The Native Scientist side of Marie Curie


Marie Curie valued her Polish heritage, never ceasing to use her own surname (Skłodowska), teaching Polish to her two daughters and contributing to the advancement of science in Poland.

Maria Skłodowska, or Marie Curie, was an inescapable choice for the first post of this series, which aims at discovering the Native Scientist side of famous scientists. Born and raised in Warsaw and naturalised in France, Marie Curie was a successful multilingual and multicultural scientist and humanitarian, contributing to both her adopted and native nation. Often, during my PhD at the institute that she co-founded and directed, I would sit in the small Curie garden with Marie’s and Pierre’s busts, imagining how it would have been hundred years before when she was working there. We tend to romanticise the past, but Marie’s story was not devoid of the struggle to find funding for her research and fighting for a place in a country foreign to her.

Photo credit: Sacha Lenormand/Musée Curie
Number one in a male-dominated community

Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize; the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes (Physics, 1903; Chemistry, 1911); the first female Professor at Sorbonne University; the first woman to direct a laboratory in France. Throughout her life, Marie would remain very isolated in a male-dominated community. This is well illustrated by a photo from the 5th Solvay Congress in 1927, in which Marie appears next to Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Schrodinger – she was the only woman there, and remained so for many years while attending this conference on Physics and Chemistry. In her laboratory, however, Marie welcomed several generations of female scientists. Nearly a century later, women are still unequally represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). Yet, Marie lives in the public imagination as one of the most famous and successful scientists that ever lived, and she remains a beacon of inspiration for both men and women around the world.

Standing up for herself

I came across the life story of Marie Curie at three different moments: in a temporary exhibition dedicated to her in Stockholm, at a guided visit before the opening of the renovated Musée Curie in Paris, and in a book of letters exchanged between Marie and her daughters. I was pleased to see the human behind the scientist, and surprised to realise that her success and prominence did not prevent her from facing sexism and xenophobia during her career. Marie was never elected to the French Academy of Sciences, in part due to the fact of being a woman and having foreign origins. She was also denied a place at Kraków University because of her gender, and was prevented from speaking at the Royal Institution in London when invited with Pierre to give a speech on their work about radioactivity.

The circumstances around her two Nobel Prizes also illustrate the difficulties of being a woman in science at her time. For the first prize, Marie was initially left out of the nomination (which included Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel for work on radioactivity); Marie was only properly acknowledged for her work after Pierre was alerted to the situation by a member of the Nobel committee and complained. As one of Marie’s biographers wrote: “The idea was her own; no one helped her formulate it, and although she took it to her husband for his opinion, she clearly established her ownership of it. She later recorded the fact twice in her biography of her husband to ensure there was no chance whatever of any ambiguity. It [is] likely that already at this early stage of her career [she] realized that (...) many scientists would find it difficult to believe that a woman could be capable of the original work in which she was involved.” [1]. The second Nobel Prize, in Chemistry, was awarded to Marie alone. However, at the time, Marie’s love life was involved in a media-covered and fuelled scandal, and due to this, she was advised by Stockholm not to come to accept the award. Marie replied defiantly: “The action you advise would appear to be a grave error on my part. In fact the prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium. I believe there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of my private life” [2] – and she travelled to Stockholm.

Research with technological, health and social impact

Maybe less known to the general public is that Marie Skłodowska Curie had an active role in helping wounded soldiers during World War I, an initiative that elevated radiology and later radiotherapy as biomedical fields. The war broke at the time when Marie was embracing the newly founded Institut du Radium in Paris (nowadays, Institut Curie), which she propelled and directed. Marie quickly realised that the wounded would benefit from radiology and surgery assistance in the front lines, so together with the Red Cross and Antoine Béclère, a pioneer of radiology and radiotherapy in France, Marie conceived a fleet of “radiological ambulances” – later known as “petites Curies” – that were equipped with X-ray devices. Marie sometimes drove one of those ambulances herself, and her daughter Irène – also a scientist and a Nobel Prize winner – joined her in these efforts. Meanwhile, their research activities had to be interrupted, and Marie temporarily transformed the institute in a school, training young women to assist with radiology in hospitals during the war. She became the director of the Red Cross Radiology service and set up France’s first military radiology centre [3]; more than a million soldiers were treated with her radiological units [3,4].

Tributes to her homeland

Marie never returned to Poland, where access to university positions remained blocked to women. Nevertheless, Marie regularly donated resources to research laboratories in Warsaw, where she also founded an Institut du Radium (current Centrum Onkologii – Instytut im. Marii Skłodowskiej-Curie). She valued her Polish heritage, having never ceased to use her own surname (Skłodowska) and insisting on teaching Polish to her daughters. In homage to her nation, one of the chemical elements that she discovered together with Pierre was named “polonium”.

I believe that Marie would have joined Native Scientist in celebrating diversity – in science, in culture, in language, in education; Marie was actually one of the few members of the predecessor organization to UNESCO. I wish that her legacy will continue inspiring us to become better scientists and better humans. What about you? Who would you choose as your favourite “Famous Native Scientist”?

References

  1. Robert William Reid (1978). Marie Curie. New American Library.

  2. Susan Quinn (2001) A test of courage: Marie Curie and the 1911 Nobel Prize. Clinical Chemistry 57 (4): 653-658

  3. Naomi Pasachoff (1996). Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity. Oxford University Press.

  4. Tadeusz Estreicher (1938). Curie, Maria ze Skłodowskich. Polski słownik biograficzny.

About the author: Rafael Galupa

Rafael finished his PhD at the Institut Curie last year, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in Heidelberg. He is genetically engineering flies to understand the complex networks of genes that govern embryonic development. When not in the lab, Rafael is happy being with family and friends, with a book or amid wildlife - all the better if all combined.

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