While we in India are quite justifiably talking in terms of women’s empowerment, it is pertinent to recall the achievements of the distinguished woman scientist Marie Curie, the first to get the world’s most prestigious recognition, the Nobel prize, in two subjects viz. Physics and Chemistry. She remains the only woman to achieve this distinction.
It is to be noted that 2017 marks the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Madame Curie. Born Maria Sklodowaska on 7 November 1867 in Warsaw, Poland as the youngest of five children of poor school teachers, she had to struggle to get a foot-hold in life. Because of patriotic involvements in Polish national uprisings, the family had lost property and fortunes on both her paternal and maternal side and as a consequence, the subsequent generation, including Maria and her siblings had to pass through a prolonged phase of hardships and privations.
Maria’s father was punished by Russian supervisors – the Kingdom of Poland was a part of the Russian Empire during that period – for pursuing pro-Polish sentiments. The family was in the midst of a grim struggle and to add to its woes, Maria lost her devout Catholic mother – although her husband was an atheist – to tuberculosis in May 1878. Maria was only 11 years old. Less than three years later, Maria had lost her oldest sibling, Zofia to typhus.
The twin tragedies caused a deep churning in little Maria’s impressionable mind and she subsequently became agnostic. In 1891, Maria (or Marie, as she would be Known in France) left Poland for Paris, France where she briefly took shelter with her sister and brother-in-law and then went to a rented garret closer to the University of Paris where she enrolled in late 1891 and went on to proceed, defying many obstacles, with her study of physics, chemistry and mathematics. She had to subsist on meagre resources; she would often suffer from harsh, cold winters and occasionally faint from hunger.
Marie used to study during daytime and the evenings were spent tutoring. In 1893, she earned a degree in physics and started to work in an industrial laboratory of Professor Gabriel Lippmann. She continued studying at the University of Paris and aided by a fellowship, she was able to earn a second degree in 1894, a year that was a turning point in her life and career, because she met Pierre Curie – a scientist working in the city itself.
They were introduced by the Polish physicist Professor Jozef Kowalski. Their mutual passion for science brought them closer, as deep love blossomed between them ultimately resulting in marriage a year later. Their daughter Irene was born in 1897. It is amazing Irene Curie and her husband Joliot also got the Nobel Prize jointly in Chemistry in 1935, thus creating a record of getting Nobel Prize from within the same family on five occasions – Marie twice, Pierre once, Irene once and Joliot once.
The Curies began their pioneering research work at the School of Physics and Chemistry in Paris into invisible rays emitted by uranium – a completely new phenomenon discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel in 1896, preceded by discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen only a year before. Influenced by these two epoch-making discoveries, Marie took a decision to look into uranium rays as a possible field of research for her thesis.
Marie noticed that samples of the uranium ore containing a mineral called pitchblende were much more radioactive than pure uranium. Marie was convinced that much greater radioactivity in pitchblende was caused, apart from uranium, by a new chemical element, hitherto unknown; but other scientists had a doubt. Undeterred, Pierre and Marie Curie, with great zeal and passion, set about working to search for the unknown element. Eventually, they were successful in extracting a black powder 330 times more radioactive than uranium and they called it polonium – a new chemical element, atomic number 84. As they investigated further, it came to their notice that the liquid left behind after extracting polonium was still extremely radioactive.
They were now deeply convinced that pitchblende must contain still another new element, far more radioactive than polonium. In 1898, the Curies published strong evidence of the new element- which they called radium – but they still had no sample of it. Marie contacted a factory in Austria which used to remove the uranium from pitchblende for industrial use and bought several tonnes of the worthless waste product that was found to be even more radioactive than the original pitchblende and was much cheaper. Extracting radium from the pitchblende waste involved working on a much bigger scale than before, with each 20 kg consignment.
The work was physically excruciating. There were dangers the Curies failed to appreciate in their quest for a spectacular discovery, which would render immense benefit to future generations. Indeed, they were unaware of the deleterious effects of radiation exposure attendant. During this intensive research, they would start feeling sick and physically exhausted. They were victims of radium sickness as it is called today.
The Curies did not even have a dedicated laboratory; most of their research was carried out in a converted shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry and the shed, formerly a medical school dissecting room was poorly ventilated and leaky. In the year 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie, along with Henri Becquerel, for their combined though separate work on radioactivity, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Coincidentally, the same year Marie passed her doctorate thesis in Physics under the supervision of Gabriel Lippmann.
Marie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Between 1898 and 1902, the Curie duo published, jointly or separately, a total of 32 scientific papers, including the one where it was mentioned that diseased, tumour-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium. The year 1906 brought a great tragedy in Marie’s personal life. On 19 April that year, her beloved husband Pierre was killed in a road accident. Marie was shattered. But her deep attachment to the cause of science helped her regain her composure.
On 13 May 1906, the University of Paris decided to retain the Chair that was created for Pierre and offer the same to Marie. Marie accepted the offer in the hope of creating a worldclass laboratory as a tribute to Pierre. She achieved the distinction of being the first woman to be a professor at the University of Paris. Curie’s initiative to create a word class laboratory faced bottlenecks at the University of Paris itself.
But with the great efforts from Pierce Paul Emile Roux, director of the Pasteur Institute, Marie, in her later years, could head the Radium Institute (now called Curie Institute), a radioactivity laboratory created for her by the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris. With her remarkable endeavours, she was successful in isolating radium in 1910 and achieving a means of measuring radioactivity attuned to an international standard for radioactive emissions named after her and Pierre: the Curie. International recognition for this seminal work came to her in the form of a second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911.
During the First World War, Marie Curie worked strenuously towards developing small, mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront. In her capacity as Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service, she extensively toured Paris asking for money, supplies and vehicles and people moved by her acts of patriotism responded splendidly. In October 1914, the first machines, known as “Petits Curies” were ready and Marie, taking her 17-year-old daughter Irene, went to the front visiting casualty clearing stations close to the frontline, X-raying wounded soldiers to locate fractures, bullets and shrapnel.
After the Great War, Marie went back to her work as a researcher, teacher and laboratory head and received many awards and prizes. Among them, the Ellan Richards Prize (1921), the Grand Prix du Marquis d’ Argenteuli (1923) and the Cameron Prize from Edinburg University (1931) are worth mentioning. Many universities around the world conferred honorary degrees upon her. “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that?
We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained”, she famously said. She also said, “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas”. To budding scientists her advice was: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty.
A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician; he is also like a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale”. But perhaps her greatest advice was, “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it”. On 4 July 1934, Madame Curie breathed her last at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy, France. She was known and respected for her honesty and moderate life style. She gave away the larger portion of her Nobel Prize money to friends, family, students and research associates.
In an unusual decision, she deliberately refrained from patenting her radium-isolation process to enable scientists to conduct research in an unhindered manner. She insisted that monetary gifts and awards be given to the scientific institutions she was affiliated with rather than to her in person.
Albert Einstein once famously remarked she was probably the only person who could not be corrupted by fame. According to New Scientist’s 2009 poll, Marie Curie was “the most inspirational woman in science”.
(The writer is a retired officer of a nationalised bank.)