Marie curie is one of the famous scientist the world has ever known, a name right up there with Newton, Galileo, Einstein on the immortal summit of Mt cerebrum. She was by any measure an extraordinary woman, who’s every accomplishment, must be preceded by amplifiers like “the first “or “the only “. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in France and the first woman to earn a doctorate in Physics. She was the first woman Professor at the great Parisian University, at Sorbonne. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics, which she and her husband Pierre curie shared with Henri Becquerel in 1903 for their studies of nature of radioactivity. Eight years later, she was awarded a second Nobel prize, this time in chemistry, for the isolation of elements Radium and Polonium, and this time her’s alone to claim .
Madame Curie, born Marja sklowdowska in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867, embodied the image of the romantic, heroic scientist. She pursued her research so passionately that she was willing to work superhuman hours in dank basements and abandoned sheds as the radioactive samples she handled burned the tips of her finger, clouded her eyes with cataracts, bent her spine and eventually killed her. She snubbed fame and personal vanity. Her wardrobe consisted of a few Navy or black dresses, which hid her stains and so could be worn in the laboratory one day, at her wedding or state dinner with US President Warren Harding the next. When during WORLD WAR I, France called on all its citizens to donate their gold and silver to the war effort. Madame Curie offered her vast collection of prize medals, including two Nobel medals. The offer which I am relieved to say was respectfully declined.
Yes lest she seem too much the selfless saint, it must be said that Madame Curie sometimes cultivated the image of herself as, in the words of one scholar, a “ tragic heroine”, particularly when it suited her fundraising needs . Nothing inspires donors to yank out the cheque book more readily than tales of the lone scientist laboring against all odds to discover the secrets of nature and new cures for the human diseases, and to this day researchers continue the tradition of hyper oxygenated “narrative of discovery” when they go prospecting for grants . In the case of Pierre and Marie Curie, the storyline happens to new fairly closely to the truth.
There are many reasons to admire the women who had the profound insight that radioactivity is a property inherent to atomic structure of heavy elements like Radium, and who demonstrated to the world the life saving potential of radioactivity for the treatment of cancer and other diseases . But I would like to emphasize here a reason that is not mentioned in paeans to her genius: she was a great mother. Not in the conventional sense . She didn’t sacrifice her needs and her career for her children, as congeries of pedia -scolds to this day advise women to do . In fact, Pierre Curie s father who moved into his son in law’ s house when his wife died of breast cancer proved an ideal babysitter , allowing Marie to return to her laboratory soon first child, Irene, was born in 1897 , as she did after her second daughter, Eve was born seven years later. Even upon being left a young widow and a single mother in 1906 – when Pierre was killed by a horse drawn wagon as he crossed the road in the rain, Marie continued her research. And it is hard to imagine greater proof that, in her daughter’s eyes she made the right decision than in the career paths they eventually choose for themselves . Irene Joliot Curie followed her mother in the study of radioactivity and became, with her husband Frederic, the second woman to win a Nobel prize . Eve Curie became an accomplished writer and musician, producing one of the best-selling biographies of all time. What a mother: to bear and raise two children who loved and admired and yes, romanticized her so much . Usually it is the father who exerts that mesmerizing hold on girls, the father who can do no wrong
Luckily as well for in a sense Madame Curie was the mother of all of us, a role model for every girl who stakes a claim to a life of the mind, particularly that part of mind too often deemed masculine-the scientific mathematical part. I have interviewed hundreds of female scientists over the years , and a number of women have been telling me how, in their girlhood, the story of Madame Curie captivated and inspired them. Through reading about her, they felt less freakish, less alone in their passionate “unfeminine” love of algebra and chemistry kits . Lets face it : they had painfully few role models to worship, few examples of prominent women in science who could stand up there and say , “ there is nothing more wonderful than being a scientist nowhere. I would rather be in my lab , staining up my clothes and getting paid to play”. Marie curie, for all she suffered in the course of her career- from the ill effects of radioactivity to opprobrium of the public she endured when, after Pierre’s death, she had an affair with fellow physicist Paul Langevin- clearly loved being a scientist and conveyed that passion to her daughters and through Eve Curie to us .
These days of course there are many women in science than there were a century ago, when Curie entered the Sorbonne . I sometimes get annoyed at laments about how there are no women in science because I find women all the time, everyone I look doing fascinating research of the time of the most creative ,snazzy, and unorthodox variety . Yet it remains true there are very few women scientists at the front and centre ranks, few who win big awards or get invited to give important talks at scientific meetings or asked to collaborate on important projects with other important scientists. Since the Curies mere et file won their Nobel prizes, a mere eight other women have been honored. Women account only for only 5 percent of the membership of the National academy of sciences in the world.
Ms. Amatur Roquia, Department of Chemistry