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Celebrating Women’s History Month: Marie Curie

March 4, 2011 - 12:30pm

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It’s Women’s History Month and this year’s theme, according to the National Women's History Project, is “Our History Is Our Strength.”

We’ll be celebrating that strength all month on the Energy Blog to highlight the remarkable women of science (and the Energy Department!) and their achievements – past, present, and future. (It’s also the International Year of Chemistry, so BYOB . . . Bring Your Own Beaker.)

It’s fitting to begin this celebration with a salute to the first woman to receive a doctorate in France, the discoverer of two elements, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes and the mother of another winner. It’s astonishing how much Marie Curie accomplished despite the obstacles in her way.

Marie Curie, nee Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7th, 1867. Russia dominated Poland at the time and discouraged Polish education. Despite that – and the death of her mother – she graduated with the highest honors from her high school. She then faced another closed door, for the University of Warsaw was closed to women. So Marie worked as a governess to pay for her sister Bronya’s studies in Paris and, after Bronya completed her degree, she supported Marie at the Sorbonne.

Marie eked by, studying in a tiny room that was so cold in winters that the water in her washbasin froze and she piled on all her clothes in order to sleep. Despite those Spartan student challenges – to say nothing of living far from home, in a new land and with a new language – Marie finished two master’s degrees, one in mathematics and the other in physics, in three years. She also met Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist, and married him the following year (1895).

Together, they began investigating the strange ‘rays’ (which we know as radioactivity, a term invented by Marie Curie) that French physicist Henri Becquerel had found to come from uranium salts. Denied a true laboratory, the Curies studied in a discarded dissecting room for the Sorbonne’s School of Medicine, which was freezing in the cold and leaky in the rain. They faced a further (and unknown) difficulty since, because of their radioactive nature, some of the elements the Curies were struggling to identify were literally transforming into different substances during the study. Yet they persevered and discovered two new elements, radium and polonium.

For those efforts, Marie and Pierre shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel. Fame . . . and even funding followed. And this year marks the centennial anniversary of her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Yet hardships remained, as Pierre was killed in a tragic accident in 1906.

Marie dedicated the rest of her life to discovery and innovation: To learning more about radium and radioactivity, and applying its properties to healing. During World War I, she oversaw the assembly of some 20 mobile X-ray stations, which were driven to the front and used by doctors caring for wounded soldiers. One of her assistants was her daughter Irène, who went on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize with husband Frédéric Joliot for, “their synthesis of new radioactive elements.”

The women scientists supported by the Energy Department are continuing the work of the Curies, making fundamental discoveries for the benefit of us all. We’re proud to honor them in this month of women’s history and this International Year of Chemistry. So join us in saluting them . . . assuming you’ve brought your own beaker!

For more information on the International Year of Chemistry, go to: http://www.chemistry2011.org/, and for more information on the DOE Office of Science, go to: http://www.science.energy.gov/.

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