On July 4 Secular Woman remembers Marie Curie, the French-Polish scientist who was the first person to be honored with two Nobel Prizes (in physics and chemistry) and whose research on radioactivity inspired our logo, which is based on the radium atom’s electron shell. Curie died on this day in 1934, leaving a remarkable legacy in science, secularism, and feminism.
Born in 1867, Curie was awarded a degree in physics in 1893 and in mathematics in 1894. She left the Church of her upbringing at 20 and became secular; her interest in studying magnetism led her to meet Pierre Curie, also nonreligious, and they bonded over a mutual passion for science. “Pierre Curie came to see me, and showed a simple and sincere sympathy with my student life,” she wrote, recalling their early encounters. “Soon he caught the habit of speaking to me of his dream of an existence consecrated entirely to scientific research, and he asked me to share that life.” The couple married in a secular ceremony in 1895; According to the American Institute of Physics, Curie wore a dark blue garment which she later used as a lab coat.
When the Curies had their first child, Irene, Pierre’s father assisted with childcare duties so that both parents could continue their work. “It became a serious problem how to take care of our little Irène and of our home without giving up my scientific work,” Marie recalled. “Such a renunciation would have been very painful to me, and my husband would not even think of it… So the close union of our family enabled me to meet my obligations.”
Henri Becquerel’s recent discovery of uranium radiation fascinated Curie, and she took on uranium research as a dissertation subject. After confirming several of Becquerel’s observations, Curie formed a new hypothesis: that the emission of rays by uranium compounds may be an atomic property of uranium. Testing all known elements in order to determine whether uranium’s properties were unique, Curie discovered that thorium also emitted Becquerel rays; she coined the term “radioactivity” to describe this behavior.
Curie went on to discover the elements polonium (named for her native country) and radium. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw––major research institutes to this day–– and became the first woman to be appointed lecturer at France's best teachers' training institution for women (and the first instructor there to add lab work to the physics curriculum). In 1903 she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize with her husband, for physics; in 1911 she was the sole winner of the Prize in chemistry. During World War I, embodying the humanist spirit and eager to use her work to help others, Curie brought raised money to bring x-ray machines to doctors treating wounded soldiers. She and her daughter personally administered x-rays to patients on the Front for over a year.
Curie died in 1934 of complications from aplastic anemia, likely due to her years of radiation exposure. Her legacy is difficult to overstate: scientist, pioneer, secular humanist, and trailblazer as a woman in her field at a time when women were actively barred from many opportunities in science. We honor this brave and brilliant “Secular Woman” for her remarkable achievements and shining example of perseverance, tenacity, and humanitarianism.