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Who was the First Woman Nobel Laureate? How Did She Change the Course of Science?

Written by Rehmat Kaur, a grade 9 student.

By I Kid You Not , in History People , at June 20, 2020 Tags: , , , ,

Written by Rehmat Kaur, a grade 9 student.

Marie Curie was a French-Polish physicist and chemist, best known for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity. She and her husband, Pierre Curie discovered the elements radium and polonium. She shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 and received it again in 1911 for her contributions to the field of Chemistry. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in any category,  and one of the only few people who have received a Nobel Prize in two different fields.

Curie was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland to Bronisława and Władysław Skłowdoski. Her father was a Physics and Mathematics teacher who ensured that all five of his children were well-educated. Curie was an intelligent student with an aptitude for science. As women could not pursue higher education at that time, she and her sister secretly attended the Floating University in Warsaw. Then in 1891, Curie went to study at the University of Paris at Sorbonne, Paris. After receiving her degree in Physics and Mathematics, she began working in the laboratory of another physicist, Gabriel Lippmann. She interacted with many well-known scientists in Paris and met her husband, Pierre Curie in 1894.

In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered the phenomenon of radioactivity in the element uranium. This became the subject of Marie Curie’s thesis. She and Pierre Curie worked together and in 1898, they discovered the radioactive element Polonium, which Curie named after her native country Poland. That very year, they discovered the element radium when they found that on removing the uranium content from a mineral, uraninite, there was still radioactive material left behind.  For their work on radioactivity, the three scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. In 1904, Marie Curie became the chief assistant at her husband’s laboratory.

Marie and Pierre had two daughters, Irene and Eve Curie. After the sudden and tragic death of Pierre Curie in 1906, Marie dedicated all her time to her scientific work and became the first woman to hold the post of professor at the University of Paris. She continued her research on radioactivity and concentrated on isolating the element radium. She and fellow chemist Andre –Louis Debierne successfully isolated radium in its metallic form in 1910. For her immense contributions to the field of Chemistry, she won her second Nobel Prize in 1911.  

Curie played a prominent role in World War 1. After ensuring that her invaluable stock of radium was safely transported out of Paris, she used her knowledge of science to develop ways to save lives. The discovery of X-rays took place around the time Marie Curie first started her research on radioactivity. X-ray machines could save lives by detecting internal injuries in the human body. But they were only found in large hospitals and were not available to soldiers at the battlefront, where they were required most. Curie solved this problem by setting up a car equipped with an X-ray machine and all the necessary apparatus needed by doctors to perform surgeries on the battlefield. The Union of Women of France provided the funds for the first X-ray car, and wealthy women in France provided vehicles for the creation of more ‘little Curies’ as the vehicles came to be called. She and her daughter Irene trained several women to operate X-ray machines and Marie Curie herself drove one such vehicle to the war front.

Curie survived the war and continued her research on radioactivity. She and Dr. Claudius Regaud founded the Curie Foundation in 1920, which joined the Radium Institute of Paris in 1970 to form the Curie Institute. In 1921, Curie traveled to the United States, where she attended numerous scientific conferences. As she needed radium for her research, several American women started a fund to collect enough money to buy Curie one gram of the metal, which cost near $100,000 in those days. Marie Curie died in 1934 at the age of 67 due to prolonged exposure to radiation.  She chose to use her research for the benefit of humanity, such as for the advancement of radiation therapy to cure cancer. Her work has inspired future generations of scientists, and she remains one of the most notable figures in science. 

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