The Radioactive woman

Jamie Gallagher, Oct 13

Today we find out who will join the likes of Rutherford, Pauling, Soddy and Curie and win the Nobel Prize for chemistry, fantastic achievements all. Expanding our knowledge and changing science forever more. One of the above had perhaps a greater struggle than most: Marie Curie.


Curie is one of histories most famous scientists. One of only two people to ever win two Nobel Prizes in different fields (physics 1903, chemistry 1911) her fight began the very day she was born, as it happens- without a penis. Marie Curie (nee Skłodowska) was born in 1867 with two X chromosomes a fact that society was determined for her never to forget.


Born to an educated and politically interested family she followed in her parents footsteps and was an academic high flyer from an early age and was a consummate believer in independence for her beloved home country of Poland. (Indeed Polonium is the only element to be named after a political cause.) When it came time to go to university – she couldn’t. Polish universities would not touch such a person who had the audacity to be the heinous mix of female, educated and politically interested. She was radioactive- a term she herself was later to coin.


Eventually she moved to a slightly more enlightened Paris where she was able to pursue her love of science and meet her future husband and lab partner: Pierre Curie.


Her dedication was extraordinary, working often unfunded and in a shed she methodically went about isolating the 2 elements she would discover. In 1903 her and her husband were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into radioactivity. This was the same year that she received her doctorate. Unless the next few months go spectacularly well- this is an achievement I’m unlikely to match.


Three years later her beloved husband was dead, but her love of science was not. She carried on the work. She excelled and in a few short years she was on track for her second Nobel Prize for the advanced cause by the discovery of both polonium and radium. Here the inconvenience of gender raises its ugly head once more….


Marie Curie caused a scandal. A scandal so shocking she arrived home to find an angry mob at her door and had to seek refuge. So heinous were her actions that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences considered her eligibility for the second Nobel Prize….What could be so bad?! Well, years after her husbands death Marie had had an affair with a married man. Paul Langevin had been estranged from his wife for some time during the affair but none the less Curie was vilified publically. He character defamed in the press, lies spread and her work discredited. In the end it was difficult to revoke the prize, after all the work had been carried out. A compromise was met. She would be awarded the prize but was not welcome to the award ceremony. (I can only assume this was for fear she would arrive bare breasted and seduce every man in the room).


Marie Curie finally succumbed to the dangers of her work at the age of 66. Both her memory and her work live on (literally, her note books are so radioactive they cannot be safely handled and are kept in lead boxes.) Her work also lived on with her daughter Irene. They are indeed the only mother-daughter Nobel winners.


The more I learn of Marie the more I adore her. In a world that was hostile to her she took on the system and won. I can only wonder where we might be now had society tried so hard to keep all the potential Maries and Irenes down. Where might we be had we not spent our entire history keeping half our population down. Idiotic.

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