Maria Sklodowska came to Paris in 1891. She attended Paris’ most ancient university- Sorbonne.
Whilst studying she tried to save up as much as money as possible and dedicated all her time to her studies. On some days Maria would often go without food. Weakness soon caught on but she managed. She was a bright student and graduated top of her class.
Whilst in Paris, ‘Maria’ was not a common found name. The Fresh version of Maria was Marie. Thus Maria came to be called Marie.
In 1894 Marie met Pierre Curie. Pierre Curie was a fellow physicist who was studying crystals and magnetism. The two connected on a different level. Needless to say Pierre admired the young and intelligent Marie. He soon proposed to her.
After much contemplation, she agreed.
Marie became Marie Sklodowska Curie. She decided to get a doctorate in Physics something no other woman in Paris had done.
She soon gave birth to a daughter, Irene. Marie’s mother-in-law died soon after Irene’s birth. Pierre’s father though stepped in to take care of his grandchild whist her parents worked wonders in their laboratory.
Marie didn’t give up her doctorate either. She read papers and completed her mission becoming the first woman to do so.
After this feat she came across Henri Becquerel. Henri had studied Uranium and found that its atoms didn’t posses the qualities scientists believed atoms had. He was in a fix.
Marie took up the challenge. She researched and finally came up with a daring conclusion- The rays emitted by Uranium were sub-atoms formed when atoms decayed. This stunned the scientific community because atoms were thought to be the last element which could not be further divided.
Researching more about Uranium and later Thorium since both these elements radiated heat greater than any other element known, she made another discovery. Upon research she stated that Uranium and Thorium had a characteristic which she labeled ‘Radioactivity.’
She began searching the substances that made elements radioactive, now assisted by her husband Pierre. The first substance she found was Polonium named after Marie’s native country Poland. The second substance was radium in 1898.
In 1903 Henri Becquerel and the Curies were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However there was much criticism towards a woman receiving a Prize in the field of science. The Nobel Prize committee did not want to include Marie but on Pierre’s insistence awarded her with the price. Most people still saw her as a wife assisting her husband.
A year later, Marie and Pierre welcomed their second daughter Eve in the world. Marie still didn’t give up her work to take care of her daughters.
Many of her fellow scientists passed comments about this, asking her if she loved her daughters at all. Marie in her ever present silence carried on with her work.
On April 19, 1906 tragedy struck. Pierre had been in an accident with a carriage and had been killed. Marie now had two daughters to raise as a single parent.
She began maintaining a diary to her deceased husband but apart form that she showed no outward sadness. On the contrary Marie rose to the challenge.
She refused a widow’s pension and took the place of her husband as a lecturer in Sorbonne. She became the first female professor in the university. Many people lined up to attend her first lecture.
However most people still looked at her as a woman not as a scientist.
This notion would soon change. In 1911 the Nobel Peace Prize committee called up again. Marie had been awarded with another Peace Prize in Chemistry for her work with radium and polonium. Marie Curie now became the only scientist to win the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
The Magic of Xray
X-ray had been invented and used in medicine by few doctors when the WW1 began. Unfortunately the X-ray machines were in the doctor’s clinics and not with the injured soldiers on the war front.
Marie couldn’t get the authorities to get X-ray machines to the injured soldiers so she took matters in her own hands.
Along with her 17 year old daughter Irene, Marie filled vehicles with X-ray machines and took them to the war front. The mother-daughter duo took X-rays and which helped doctors in their diagnosis. The doctors could locate the exact area the bullet has pierced the soldier and heal the patient accordingly.
After the war, Marie’s health began declining. Radium had taken a toll on her health. At that time the harmful effects of radioactivity were not known and Marie refused to accept the negative aspects of her invention. She remained dedicated to her work in her laboratory.
In 1934 aged 66 she passed away leaving behind a grand legacy. A legacy that stretches into treatments for cancer which not only stop cancer cells but heal the affected person to being a pioneering woman in the field of science.
This field is still considered a ‘man’s world’ almost 100 years after Madame Curie. However this is changing since more women are now taking up maths and science.
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This is a special blog celebrating our 8th woman on the 8th day of Navratri. We’ll be sharing the inspirational life stories of 9 women in 9 days so stay tuned.
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