Her•Story: Marie Curie

Mother of Radioactivity

You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) was a French-Polish physicist and chemist, famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris. Her achievements included a theory of radioactivity (a term that she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium. Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms, using radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which remain major centers of medical research today.

Marie studied during the day and tutored evenings, barely earning her keep. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory. Meanwhile she continued studying at the Sorbonne, and in 1894, earned a degree in mathematics. Daughter of a Polish ‘freethinker’ but raised by a Catholic mother, Marie abandoned the Church before she was 20. The deaths of her mother and sister, according to some, caused Maria to give up Catholicism and become agnostic. It was after that, that she met and married Pierre Curie who “. . . belonged to no religion and I did not practice any”. He was an instructor at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris (ESPCI). Marie had begun her scientific career in Paris with an investigation of the magnetic properties of various steels; it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew Skłodowska and Curie together. Her departure for a summer to Warsaw only enhanced their mutual feelings for each other. She still was laboring under the illusion that she would be able to return to Poland and work in her chosen field of study. When she was denied a place at Kraków University merely because she was a woman, she returned to Paris. Almost a year later, in July 1895, she and Pierre Curie married, and thereafter the two physicists hardly ever left their laboratory. They shared two hobbies, long bicycle trips and journeys abroad, which brought them even closer. Maria had found a new love, a partner, and a scientific collaborator upon whom she could depend.

On July 4, 1934, Curie died from aplastic anemia contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation were not then known, and much of her work had been carried out in a shed, without the safety measures that would later be developed. It has been said that she carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer, remarking on the faint light that the substances gave off in the dark. Marie was also exposed to x-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war.

Secular Woman drew inspiration from Mrs. Curie for helping to overturn established ideas in the sciences and the societal sphere in general. This Secular Woman, in order to attain her scientific achievements, had to overcome barriers that were placed in her way simply because she was a woman, in both her native and her adoptive country. Our logo was inspired by the radium atom’s electron shell when depicted in 2 dimensions. Her dedication to the betterment of society and her discoveries eventually caused her death, but has since saved the lives of thousands. She was ahead of her time: emancipated and independent. More Information: Recommended Reading