by Anna Stakia

Maria Skłodowska was born on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland (in the part then dominated by the Russian Empire). Being brought up in a family of teachers, Maria quickly grew interest in acquiring higher education; this was initially and partly achieved through attending Warsaw’s local schools, but also within her own family environment, receiving some scientific training from her father.

She was unable to enrol in a regular higher education institute due to her being a woman, and, after becoming involved in a Polish students’ revolutionary organization that defended equal education opportunities against the then status, she left for Cracow, which was under Austrian rule at the time. The high barriers in accessing education and at the same time the low financial resources in her family, which inevitably restricted any plans for studying abroad, seemed to create insuperable obstacles to pursuing a career in science.

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Marie Skłodowska-Curie

However, in 1891, and after working for a few years as a tutor and governess to gather the necessary funds, Maria Skłodowska was eventually able to move from Poland to Paris, France, in order to obtain higher education, continuing her studies at the Sorbonne; there, she was initially investigating the magnetic properties of steels.

In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, who would soon become her major scientific collaborator and one year later her husband. Pierre was a Professor at the School of Physics and Chemistry at the Sorbonne, and Marie – after earning two Physics degrees – was already pursuing her Ph.D. In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovers the existence of X-rays, and, in 1896, Henri Becquerel discovers that uranium salts emit rays that resemble the X-rays. Inspired by these interesting ongoing studies, Maria saw in the uranium rays’ investigation a candidate research topic for her thesis.

Pierre and Marie Curie’s early research was often performed under difficult laboratory conditions, due to lack of dedicated facilities and also due to their meagre resources, which alone made them undertake much teaching to financially support their family. What’s more, their being obviously unaware of the radiation exposure hazards, the continuous work with radioactive materials without any protective equipment was fatally endangering their own health.

After Marie’s studies on uranium minerals, in 1898, Marie and Pierre announced the discovery of “polonium” – named after Marie’s country of birth – and short afterwards the discovery of “radium”. They aimed at isolating both elements, to firmly prove their existence. In the course of their research, they also coined the word “radioactivity”.

 

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Pierre and Marie Curie in the laboratory

 

In 1900, Marie Curie became the first woman faculty member at the École Normale Supérieure. In 1903, she got her doctorate, and a few months later, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”.

In 1906, Pierre Curie was killed in an accident. The couple had been raising two daughters, Irène and Ève. Soon after Pierre’s death, the Physics department of the Sorbonne decided to retain the chair that had been created for him and to offer it to Marie; she was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne.

In 1910, Marie Curie succeeded in isolating radium. She also defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named after her and Pierre: the Curie. As her pioneering research on radioactivity was continuously being recognised, in 1911 Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”.

During World War I, Curie’s contribution was remarkable; after developing mobile radiography units with X-ray equipment intended for assisting battlefield doctors towards promptly treating the wounded soldiers, she became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and set up France’s first military radiology centre. On July 4th, 1934 Marie Curie died from aplastic anaemia; this is believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.

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Marie Skłodowska-Curie statue facing the Radium Institute in Warsaw, Poland

The significant scientific milestones mentioned above are only an indicative subset of Marie Curie’s achievements in Physics and Chemistry and of her overall outstanding contribution to science and humanity. The same holds for the awards and honorary degrees she has received. It is besides worth mentioning that Marie and Pierre often refused awards and medals, which at the same time shows not only their modesty but also their unswerving focus on their work, regardless of the attaining recognition.

Moreover, despite the overwhelming financial difficulties Marie Curie faced as a student and also for many years at the early stages of her research, she managed to succeed, setting a hopeful example for her students and scientists that followed, who battled against similar issues. What’s more, even after her work obtained recognition, Curie intentionally refrained from patenting the radium isolation process, so that the scientific community could do related research unhindered.

In addition and in another direction, she managed to succeed, despite also the gender inequality barriers she faced in both her native and her adoptive country and all throughout her scientific career (even after her success, she continued to face great opposition from male scientists, and never received significant financial benefits from her work). In this way, a new era at both scientific and societal levels was undeniably just inaugurated; her profound impact on science starting over a century ago eventually questioned the then existing state of extreme imbalance between the male and female researchers’ number involved in science, directly resulting in raising diversity issues, and therefore paving the way for all women to follow a career in science.

As a result, still and, maybe even more, nowadays that there remains the seek for more motivation and equality, her presence constitutes an incredibly inspirational example to follow for all scientists, and certainly especially for women.

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The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellowship programme of the European Union is named after her, as a tribute to the remarkable imprint she has left in science. And AMVA4NewPhysics, which is a Research Network within MSCA, carries as such the inspiration of an eminent scientist and infuses to its Fellows the overall strong motivation that this implies.

A few days ago, on the Marie Curie Day 2017, November 7th, for the celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, a Multi-Site event coordinated by the University of Liverpool took place in 3 cities: Liverpool, Geneva (CERN), and Munich (LMU), hosting live streaming talks among all three locations and also having a special local programme in each one.

At CERN, where Cécile Granier was the organizer of the interesting local event, the programme started with a poster session, in which research results and career paths of past and current MSCA Fellows were presented, and during which all of us were able to meet with each other and exchange ideas on our studies and experience within the MSCA fellowship.

But after this session, and through the talks by Dr. Marco Silari (CERN) and Prof. Carsten P. Welsch (University of Liverpool), we had the chance to get an even more thorough picture of the MSCA research grants and of the way these manage to build an ideal framework for research and training, setting a strong career basis for their Fellows; the interdisciplinary mix of research fields and the cutting edge training opportunities they provide, the fruitful cooperation with various teams in an  international dimension – which is feasible through the mobility that is encouraged (inspired by Marie Curie’s own life and career path), and even the complementary skills the Fellows can gain and the outreach activities they are involved in, compose a driver for pioneering motivation and research excellence, honouring in this way the legacy and enlivening the work of one of the most influential scientists ever existed.

Poster Session at CERN on Marie Curie Day 2017 (Many thanks to Cécile Granier for organising the event and providing this material!)

Nobel Prize Facts

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, one of two women (out of a total of 198 individuals) to win a Nobel Prize in Physics (the other is Maria Goeppert-Mayer), the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and part of the family that has received the most Nobel Prizes, with four Prizes awarded to five individual laureates:
Marie Curie received the Prizes in Physics (in 1903) and Chemistry (in 1911). Her husband, Pierre Curie shared the 1903 Physics Prize with her. Their daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, received the Chemistry Prize in 1935 together with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie (their daughter, granddaughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Hélène Langevin-Joliot, a physicist herself, and now the emeritus research director in fundamental nuclear physics at the CNRS in Orsay, France, gave recently a lecture at CERN). In addition, Henry Labouisse, the husband of Marie Curie’s second daughter, Ève, was the director of UNICEF when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.

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