Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


My history with Madame Curie

Bonnie J. Buratti

By "Wide World Photos" and "Underwood and Underwood, New York" [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marie Curie at 150 – Celebrating Women in STEM

My parents had two large bookshelves in our dining room, and as soon as I could read I would rummage through them searching for something good. When I was about 13 or 14, I discovered a particular gem: “Madame Curie” by Eve Curie. The book was published in 1937, so it must have belonged to my grandmother, who was a microbiologist for the City of Philadelphia. I was interested in science ever since I can remember, so I eagerly read the book. My introduction to the great scientist Marie Skłodowska Curie happened around the centennial of her birth. November 7, 2017 is her 150th anniversary. Her life and legacy are as fresh as ever.

For me she was a role model, a woman who persisted and prevailed.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to win two Nobel prizes. She is the only person to win two Nobel prizes in different fields of science, for both physics and chemistry. She was one of the greatest scientists of her generation. For me she was a role model, a woman who persisted and prevailed.

The same year I read Curie’s biography, I also anxiously watched echelons of male engineers at NASA’s mission control– those were the days launches and missions were shown on prime time television. There wasn’t a female in sight. But I had the reassuring story of Marie Curie to show me that it was possible for a woman to succeed in science.

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867 (Marie was the French version of her first name). She left Poland to study at the University of Paris. Barely able to support herself on meager tutoring fees, and battling hunger and cold, she earned degrees in physics and mathematics in 1893 and 1894. She immediately began work in a makeshift laboratory provided by her colleague Pierre Curie, whom she married in 1895. Her main interest was the study of radioactivity – a word the Curies had coined – and what it tells us about the fundamental nature of the atom. She received a doctorate in 1903 from the University of Paris. She was a versatile scientist: one of her papers noted that radium destroyed cancerous cells, an observation that led to the development of radiation therapy for cancer.

Studying uranium ores, she discovered two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium

The Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 along with Henri Becquerel “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena…” Pierre was offered a professorship at the University of Paris, and the promise of a better lab. But in 1906 Pierre was cut down by a tragic and fatal encounter with a horse-drawn carriage on a rainy, dreary day in Paris. Marie was devastated. Soon after Pierre’s death, she assumed his faculty position to become the first woman to hold a professorship at the University of Paris. She continued their work on radioactivity. Studying uranium ores, she discovered two new radioactive elements, polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium, which she finally isolated in 1910. These feats won her a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry. After her second prize she lectured internationally and raised funds for research into radioactivity. She died in 1934, the victim of aplastic anemia that was probably contracted by working with radioactive materials.

Even the Nobel Prize did not win her a position in the French Academy of Sciences

Curie struggled with prejudice throughout her career. Even the Nobel Prize did not win her a position in the French Academy of Sciences; she was passed over in favor of a less-qualified man the same year she was awarded a second Nobel Prize. It was not until 1962 that her student Marguerite Perey became the first female member of the Academy.
Marie Skłodowska Curie and Pierre Curie spawned an illustrious family. Daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, born in 1897, was a scientist, winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie in 1935. Eve, born in 1904, became a pianist, author, and activist for children, and she wrote the book on her mother that inspired generations of scientists. She married the American statesman Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr., who collected the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 on behalf of UNICEF.

Personally, I have an even closer connection to Marie Curie than the book that inspired me. I have been privileged to have her great grandson as a colleague. While I was a graduate student at Cornell University, I met the brilliant Yves Langevin while he was a visiting scholar. Later we worked on the Cassini mission together: we are both members of the Visual Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) Team, the prime instrument for understanding the composition of Saturn and its rings and moons. He is also a key member of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to closely study a comet, for which I serve as the NASA Project Scientist. Yves bears a very close resemblance to Pierre Curie.

she persisted and prevailed. She is still a role model – an icon, really – for women in science

Marie Cure faced the loss of her spouse and closest colleague, prejudice due to her status as an immigrant and as a female scientist. But she persisted and prevailed. She is still a role model – an icon, really – for women in science, and all scientists for that matter, as we face some of the same problems today of equal access and acceptance for women in technical fields.


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About The Author

Bonnie J. Buratti

Bonnie J. Buratti is a Senior Research Scientist and Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. Her popular book Worlds Fantastic,...

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