One of life’s greatest hurdles is trying something new, especially in a society that does not support you. So we find solace in our pacesetters, who make us realise that there is nothing that one cannot achieve as long as we are determined to. Today, Marie Curie is celebrated as the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, but this did not come to her on a silver platter. She had to overcome a lot of hurdles to become the woman we now celebrate.
Maria Sklodowska, later known as Marie Curie, was born on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw. Marie was the youngest of five siblings. As a child, Marie took after her father. She had a bright and curious mind and excelled at school. However, tragedy struck at the age of 10 when she lost her mother to tuberculosis. Her father, a teacher of mathematics and physics, also lost his savings because of a bad investment. She grew up with a poor father and no mother. This, however, did not deter her from dreaming big.
Marie once said, “Life is not easy for any of us. We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves.” And this is exactly what she did. Marie started working as a teacher and also taking part secretly in the nationalist free university reading Polish to women workers. Marie was interested in going to the university on a fully-funded scholarship but despite being a top student, she could not attend the University of Warsaw because it was a male-only university. She instead continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” a set of underground, informal classes that were held in secret.
Marie and her sister, Bronya, dreamed of going abroad to earn an official degree, but they lacked the financial resources to pay for more schooling. Undeterred, Marie worked out a deal with her sister: she would work to support Bronya while she was in school, and Bronya would return the favour after she completed her studies. At the age of 18, she took the post of governess. From her earnings, she was able to finance Bronya’s medical studies in Paris.
For roughly five years, Marie worked as a tutor and governess. She used her spare time to study, reading about physics, chemistry and mathematics. In 1891, Marie finally made her way to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne. She threw herself into her studies but this dedication came at a personal cost: with little money, Marie survived on buttered bread and tea, and her health suffered because of her poor diet. Marie completed her master’s degree in Physics in 1893 and earned another degree in Mathematics the following year.
She met her husband Pierre Curie at the University and quickly discovered a shared interest in magnetism. They fell in love and soon got married, but their relationship went further than just that of a husband and wife. They became partners in scientific discovery. Her early researches, together with her husband, were often performed under difficult conditions; laboratory arrangements were poor and they both had to undertake much teaching to earn a livelihood.
Marie had to overcome not only poverty but also the indifference and hostility of the French establishments. She had to struggle for equality, recognition and reward within the French scientific community, which was mostly dominated by male physicists. Marie had not been nominated for the 1903 Nobel Prize despite the fact that she had worked on the discovery until her husband agreed to be considered with her. Her early awards then started getting awarded to both her and her husband.
When Marie said, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” We realise that her life struggles taught her that lesson. However, in her struggles, she moved on to be a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, becoming “the first woman Nobel laureate” in 1903 with her shared award in physics alongside her husband Pierre Curie and colleague Henry Becquerel. She and her husband discovered that radium destroyed diseased cells faster than healthy cells, and thus, that radiation could be used to treat tumours.
In 1911, Marie went on to win another Nobel Prize in Chemistry, this time as a sole recipient, making her the first person to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice and the only woman till today to be awarded the Nobel Prize twice. On May 13, 1906, she was appointed to the professorship that had been left vacant on her husband’s death; making her the first woman to teach in the Sorbonne.
Marie was also altruistic. She donated her award money and promoted the use of X-rays during World War I. This method is still utilised all over the world today. She developed radiological cars, which later came to be known as ‘Petites Curie’ to take X-ray and battlefield surgeons to wounded soldiers and operate the machine more accurately. She wanted radioactivity to be used to treat cancer and devoted her life to find benefits to these new properties that she had discovered.
Marie’s accomplishments and her background are two opposite sides of a coin. One would have never expected her life to turn out as beautiful as it did. Her invention, which gave life to many scientists to follow and clarity to the science world, also caused her death. To many, this might look like a sad ending to a life that had just become good. But the light that she discovered and shone so brightly still shines till now, and even in her death, she will never be forgotten.
In 1995, Marie Curie’s ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris. She became the first woman to receive this honour for her own achievements. Her office and laboratory in the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute are preserved as the Curie Museum.
Like Marie Curie once said, “You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals.” This is the lesson her life teaches us. For the world to be a better place, we have to build ourselves, scaling all hurdles that life brings our way.