Series: STEM Nobel Laureates

The STEM Nobel Laureates series highlights women that have won Noble Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, or Economic Sciences. The Nobel Prize is a set of international awards that recognize significant academic, cultural, or scientific advances. The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious reward in any field.

In the past, 53 women have won a Nobel Peace prize, with 21 of the women winning in STEM fields. This series highlights these 21 women, recounting the woman’s background, accomplishments, and notable quotes.

Let us start this series with one of the most notable women in STEM of all time. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person (any gender) to win the Nobel Prize twice, and one of the four individuals in history to win a Nobel Prize in two different fields: Marie Skłodowska Curie

Curie was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland, during a period of political unrest. Being the youngest of five and due to the early death of her mother, Curie faced great personal difficulties in her early life. However, with her indomitable spirit and an opportunity from her sister, Curie was able to attend Sorbonne University in Paris to study Physics and Mathematics.

Through her studies at Sorbonne, Curie was able to work with the notable physicist named Gabriel Lippmann, further motivating her to pursue her studies and delve into the realm of research. Curie maintained her voracious appetite for knowledge, burning the midnight oil to work, write, and study.

Curie first met Pierre Curie, her future husband, in 1894. At the time, Pierre was a physics professor and was researching radioactivity following the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in the late 1800s. Eventually, they married in 1895.

Both Marie and Pierre Curie worked to expand the field of radioactivity by searching for new radioactive elements in a mineral called pitchblende. They found that although pitchblende had a uranium ore, there was much more radioactivity in pitchblende than the pure element uranium. The higher radioactivity in pitchblende suggested that at least one or more radioactive materials within pitchblende were more radioactive than Uranium.

Although they were faced with doubt from contemporaries, through numerous analytical chemistry experiments, Marie and Pierre Curie were jointly able to isolate Polonium (atomic number 84). Later on, they were able to isolate another element within pitchblende, which was even more radioactive than Polonium, and called it Radium (atomic number 88). The discovery for Radium was arduous, requiring days and nights in the lab using various techniques for isolation.

In June 1903, Marie Curie received her Doctorate of Science. The same year, Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics through their work on radioactivity.

Tragically, Pierre Curie died in a car accident in 1906. Marie Curie succeeded him as a physics professor at the University of Sorbonne, becoming the first female professor there. Although she faced the tragic death of her husband, Curie continued to work and finalize her radioactive isotope isolation techniques. Through her technique isolating pure Radium, Curie won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911.

Following her second Nobel Prize, Curie worked extensively on developing X-ray radiography for health applications. She sought to uncover the medical applications of radioactivity, especially due to the need during World War I.

Until her death, Curie continued to give lecture across multiple countries, including Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the United States. She was further awarded 1 gram of Radium from President Harding in the United States as a testament to her scientific discoveries in Physics and Chemistry.

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934, due to leukemia complications because of her extensive exposure to radioactive materials during her research. However, her legacy continues at the Curie Foundation, Institut Curie, and various organizations in her name promoting cancer research and women in STEM.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” — Marie Curie

The spirit of Marie Curie truly exemplifies intellectual vitality, curiosity, and venturing to build upon remarkable research. She is a genuinely groundbreaking, admirable woman in STEM and helped pioneer discovery in the growing field of radioactivity.

Further Reading

Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie and Vincent Sheean

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

Who Was Marie Curie? By Megan Stine

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith

Sources

Marie Curie | Biography & Facts. (2020, June 30). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Curie

Nobel Prizes 2019. (n.d.). NobelPrize.Org. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/

Marie Curie. (n.d.). Marie Curie the scientist | Biog, facts & quotes. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/who/our-history/marie-curie-the-scientist

With thanks - this series is being written by Stephanie Eristoff.

Photo credit - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie#/media/File:Marie_Curie_c1920.jpg

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