Maria Skłodowska-Curie is the only person in the world to receive two Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. Her research contributed significantly to the advancement of science and saved the lives of countless people. However, her way to the top was not easy. She had to fight prejudices and stereotypes about women more than once. Her achievements and determination in pursuing her goals are an inspiration for many women to this day.
The role of the woman in "Belle Époque"
In 1886, after graduating from high school with a gold medal, Maria Skłodowska took up a job as a governess in Szczuki, the estate of the wealthy landowners, the Żórawski family. It was then that she fell in love with mathematics student Kazimierz Żorawski, later a well-known mathematician. Kazimierz's parents, however, did not consent to the wedding, and he was unable to oppose them. This heartbreak, though Maria could not have known about it at the time, will be the beginning of her extraordinary career. If this marriage had taken place, the world probably would never have heard about Maria Skłodowska-Żorawska.
After four years at the Żorawski estate, Skłodowska leaves for Warsaw, where she deepens her knowledge of chemistry and physics at the Flying University. As universities in Poland were not accessible to women at that time, in 1891 the future researcher left for Paris and began her studies at the Sorbonne. In a journal from that period, she wrote: "Everything new that I saw and I learned delighted me. For me, it was like a revelation of the new world, the world of knowledge, to which at last I had free access…”.
At the Sorbonne in Paris, Skłodowska obtained a BSc in physical and mathematical sciences. However, the university was heavily dominated by male authority figures - as one of only two hundred and ten women, among nine thousand men at the Sorbonne, the researcher had to fight against the prevailing stereotype of the female learner. In the then popular journal, it was written: “A serious student, almost always a foreigner, is distinguished by the fact that hardly anyone takes her seriously. She should be happy if treated with a certain kindness. Jokes about her aren't always in the best taste. Students show great patience at work, as if they were engaged in embroidery. Studying makes them ugly, they usually look like teachers and wear glasses. During their exams, they recite what they have learned with admirable accuracy. They don't always understand it."
What was women's life like 130 years ago? Women did not have the right to vote yet. In France, a woman's income was owned by her husband. Octave Mirbeau wrote in Belle Époque (1890): “A woman is not a brain, it's a gender and it's much better that way. She has only one role to play in this world - making love to preserve race. A woman is suitable for love and for raising children. Some women, rare exceptions to the rule, have managed in art or in literature to give the impression that they are creative beings. But these are either abnormal women or just imitators of men. I prefer those called prostitutes because at least they are in harmony with the nature of the universe. " Women were of a similar opinion. Journalist Marie-Louise Regnier wrote: “Let women not act against their nature! Let them not expect that the fulfilment of typically male ambitions will become a source of satisfaction for them. Women are only made for love ... They owe their talent to love and motherhood. "
"There is nothing to be afraid of in life, you just have to understand it"
After graduating in 1895, Skłodowska married Pierre Curie, and their joint research led to ground-breaking results. The discovery of radioactivity was the key to understanding the structure of matter and ushered in the atomic age. In 1903, the Curie and Henri Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The award was then awarded only for the third time, and it was sensational that it was awarded to a couple of researchers. However, Maria was not included in the first application for the Nobel Prize. The situation changed only after the intervention of Pierre Curie, who became a member of the Academy of Sciences and appointed professor of the Sorbonne. Skłodowska's role was marginalized, while the press only wrote: "Mr. Pierre Curie was skilfully assisted by his wife." All the radioactivity letters were, however, addressed to Pierre Curie.
After Pierre Curie's tragic death in 1906, Skłodowska took his chair and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. She submits his candidacy to the French Academy of Sciences. Despite her outstanding achievements and recognition in the international arena, her candidacy was rejected. Françoise Balibar, now retired professor of physics at the University of Paris, wrote that the matter with Maria Skłodowska-Curie was complicated: “At that time, she was considered neither an intellectual, nor an ordinary woman. After all, a woman cannot think, and an intellectual cannot be a woman”.
Skłodowska-Curie was a very modern woman at that time. She went on a honeymoon with her husband on bicycles (Maria shortened her dress and rode without a hat!). She was one of the first women to get a driver's license. She responded to the government's proposal that she and her children should receive their father's salary after her husband's death: “I am not accepting any salary. I am young enough to work for myself and my children. "
Shortly after the failure at the Paris Academy of Sciences, Maria Skłodowska-Curie's romance with Paul Langevin was revealed. The four years younger married physicist abandoned his family for her. France was outraged by her deed. In 1911, during the scandal, Maria was awarded the second Nobel Prize, this time in the field of chemistry, for the discovery of two elements: radium and polonium. When the Nobel Prize committee heard about the scandal, she was asked not to attend the award ceremony until her reputation was restored. Outraged, Skłodowska-Curie wrote back that her private life had nothing to do with scientific activity and collected the award personally. Surprisingly, many French considered her a promiscuous woman. Maria tried to rehabilitate herself during World War I by organizing a radiological service for military hospitals. However, this did not help much - even today she is still referred to in France as a woman of loose morals.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie died in 1934 of a malignant anaemia preceded by radiation sickness. At first, the effects of long-term exposure to radiation were not realized. Radioactive material is known to burn the skin, but it is not known that it systematically damages cells. Before the deadly effects of radium were discovered, the world went mad about it. Due to its supposed miraculous properties, it was used almost everywhere. There were creams with radium, medical specifics with radium (baldness cream, potency-increasing medications), foods with radium (for example, chocolate), even condoms were added with radium. The threat was not discovered until the 1920s, when the first cases of jaw cancer were found in workers who covered their dials with paint containing radium and touched brushes soaked in paint with their tongues. In Maria Skłodowska-Curie's laboratory, which she founded in 1914, her notebooks are kept locked up to this day, because they are still too radioactive to be viewed closely.
In 1995, the French authorities moved the ashes of the Curies to the Pantheon. The Polish researcher is the first woman to be buried in the Paris Pantheon.
- Melvyn Bragg, Ruth Gardiner, On the shoulders of giants. Great researchers and their discoveries from Archimedes to DNA, Prószyński i S-ka, 2004
- Alicja Rafalska-Łasocha, Maria Skłodowska-Curie: an extraordinary woman, Alma Mater 136 (2011), 12–15.
- Carl Rollyson, Marie Curie: Honesty in Science, iUniverse, 2004.