Badass Scientist of the Week: Marie Curie
Marie Curie (1867–1934) was a Polish physicist and chemist, and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Although she excelled at school, she was unable to attend University due to her gender, so instead she continued her education at the “Flying University”—a pro-Polish institution that held underground, informal classes. After working as a teacher and a governess for several years to save and support herself, Curie enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1891. She studied physics, mathematics and chemistry, but only just managed to scrape by financially and rarely had enough to eat. She completed her degree in 1893, and in 1894 she met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics, and the brilliant pair soon married. Curie was fascinated with the work of French physicist Becquerel, who discovered that uranium casts off rays. From the results of her own experiments, she theorised that the rays came from the element’s atomic structure—basically founding the field of atomic physics. Curie coined the term radioactivity, and Pierre put aside his own work to help her research. Together, despite difficult and poor conditions, they discovered two new radioactive elements they called polonium and radium, and they also contributed to the development of X-rays. Curie received her Doctor of Science in 1903—the same year that she became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on radioactivity, alongside Pierre and Becquerel. After Pierre’s tragic death in 1906, she became Sorbonne’s first female Professor of Physics. She won a second Nobel Prize in 1911 in Chemistry, and when WWI broke out, she put aside her research and actively devoted her time to alleviating suffering, installing “portable X-ray machines” in field hospitals. Curie later established a radioactivity laboratory in Warsaw and received countless honorary degrees and memberships—but a lifetime of working with radioactivity eventually killed her, and she died in France in 1934. To this day, her papers are still too dangerous to touch.
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