Polish and naturalized-French scientist Maria Salomea Skłodowska (1897-1934) is best known for being the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and also the first person and woman to win this award twice. Perhaps more remarkable is that she received the prize in two different scientific fields (chemistry and physics). In this essay, we will recount the story behind these achievements and explain some of the details of her life.
A remarkable turn of events happened in December of 1903. The Nobel Prize in physics was to be given in recognition of discovering radioactivity but only Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were to be honored. However, Swedish mathematician Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler told Pierre (who is the husband of Marie Curie) about this decision. After Pierre complained to the Nobel prize committee about the absence of Marie’s name, she was honored as the first ever woman to be given the award. In fact, it was strange that she was left out initially in the committee’s decision, as she was the one who turned her husband towards the study of radioactivity and coined the term “radioactive” (“Marie Sklodowska Curie”).
Like true scientists, the Curies did not accept the award in person until two years later due to being busy with their work. When they did finally receive the Nobel prize and the money that goes along with it, they used it to hire a laboratory assistant. Following the felicitations, they moved to Paris from Poland, as Pierre earned a professorship at the University of Paris. There the institution built a new laboratory for them after a lot of deliberation. But sadly, the year their laboratory was created, Pierre died in a car accident. Devastated, but strong-willed, Marie accepted the position of professor at the University of Paris in place of her husband. She thus became the first woman to be a professor at this institution (Marie Curie: Honors and Tragedy).
By the time the year 1911 rolled around, Marie was a famous scientist and public figure in France. She had isolated radium and made standards for radioactive admissions. In addition, she founded the Radium Institute, which is still a leading research center. And despite the xenophobia in France at the time (politically, France was going through a period of being anti-immigrant), Marie was honored with a second Nobel Prize for her work in chemistry. It was in recognition for discovering the elements radium and polonium. In turn, she was the first person and the first woman to earn Nobel prizes in two different scientific fields (“The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903”).
The aftermath of these achievements was characterized by even more respect and recognition for her work. Shortly after accepting her second Nobel prize, the French government put money into her Radium Institute. But this did not seem to cheer her up, as she became depressed and had kidney issues. After about 14 months, however, she was in good enough health to come back to her laboratory. When World I hit, she provided mobile radiography units to aid battlefield surgeons. Marie even set up the first military radiology center in France, which later produced needles with radon to sterilize infected tissue. Because of her focus on the war, she did hardly any personal research of her own during this time. Unfortunately, she died early at the age of 66 due to radiation exposure.
This was a brief overview of Marie Sklodowska Curie’s remarkable achievements. There is much more to elaborate on about her accomplishments. However, it is important to keep in mind that she coined and helped discover radioactivity and was the first person to find and study radium and polonium. She was also a great advocate for women scientists and instrumental in treating soldiers during World War I.
“Marie Sklodowska Curie.” Science History Institute, 4 Dec. 2017, www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/marie-sklodowska-curie.
Marie Curie: Honors and Tragedy – BRIEF Exhibit, history.aip.org/history/exhibits/curie/brief/04_honors/honors_2.html.
“The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/.