Marie Curie

by Hannah Riggins from San Diego, CA

138437Potrait of Marie Curie“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy” (Marie Curie). Indeed, Marie Curie battled the trials and tribulations that coincided with existing as a female chemist and physicist in Europe in the twentieth century. She was not just any female scientist either, she was idiosyncratic -- an anomaly -- who captivated the world with the immensity of her breakthroughs. As a woman who undoubtedly broke through the glass ceiling, Curie was a patron of independence. She was a constant subject of debate among those who questioned her achievements. Most objected to Marie’s seeming disregard for her daughters as she was immersed in her studies and claimed that her achievements were predominantly a result of her husband’s discoveries (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). Marie was posthumously held in high esteem throughout the world after cementing her position in the scientific community as a pioneering physicist and chemist who revolutionized current knowledge on the most basic unit of matter. During her life, however, Marie Curie did not receive nearly enough recognition as an unparalleled philanthropist, for her unprecedented contributions to the scientific community, and for enduring prejudicial idealism; thus, her story reminds us that while momentous feats are achievable, setbacks along the road to success are inevitable. 

138439Marie Curie pictured with spouse, Pierre Curie’s household fostered a forward-thinking mindset and cultivated her ideas and curiosity. Her parents wanted to “do their part to preserve Polish nationalism and culture,” hence they “placed extreme importance on education, believing knowledge was the one thing the Russians couldn't take from them” (Huso). A stubborn, steely-eyed teenager, Marie exhibited early signs of leadership when she took the initiative to advocate for the welfare of Polish citizens under Russian Rule (Nobel Foundation). At the same time, she would stop at nothing to obtain an education. Graduating from high school at just fifteen, Marie was unable to attend Warsaw’s exclusive “men’s-only” university. Undeterred, she would prevail, continuing her clandestine education at the “floating university,” a set of confidential, underground classes full of women who, like Marie, had aspirations of earning a college degree (“Marie Curie”). Her studies led her to the prestigious Sorbonne Research Institute in Paris, where she would meet Pierre Curie. Ironically, Marie had formerly exclaimed to her sister Henrietta in a letter that engaging in a love affair would only impede upon her future plans (Quinn). What Marie did not know was that she would meet a man who shared the same love of science. Pierre, unlike other men, “was taken by Marie’s uncommon intellect and drive, and he proposed to her.” “It a beautiful thing,” he wrote, “to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science” (Smithsonian Institution). The brilliant pair rose to eminence, and over the course of their time together they would pose a speculative hypothesis that would become a fundamental aspect of atomic theory. For their loyalty to each other and of course their joint research on radiation phenomena, they willingly shared the honor of a Nobel Prize with Henri Becquerel in 1903 (Nobel Foundation). Their love story was astounding yet fleeting; Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn carriage while crossing an intersection in 1906 (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). A newly widowed Marie engrossed herself in studies to avoid lamentation. For her noble efforts in chemistry, Curie was rewarded and was (at long last) held in high esteem in the scientific community and throughout the world. In 1911, she became the first person to ever receive two Nobel Prizes. Curie’s impetuous devotion for her work likely led to her death in 1934. “Curie’s remains are interred in a lead lined coffin, keeping the radiation that was the heart of her research, and likely the cause of her death, well contained” (Nowakowska).

138440Marie Curie at the wheel of a mobile x-ray unit busied herself with remedial work, working behind the lines during World War I, an indication of her instinctual selflessness. The outbreak of World War I signified a topical shift in the scientific community. Soldiers succumbed to bacterial and viral infection more often than not, and nearly eight million, five hundred-thousand casualties occurred as a result of exposure to communicable diseases and untreated wounds and injuries (Royde-Smith et al.). In response to the disarray, Curie “championed the use of portable X-ray machines in the field, and these medical vehicles earned the nickname ‘Little Curies’" (“Marie Curie”). Her presence in a highly tumultuous time proved vital. Curie actively sought to alleviate the suffering caused by technological advances in warfare. She encapsulated, fulfilled and exceeded the duties of a hero. Without her help, thousands of soldiers would have gone without proper medical review, bolstering the increasing casualty statistic. However, the “Little Curie,” like any new proposal, was accompanied by the dubious pessimists and was not an immediate success at its inception. When Curie introduced her revolutionary development, doctors were unable to understand such a machine and “refused to use them. Others resented a woman telling them what to do” (Lassieur). Curie emerged during a time in which women were thought of as too expressive to triumph over objective science. While some doctors admittedly did not understand the device she had conceived, others displayed a blatant disregard towards Curie because she was a woman. Nonetheless, Curie would not allow her success to be determined by the convictions of others and persevered through preconceived judgement. Curie demonstrated that victories are earned amidst failure and that setbacks only strengthen an individual. Curie’s magnanimity towards doing what was morally right, in spite of her lofty goals, which she was forced to put on hold temporarily, display the true characteristics of a hero. Ultimately, Curie’s philanthropy reflects the profundity of her moral compass, but more significantly elucidates how criticism lends itself to the development of individuals and their ideas.

With the combined efforts of her husband, Marie Curie coined the term “radio-active” and discovered radium and polonium, though she still did not receive praise. After extracting polonium from uranium ore pitchblende (“Marie and Pierre Curie Isolate Radium”), Marie reasoned that “there must be... some unknown substance, very active, in these minerals.” She identified a second element, which the world came to know as radium” (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). Marie’s developments in the ever-expanding field of radioactive research battled the materializing onslaught of terminal illness. It was her research which arguably laid the foundation for modern medicine. Some of her male beneficiaries were unwilling to accept the name she had made for herself. However, both Pierre and Marie were not particularly affluent, weathering much deprivation throughout the course of their lives, the majority of their income dedicated to science’s sake. In fact, “her early researches...were often performed under difficult conditions, laboratory arrangements were poor and both had to undertake much teaching to earn a livelihood” (Nobel Foundation). Given that the resources with which Curie dealt with were inferior, it is even more astounding that she was able to achieve the feats she did. Though her achievements are respectable in themselves, the fact that she persisted through what is regarded as an ‘uncontrollable variable’ plays tribute to her unwavering character. Curie had proven herself time and time again, and had at last emblazoned her position within the scientific commonwealth. Critics would not be intimidated in spite of Curie’s well-established front. “President of the Swedish Academy, which administered the nobel prize, quoted the Bible in his remarks about the Curies’ research: “It is not good that man should be alone, I will make a helpmeet for him” (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). Marie Curie was by no means an uncritical helpmeet. “The notion that Marie was a mere helpmeet to Pierre—one of the more persistent myths about her—was an opinion widely held” (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). Marie was perhaps the furthest from a ‘helpmeet’ as it is loosely defined. Though Pierre assisted in the conduction of a number of experiments (the development of which is accredited to Marie), her ideas were entirely her own and were completely independent of Pierre’s own personal accomplishments. It is unsurprising that Curie was only acknowledged, without reservation, posthumously, after gender bias had faded. Marie’s accomplishments should be regarded for what they are in the fullest sense; her observations refuted a popular misconception, which changed our outlook on the smallest unit of matter. At length, Marie Curie’s overlooked contributions reinforce that even prosperous individuals will encounter obstacles. 

Prejudice was not unfamiliar to Marie Curie, as her journey was, no doubt, altogether human. When it came to matters of maternity, fellow collaborators of Marie were particularly compelling. Following the birth of her second daughter, Eve, in 1904, George Sagnac, an associate of Marie, objected to her lack of presence in her daughters’ lives, exclaiming, “It seems to me that I wouldn’t prefer the idea of reading a paper by [Ernest] Rutherford, to getting what my body needs and looking after such an agreeable little girl” (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). By then, “Marie had grown accustomed to the disdain of colleagues who thought she spent too much time in the lab and not enough in the nursery” (“Madame Curie’s Passion”). George Sagnac was just one of the many incorrigible individuals incapable of grasping the multifaceted unorthodox woman that was Marie Curie. A number of others questioned her capability to maintain priorities, one of them being her role as the mother of two daughters. In reality, George Sagnac would have not questioned Marie if she were a man. He reasoned that if she failed to sort out her personal affairs, then what could she have to offer as a scientist? Marie’s initial lack of recognition in the media was a form of discrimination she experienced as a part of the implications for her being a woman. Furthermore, a rumor disseminating Marie’s alleged affair with a married man nearly stripped her of her second Nobel Prize. The vilification of Marie quickly took hold; “the press drummed of xenophobic hatred of the 'foreign' woman destroying the French home and exploited an array of prejudices against godless intellectuals and emancipated women” (Quinn). It was not long before Marie Curie was homogenized as an adulteress and negatively connoted as an “emancipated woman.” Sensationalists took Marie’s image and twisted it inside out. Marie’s response to the incident was to throw herself into her work once again. Her rebirth from the ashes of her former self was gradual, but she eventually mustered the strength by eluding the press. Recovering from the scandal challenged her self-identity and patience. She experienced the same prejudices as every other opinionated woman yet would not let that silence her. What the news failed to understand is that she was as every bit ‘human’ as any other individual. By and large, Marie’s hero’s journey of conquering bias depicts a story that is similar to our own.

Though Marie Curie may not have received sufficient commendation for her philanthropic endeavors, profound scientific discoveries, and perseverance, her story reveals that hardships are intrinsic to whole person development. Working in her patented mobile x-ray vehicles during World War I, Marie, susceptive to fatal radiation, had little time to account for her own personal health. Her achievements as a pioneering physicist and chemist challenged the widely accepted atomic theory. Marie Curie, an imperfect human being, endured prejudice over the span of her life. In totality, it was Marie Curie’s resilient nature which served as the mechanism for her success. Yes, it has taken a century, but the world has come to acknowledge Marie as a woman of fiery conviction, zeal, and undying courage. Parallels between her story and ours can be drawn, for “stories connect the past and present to the future. They can awaken future generations to their potential” (Freed). Though Marie’s hero’s journey story is strewn with setbacks, her story prompts us to question the limits set for us and broaden our perspectives. With the ability to transcend our experiences, we gain compassion for humanity. Like her, we too fight battles of our own each and every day. The manner in which we bounce back from said situations defines us as individuals. That is how one builds their legacy, just as Marie Curie did. 





Page created on 2/11/2020 4:03:17 AM

Last edited 3/19/2021 2:53:49 AM

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Related Links

Madame Curie: A Biography By Eve Curie (Illustrated) - A biography by Marie Curie's daughter, provides more intimate details of Marie Curie's life
"Marie Curie's Passion" - An article by Smithsonian - An excellent article highlighting Marie Curie's achievements
Marie Curie's Radium Institute - A website outlining the application of radium to alleviate cancer symptoms as directed by Marie and Pierre Curie
The Curie Institute Website - The legitimate website of the Curie Institute--still operating to this day!