Scientist to remember: Marie Curie


After Albert Einstein, the next most famous scientist of the 20th century was Madame Marie Curie. Both scientists were concerned with physics. Whereas Einstein received one Nobel Prize, Marie Curie got two; a rare achievement then and now.

Marie was born in Poland in 1867 with the name Marya Sklodowska. Her father Wladimir Skodolowska had a good job – teaching in a secondary school – but with five children; of which, Marya was the fifth and the last. There was not much money to share in the family.

Unlike Einstein, records about Marie show that she was a bright student. By the age of 15, she had many academic honours. It is said that, by this time, she had lost her Catholic faith in which she had been brought up.


She could not go to a higher institution in Poland because of gender prejudice. She, therefore, picked up a job as governess. This means she was employed in a private home to care and educate children. She wanted to save enough money to enable her to go and pursue further studies in France where one of her sisters was studying medicine.

Everywhere in Europe at that time, there was a lot of enthusiasm for science and technology. Marya joined a “flying university”, a group of friends who tried to teach each other science, technology and modern political theory. The last of these was a risky subject because agents of the Tsar were everywhere spying on subversive elements. Poland at that time was a Russian colony.

She went into France and gained entry into the University of Paris in 1991. Because, at age 24, she had started her degree rather late, she had to work extra hard while living in poor shelters in order to catch up. She was cut off by her sex and her nationality from the camaraderie that she enjoyed most.


She met a young man called Pierrie Curie who had the same interests as she had. He advised her to give up nationalist politics and concentrate on scientific researches. They got married and she became Marie Curie.

In a small workshop at the back of the school of physics and chemistry, the Curies embarked on the work of endless filtering, crushing, boiling, stirring, skimming of pitchblende and its components. Marie was convinced that she had found a new chemical element in 1898 to which she gave her country’s name polonium.

When Marie decided to work for a doctorate in physics, she was the first woman in France to make the attempt. She received the doctorate in 1903 and also jointly with her husband and another scientist called Becquerel received the Nobel Prize for physics.

Both Pierrie and Marie were shy. The publicity they were given used to embarrass them. Then tragedy followed. In 1906, Pierrie died when his head was crushed by a wagon. Marie was emotionally devastated. She was, however, appointed to succeed him in the position he had held and went on with her scientific researches.

In 1910, she published a book describing her work relating to radioactivity. When she applied for election to the Academy of Science, she failed. Pierrie also had failed. But with her there was consolation. The Swedish Academy presented her with a second Nobel Prize; this time in chemistry for the discovery of radium.

Marie became involved with X-radiography and subsequently with the medical potential radium in diagnosis and cure. She set up an organisation called Fadium Institute which was instrumental in research on the nucleus and in radiography.

Later, she summed her philosophy: “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

That rapidary statesman should be affixed on the door of every university for all to see especially female students. There is much talk about women empowerment and placing them in decision making positions; well and good, but this is not enough for the progress of the nation. What matters in life is not the loftiness of the position but what you do in any position.

Writers on success and motivation often advise the reading of biographies for inspiration. Whenever students are being taught any theory of discovery or invention, they should be told the person behind it. They should be given an outline of his or her life. All science students should be required to read biographies of great scientists such as Einstein, Marie, Isaac Newton and so on so that they choose role models for themselves. It is not enough to have a doctorate by thesis. It is better to get another by achievement in the field. Everyone, as Marie says, has an obligation to recognise their gift for something and then try to achieve that thing.

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