I've admired Marie Curie since I first learned about her spectacular accomplishments in grade school; Here was a woman who'd won Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines in a time when women were all but banned from research labs! She was brilliant, brave, and changed our world forever with her discoveries. She was a heroine to me, a shining example of how intelligence and determination could prevail in the face of adversity.
I recently visited her hometown of Warsaw—which is packed with monuments to her life and discoveries—as well as her adopted home country of France. Visiting her childhood home, seeing the tremendous pride the Polish people take in her work, and exploring the museums that celebrate her achievements rekindled my love for Madam Curie.
And I wanted to write about her here because I realized that while most people might see her as a Sage archetype, I know her to be a Warrior through and through. She was forced to fight at every step. She fought to learn, to keep pace, to get full credit for her world-changing findings. So let's meet Marie Curie, Warrior.
A childhood of challenges
“I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy.”
~ Marie Curie
Marie's mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was just 11 years old. This tragedy shaped her life in more ways than one: It led to her spending more time with her father, a math and physics instructor, who helped her cultivate her knack for the sciences. He even brought laboratory equipment into the family home so his children could run experiments!
His guidance was invaluable, and led Marie to become a top student in high school … only to be denied entry to the local university because of her gender. Undeterred, she continued her education at the Flying University, a set of underground, informal classes held in secret. There, she studied alongside her older sister, Bronislawa, and dreamed of moving on to an institution with proper labs ... and less sexism.
On to France
“I never see what has been done. I only see what remains to be done.”
~ Marie Curie
Both Marie and her sister longed to go abroad to earn official degrees, but they simply didn't have the money. Unwavering in her resolve to learn and achieve, Marie worked out a deal with her sister; She would work to support Bronislawa while she was in school, then Bronislawa would return the favor after she'd completed her studies.
After fulfilling her half of the bargain, Marie made her way to Paris where she enrolled at the Sorbonne and threw herself happily into her studies. Paying for her tuition and rent made her crushingly poor, and she survived on buttered bread and tea. But although she was exhausted and broke, she was mentally engaged and wildly successful. And her hard work paid off. She earned first place in the master's exam for physics in 1893 and second place for the master's in mathematics in 1894.
Shortly after earning her degrees, a colleague introduced her to French physicist Pierre Curie, who helped her locate a lab space for her research. A romance developed between the mastermind pair, and they became a scientific dynamic duo. They were dedicated to science…and each other. In fact, during a time when most women were expected to either raise a family or pursue a career, Pierre ensured Marie could do both. They were quite the modern couple!
“A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: He is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
~ Marie Curie
At first, Marie and her husband worked on separate projects. She launched into work on a doctoral thesis, exploring Henri Becquerel's work on the strange emissions created by uranium. (Her revolutionary ideas created the entire field of atomic physics, and Marie herself coined the word “radioactivity” to describe the phenomenon.) Soon Pierre put aside his own studies of crystals to support Marie's work.
Working together, the pair discovered a new radioactive element in 1898. They named the element polonium, after Marie’s native country of Poland. They also detected the presence of another radioactive element and called it radium. The Sorbonne refused to fund their research, so they performed it in an abandoned shed, working in hazardous conditions to prove their theories and isolate pure radium.
Marie recalled the night she first realized the magnitude of her discovery. In the darkness of the shed, she murmured, “Pierre, look!” as she saw the radium glowing with a ghostly blue light. She would soon prove that it was nearly 1 million times stronger than uranium.
And 1903, she was honored for this discovery when she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics. She shared the title with her husband and Henri Becquerel, who both contributed to her groundbreaking work on radioactivity. The duo planned to use their prize money to continue their research.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Tragedy and triumph
“Have no fear of perfection; you'll never reach it.”
~ Marie Curie
Just two years after their win, Marie suffered a heartbreaking loss when Pierre was killed in Paris after stepping in front of a horse-drawn wagon. Although she was stricken by grief, she decided to take over his teaching post at the Sorbonne, becoming the institution’s first female professor. Five years into her tenure, Marie received another great honor; In 1911 she won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry.
When World War I broke out, Marie devoted her time and resources to helping the cause. X-ray machines had been invented based on her research, and could be found in many French doctors' offices, but Marie realized that X-rays could help doctors in the field. They could use the technology to see the bullets and shrapnel embedded in the soldiers’ bodies and remove them, as well as locate broken bones. So she championed the use of portable X-ray machines, and even trained 150 nurses to use them! Her love for the mysteries of radioactive materials never died.
Unfortunately, her constant exposure to them took its toll.
Years of being exposed to radiation began to wear down Marie's health. She had spent almost her entire career working with radioactive elements completely unprotected, and even carried test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat, something a modern scientist would never do! In the end, she died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. But she died doing what she loved, after decades of fighting for her place in the scientific elite, and became the only woman laid to rest in the Panthéon in Paris.
Thank you Marie for displaying passion and dedication until your last days. You worked as a warrior for science, busting through every barrier put in your way, and unlocking discoveries that still save lives every single day. May we all find something that grabs hold of us and never lets go, may we all fight as hard as you did for our rightful place in this world.