Hardworking and resilient: the inspiring life of Marie Curie

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The Nobel Prize is a prestigious award, established to honour the best and brightest minds of the time. Since its creation in 1895, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to nearly 1000 recipients. Physicist and chemist, Marie Curie, is one of only four people in its entire history to win more than once.

Curie was born in Poland in 1867. Despite being incredibly academically gifted, she could not attend university since, at the time, only male candidates were accepted. However, this did not deter Curie, who instead continued her education at Warsaw’s ‘floating’ university, a series of classes held informally and in secret. Curie still wanted to earn an official degree and so she decided to make a pact with her older sister Bronya. Marie would work to support Bronya while she attended an official university abroad, then once her studies were complete, Bronya would work to support her. In 1891, Curie finally enrolled at Sorbonne University, Paris, earning both a master’s degree in physics and another in mathematics.

Curie was inspired to study radioactivity, a term she coined, after the breakthrough made by French physicist Henri Becquerel, who discovered it while studying the luminosity of uranium salts. Becquerel used photographic paper to see how the uranium salts would absorb light and reemit it as x-ray waves. One day, after leaving the salts in a dark drawer, he noticed that the photographic plates indicated that waves were still emitted despite no light being present.

Radioactivity is a term that describes the radiation emitted by certain materials as they decay. While looking at a salt called pitchblende, which contains uranium, the Curies reported the likelihood that more than one radioactive material was in the salt, and in 1898, they discovered two elements: polonium and radium.

Curie is one of only four people in [the Nobel Prize’s] entire history to win more than once

In 1902 Curie managed to isolate radium-chloride (a radium atom combined with chlorine), a compound that does not occur naturally in Nature, unlike polonium and uranium. The discovery and isolation of these elements led the Curies, together with Becquerel, to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Curie was the first woman to win the Prize in Physics, and, to this day, is one of only four female winners.

After their win, Pierre was promoted to Chair of Physics at Sorbonne university, while Curie kept working in the lab. Then, in 1906, Pierre was killed tragically in a traffic accident. A grieving Curie carried on their work alone and took up his seat as Chair of Physics at the university, becoming the first female professor.

In 1910, Curie managed to isolate pure metallic radium. For this work, she was awarded her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, making her the first person to win more than one Prize.

Curie’s work would go on to have many applications in the fields of physics, chemistry, and medicine. Radioactivity, and radioactive materials, are used throughout the world today for energy production in nuclear power plants, in medicine for diagnosing and treating disease (including treating cancers) and in pharmacy for producing radioactive medicines called radiopharmaceuticals. Despite the many setbacks faced by Curie, she became one of the most famous and influential physicists in history. Hardworking and resilient, Curie faced many challenges head-on and succeeded — she is an inspiration for many, including myself.

Image: Tekniska museet via Flickr

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