#STEAMspotlight: The Marvelous Marie Curie

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Written by Kristin Kish, Digital Marketing Intern.

#STEAMspotlight is a series highlighting past and present STEAM pioneers—the scientists, techies, engineers, artists and mathematicians who continue to inspire future generations.

Marie Curie
Photo by Forum/UIG/Getty Images.

Born November 7, 1867, Marie Curie was a physicist and chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. Yes, you’ve probably heard of her, but her story is one we’re so excited to tell.

An inspiration to thinkers, dreamers and innovators across the globe, Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was also the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and she is the only woman to have won multiple Nobels. Amazing, right? Well, let’s get to know this amazing scientist!

Maria Salomea Sklodowska (later known as Marie Curie) was born in Warsaw, Poland. Both Marie’s mother and father were teachers, and they always encouraged her interest in education and science. Marie, the youngest of five siblings, dreamed of studying abroad but lacked the necessary financial resources. Working as a tutor to raise money for school, Marie spent her free time reading textbooks and attending free lectures. A determined and diligent woman, Marie saved up enough money to move to France and enroll at the Sorbonne—the University of Paris. After graduating with two master’s degrees in physics and mathematics, Marie began a promising scientific career in Paris, investigating the magnetic properties of various steels.

It was during this time that she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, a professor in the School of Physics and Chemistry. The Curies, who married in 1895, quickly became laboratory partners and worked independently on several important scientific projects. Marie’s work with uranium rays was especially groundbreaking, and Pierre ultimately put aside his own work to assist Marie in her exploration of radioactivity. (Fun fact: Marie Curie coined the word “radioactive!”)

Marie and Pierre Curie
Pierre and Marie in their laboratory.

The pair ended up discovering two new radioactive elements, polonium and radium. Polonium, named after Marie’s native Poland, and radium were both found to be more radioactive than uranium, the only radioactive element known at the time. Soon, the Curies were science celebrities. Yet Marie’s extraordinary accomplishments were increasingly belittled by many of her male contemporaries.

Marie, like many women in STEAM before (and sadly, after) her, struggled to find acceptance in a male-dominated field. In June 1903, the Curies were both invited to present a speech to the Royal Institution in London, only to find out that Marie was not allowed to speak. At all. Because she was a woman. Pierre ended up giving the speech on their behalf.

And, perhaps most distressingly, she was almost denied one of the most distinguished accomplishments of her career. In December 1903, the Nobel Prize committee was set to award the Nobel Prize for Physics to Antoine Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for their work on radioactivity. But what about Marie? Nope. They didn’t plan on recognizing her for her groundbreaking work. Luckily, Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a committee member and advocate for women in science, alerted Pierre and filed a complaint. Soon after, Marie’s name was officially added to the nomination. The trio of scientists won, making Marie the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Marie continued to work—setting records and breaking down barriers for women in STEAM. After becoming a widow, Marie took over her late husband’s teaching job at the Sorbonne and became the institution’s first female professor. She developed mobile radiography units that assisted battlefield surgeons during World War I. She traveled the world, touring, lecturing and inspiring scientists across the globe. And, of course, Marie continued her important work with radioactivity and won another Nobel Prize, this time by herself and in Chemistry. To this day, Marie Curie is the only woman to have been honored twice.

…but she wasn’t the only woman in her family to win this notable award! Marie passed down her scientific passion and insatiable curiosity to her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, a chemist. Irène went on to win the 1935 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with her husband for their work on new radioactive elements, making the Marie and Irène the only mother-daughter pair to have won Nobel Prizes.

Irene and Marie Curie
Like mother, like daughter.

There’s no doubt about it—Marie Curie was one of the most influential women in scientific history. (And in history, period.) She changed it. She shaped it. And she continues to teach us the importance of tenacity, curiosity and equality.

At Thinkery, we focus on creating a collaborative community with a passion for lifelong learning and discovery. A community that is for everyone—children of all ages, all genders and all abilities.

Thank you for paving the way, Marie.

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