Marie Curie: Steadfast Commitment to Science, Dedication to What Remains to be Done
Women’s History Month 2019 Leadership Profile: Marie Curie
“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”
– Marie Curie
Perhaps best known for her discovery of radium and polonium, and her indispensable contributions to the fight against cancer, Marie Curie perseverance in the fact of tragedy and professional barriers has inspired countless female scientists and leaders for generations.
Born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Poland, Curie was the youngest of five children. Her parents were poor school teachers. After her mother died and her father could no longer offer her support, she became a governess. She studied in her own time to quench her thirst for knowledge. She never lost this passion.
It was in Paris, in 1894, that she met scientist Pierre Curie, who she married a year later. The Curies became research workers at the School of Chemistry and Physics in Paris and there they began their pioneering work into invisible rays given off by uranium – a new phenomenon which had recently been discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.
In 1903 Marie and Pierre were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics jointly with Henri Becquerel for their combined, though separate, work on radioactivity. In the same year, Marie passed her doctorate thesis in Physics.
In 1906 Marie’s life was struck by tragedy when Pierre was killed in a street accident after being knocked down by a horse and cart. Her indomitable spirit, however, kept her working and she went on to succeed him in his Chair as Professor at Sorbonne.
Her determination and remarkable endeavors led to a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry for creating a means of measuring radioactivity.
During the First World War, Marie Curie worked to develop small, mobile X-ray units that could be used to diagnose injuries near the battlefront. As Director of the Red Cross Radiological Service, she toured Paris, asking for money, supplies and vehicles which could be converted.
In October 1914, the first machines, known as “Petits Curies”, were ready, and Marie set off to the front. She worked with her daughter Irene, then aged 17, at casualty clearing stations close to the front line, X-raying wounded men to locate fractures, bullets and shrapnel.
After the war, Marie continued her work as a researcher, teacher and head of a laboratory and received many awards and prizes. Among them were the Ellan Richards Research Prize (1921), the Grand Prix du Marquis d’Argenteuil (1923) and the Cameron Prize from Edinburgh University (1931). She was also the recipient of many honorary degrees from universities around the world.
Marie Curie’s life as a scientist was one which flourished because of her ability to observe, deduce and predict. She was the first woman to make such a significant contribution to science – and today, many generations later – her words, deeds and revolutionary discoveries continue to inspire future women leaders in America and throughout the world.