Marie Curie: A Woman Pioneer Of Science

During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), women were expected to either pursue a career well-suited to their “feminine qualities” - such as governess or seamstress - or remain at home and devote themselves to domestic duties. Women who pursued a career in an objective, intellectual field like math or science were scorned, as the female brain - it was assumed - was too prone to sentimentality and physiologically not capable of complex proofs or deductions (Wellenreuther, online). It was during this era, on November 7th, 1867, that Maria Salomea Sklodowska, known as Marie Curie, two time Nobel Prize laureate, was born in Warsaw, Poland. It is remarkable that Curie was able to gain admittance into the Sorbonne, a prestigious French university, as most universities refused to enroll women. It is even more extraordinary that Curie was able to work in a laboratory - an anomaly during the Victorian period - to isolate radium and discover implications for its uses, such as radiation therapy, to treat cancer. Marie Curie’s discoveries proved that women were not only intellectually capable of participating in academic science but of actually triumphing over it. Female scientists can find inspiration in Marie Curie, who despite numerous gender-driven obstacles, was able to discover an element - radium - that became a turning point for cancer research and the science world as a whole; her scientific discoveries and two Nobel prize wins ultimately helped shatter gender barriers, ushering in a new era for women scientists.

During the Victorian Era, men and women were viewed as living in two “separate spheres” with different natural characteristics: women were considered to be patient, sacrificial, emotionally delicate, and therefore physically and intellectually weaker than men, whereas men were seen as courageous and rational, yet morally inferior to women. Since it was believed that women didn’t possess the capacity to reason, women were not allowed to open a bank account without their husband’s permission, nor were they allowed to vote, receive a college education, lecture at a college, or work in a laboratory, (let alone be considered for a Nobel Prize). Occupations became gender specific, revolving around men’s and women’s disparate attributes. Queen Victoria, ruler of Victorian England, explained that women could not occupy the same careers as men, because “God created men and women different - so let them remain in their own position”. Women held jobs specifically designated for the domestic sphere: they were governesses, seamstresses, maids, clothing/textile workers, or housewives known as “the angels in the house,” the staunchly loyal and subservient wives who fulfilled household duties, foregoing a career outside of the home (The World HD documentary, online). Women were expected not to usurp men’s sphere by attending University and pursuing an academic career, as it was assumed that “rigorous work required by the University studies… would spoil women’s cherished innocence and nurturing instincts”. In fact, such “blue stocking women” - women who passionately devoted themselves to intellectual endeavors - would inevitably suffer “a damaging effect on the ovaries” which would transform them from “attractive young women” into “dried up prunes” unable to have children. It was a travesty that needed to be averted, as many people believed that the primary role of women was to bear and raise as many children as God would allow. M. Curie, however, knew that, for her, “There was nothing more wonderful than being a scientist, nowhere I would rather be than in my lab, staining up my clothes”. Although M.Curie was born during the Victorian Era, she knew that she did not wish to remain at home as a housewife or work full-time as a seamstress; she wanted to obtain an education to pursue a career that utilized her intellect. So in 1891, Curie left her beloved homeland, Poland, where women were banned from attending University until 1915, and relocated to France - one of the few “liberal” countries that recognized women’s right to a collegiate education - so that she could attend the Sorbonne University.

Despite being in a country foreign to her, M.Curie proved to the Sorbonne that women could handle the rigors of college, as she earned honors in both physics and math - while simultaneously learning how to speak French - and was accepted into the Sorbonne University’s graduate program. While M.Curie attended graduate school, she met her husband Pierre Curie and had her first child, Irene. Although “working mothers were almost unheard of in France,” M.Curie never considered giving up her scientific research to stay at home with her daughter. Rather, P.Curie’s father looked after her so that M.Curie and P.Curie could continue their work on radioactivity. M.Curie admitted, “I have been frequently questioned, especially by women, how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career” (M.Curie, online). Her friend and colleague George Sagnac even went so far as to ask Curie, “Don’t you love Irene?” (Des Jardins, online). Though France was considered “liberal” for its time - as French women’s rights activists, in the 1890s, had coined the term “feminism” while fighting for wage equality, the right to divorce, and the right to a professional education for girls and women - women were still expected to drop out of college after matrimony so that they could successfully procreate and become full-time mothers. In spite of gender expectations, Marie Curie persisted, becoming the first person, in 1902, to isolate radium, the first woman in France, in 1903, to earn a PhD in physics, and the first woman, in 1906, to become a professor at the Sorbonne (McClafferty, 49). Her doctoral thesis, “Researches on Radioactive Substances,” published in 1910, was declared to be the “greatest single contribution to science ever written”(McGrayne, 25), thus proving a woman’s ability to make an impact within the male-dominated world of science.

Despite Marie Curie’s success at the Sorbonne University, Marie Curie was initially forced to rely on her husband Pierre Curie for scientific help, not because she was incapable of making a discovery based on her own intellect, but because, without him, she didn’t have the means. As a woman living in the Victorian Era, M.Curie was denied her own laboratory and given only limited access to crucial scientific information; women couldn’t attend lectures at scientific institutions, such as the Royal Institute, and many male scientists were unwilling to share their scientific notes with a woman (Pycior, online). According to Claire Jones, Senior Lecturer in History of Science at the University of Liverpool, women couldn’t “negotiate access to science” unless they could find a “male family member or friend” with whom “to collaborate;” as a result, they often fell “prey to the traditional hierarchical assumption” that women were not serious students of science but merely “supporters and helpers to men” (Jones, online). Scientists, like Henri Almeras, for example, deemed “serious female students” useless: “What distinguishes the serious female student that almost no one takes her seriously...They recite what they’ve learned. They don’t understand it” (Quinn, 95). Since M.Curie, due to such preconceived notions, could not secure a laboratory on her own, she worked alongside P.Curie in his laboratory. P.Curie was then able to obtain vital, scientific information provided by his fellow male scientists and share his notes with M.Curie, thus enabling both Marie and Pierre Curie to discover radium.

For the Curies to prove that they had discovered radium, they had to isolate the element and pinpoint its atomic weight. Marie Curie used Henri Becquerel’s discovery that uranium emits radiation to help her isolate radium from other elements in uraninite (New York Times, 1934). On March 28th, 1902, four years after M.Curie had started to isolate radium, she completed her task, finding the weight of an atom to be 225.93 grams. By isolating radium, M.Curie was able to discover implications of radium that revolutionized cancer treatment. Prior to the Curies’ discovery of radium, doctors knew that the best way to treat cancer was to damage the DNA of cancer cells so that they couldn’t continue dividing and growing in number, but they didn’t know how to individually kill cells; they only knew how to surgically remove the cancer, thus making it impossible to treat many internal cancers. M.Curie conducted an experiment in which she fastened a vile of radium salt to P.Curie’s arm and found that “by day forty-two, (there) was a deep wound… across (his skin) whose gray appearance indicated the tissue was dead” (P.Curie, report to the French Academy of Sciences); radium was proven to successfully kill the DNA of cells. The Curies then devised radium needles, which consisted of placing radium salts in a needle. The practice, which became known as Curietherapy, allowed radium to be injected into the body, effectively treating internal cancers. By using radium needles, doctors were able to cut down on the amount of radiation felt by healthy tissues surrounding the cancerous cells (McClafferty, 47). These radium needles revolutionized cancer treatment in that they protected healthy tissues, thus saving numerous lives.

While both Marie Curie and Pierre Curie became the first scientists to isolate radium by capitalizing on Becquerel’s discovery, Marie Curie was originally not considered for the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, because it was widely assumed that Pierre Curie was primarily responsible (McGrayne, 25). This type of gender bias against M.Curie was such a common phenomenon for female scientists during the Victorian Era that Historian Margaret W. Rossiter assigned it a term: the Matilda Effect, named after the 19th century Suffragist and Feminist Critic Matilda Joslyn Gage who wrote, in her 1883 essay “Woman as an Inventor,” that female scientists’ contributions/accomplishments are either overlooked or fully accredited to their male colleagues (Jones, online). “Even the United States census,” Gage protests, fails to “enumerate (women) among the inventors of the country” even though “some of the most important inventions of the world are due to (women)” (Gage, 478). For initially being shut out of the 1903 Nobel Prize, M.Curie is an example of the Matilda Effect at work, as corroborated by an illustration from Vanity Fair Magazine in 1904, which shows P.Curie in the laboratory holding a scientific flask while M.Curie is resting her hand on Pierre Curie’s shoulder - as if she is merely P.Curie’s assistant (Vanity Fair Magazine, online). When Magnus Gosta Mittag-Leffler, a member of the Nobel Prize Committee who championed female scientists, got word that only P.Curie and Becquerel were being considered for the Nobel Prize, he urged P.Curie to write a letter to the Committee on M.Curie’s behalf (Quinn, 188). Not only did P.Curie write that he did not want to be considered for the prize unless he could “be considered together with Madame Curie,” but he also made sure to give her full credit for the discovery of radium in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (Quinn, 189). P.Curie’s speech was in direct response to the president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ induction speech wherein the president failed to credit Marie Curie individually for her scientific achievements and instead chose to quote from the Book of Genesis - “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make an help meet for him (Des Jardins, online)” - further reinstating the notion that M.Curie’s job was simply to keep P. Curie happy and ensure that he would never “be alone.” However, in an actual image taken of the Curies in their laboratory in 1898, M.Curie is working with an electrometer and looks pale from the exposure to radium, indicating that she played an active role in scientific research and experimentation - not merely a supporting role to P.Curie (Smithsonian Magazine, online). As the image shows M.Curie working with an electrometer, a very sensitive and precise device that requires great care to achieve reliable numbers, it confirms that women, like Curie, were equally as reliable and intellectually capable of participating in academic science as men.

When the Curies wrote scientific papers, they followed a specific self-citation system that allowed Marie and Pierre Curie to highlight their joint and individual contributions: references to “we” in their papers designated a collaborative effort, whereas references to “one of us” followed by either M.Curie or Mme.Curie in the bibliography designated individual contributions (Pycior, online). Publishers of scientific journals were willing to print their papers and give them their due, since their papers were a joint endeavor - not just the writings of a female scientist. Marie Curie benefited from their citation system, as it allowed her to establish an independent scientific reputation and ultimately disprove the Victorian assumption that women were incapable of making scientific discoveries. Consequently, she was still able to work in the laboratory after P.Curie died and even win a second Nobel Prize in 1911 for her work in radioactivity. Although Marie Curie needed to share the Nobel Prize title with her husband in 1903, she was able to convince most of the science world that she alone deserved to win the Nobel Prize in 1911 (McGrayne, 25) when she independently published a 971-page treatise on radioactivity, which “revolutionized scientific understanding of the nature of the atom and...opened up new areas of medicine”. Nevertheless, M.Curie still faced opposition from numerous male critics within her field who refused to believe that a woman’s work could be deemed prize-worthy. Her biggest adversary, American radiochemist Bertram Boltwood, could not contain his disgust when M. Curie was awarded a second Nobel Prize, proclaiming that “Mme. Curie is just what I have always thought she was, a plain, darn fool” whose work merely displays “stubborn perseverance” rather than “theoretical brilliance”. Boltwood, along with several other male scientists, continued to credit Pierre Curie as the true scientific genius behind M.Curie’s findings, even though P.Curie had passed away five years prior to M.Curie’s new discoveries. Despite such gender-biased clamor, M.Curie’s second Nobel Prize win was a watershed moment for women, as no man (and certainly no woman) had ever won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields prior to Marie Curie, who continued to push through gender barriers and, by example, prove that women’s brains were just as scientifically wired as men’s.

M.Curie, through her tireless work on radium, had demonstrated to the world the lifesaving potential of radioactivity for the treatment of cancer - a truly revolutionary moment in history. Yet, when French newspapers disclosed that M.Curie, a widow in her forties, actively chose to pursue a relationship with Paul Langevin, a married family man, the public as a whole vilified her. The French government refused to recognize Curie for her invention (McGrayne, 32), and the Nobel Prize Association advised Curie to not give her acceptance speech for her second Nobel prize, an honor for which she had waited many years due to health issues that arose from working with radium. Hateful mobs continually congregated outside of M.Curie’s home, hurling stones and shouting, “Husband Stealer! Get the Foreign woman out!” (McGrayne, 11). The French newspaper, L’Oeuvre, on November 23rd, played on xenophobic hatred when it labeled M.Curie a “dirty foreigner” who has “soiled (France) and dishonored it.” Its headline referred to the affair as “the Greatest Sensation in Paris Since the Theft of the Mona Lisa” (Nelson, 47). By likening the affair to the theft of the Mona Lisa, the most famous French painting, it underscored the vitriol that a female intellectual like Curie could evoke. Even though Curie’s discovery of radiation therapy ultimately saved countless lives, the French government as well as numerous scientific organizations could only see M.Curie as an immoral, Victorian mother who had betrayed her deceased husband. Scientist Paul Langevin, on the other hand, was not publicly criticized for the affair and scientific organizations never considered stripping him of scientific honors/awards, proving that Curie was held to a different standard than Langevin merely because she was a woman - and even worse, a woman of intellect. It cannot be overlooked that the angry French mob wasn’t screaming gender-specific obscenities - like “husband stealer” and “dirty...woman” - at Langevin when he left his home each morning, because Langevin was not being judged for his extramarital actions. Indeed, it was socially acceptable for a man to have a mistress during the Victorian Era, as evidenced by Painter William Holman Hunt’s popular 1853 Victorian painting entitled The Awakening Conscience, in which a mistress is sitting atop the lap of a married man. Such a relationship was just taboo for Marie Curie or for any other woman like Marie Curie who chose to pursue an academic career and forego a more traditional path.

Despite Marie Curie’s numerous contributions to her country and to the science world, M.Curie was continually forced to battle those who deemed science a male-only profession. When Curie campaigned for a position at the French Academy of Sciences in 1911, she faced an Academy that was determined to deny her admission. French Academy President Emile Hilaire Amagat, at the election’s opening, stated loudly “Let everybody come in, women excepted… women cannot be part of the Institute of France”. M.Curie’s daughter Eve, when recounting the election, admitted that “an almost blind academician, a lively partisan of Mme. Curie… had nearly voted against her, with a false ballot which had been slipped into his hand”. Despite the Academy’s schemes, M.Curie only lost the election by one vote, which was quite a feat for a woman, especially since it wasn’t until 1945 before a woman was admitted into any of the Academies of Science, in this case the Royal Society of London, which was founded in 1660; almost three hundred years had elapsed before it would even consider permitting women to become members. As membership helps scientists gain recognition for their achievements, leading to further research grants and career opportunities, it is no wonder why it was so difficult for women like Marie Curie to gain a foothold into the world of science.

Nevertheless, Curie turned her loss into an asset: she established the Curie Foundation in 1920 to help fund her fledgling Radium Institute in Paris, where scientists could research the medical effectiveness of radioactivity. Curie granted women, at her Institute, numerous scientific opportunities that were previously unavailable to them. During Curie’s time, women were hindered from making discoveries, as their male counterparts would assign them the most menial tasks that required “qualities proper to women,” such as patience; in astrology, for example, women spent their time sorting through thousands of negatives. Since M.Curie and P.Curie were the first scientists to isolate radium, radiochemistry hadn’t yet become an established field; women, like Marie Curie, could therefore become innovators in radiochemistry as opposed to men’s lackeys. To safeguard women’s future in science, M.Curie apportioned a certain number of positions at her Institute for women. A French journalist in 1927, when observing M.Curie and her staff, noted that “it is a woman who is now in charge of research and of numerous applications relating to radioactivity... Helping her and sharing the same work is a whole staff of women doctors and university graduates”. M.Curie earmarked male-dominated positions for women to ensure that women gained the scientific means and experience necessary to make discoveries and thrive. M.Curie’s own daughter Irene Curie, after being afforded the opportunity to work alongside her mother as a lab assistant, became the second woman, in 1934, to win a Nobel Prize (Boudia, 15); I.Curie was rewarded for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.

M.Curie’s Radium Institute continually generates groundbreaking discoveries in radioactivity. Since its founding, advancements in technological imaging, such as the invention of the positron emission tomography (PET), have been made; such imaging can more easily detect the location of cancerous cells and tissues in the body. Scientists have also discovered that protons at high-energy levels can kill cancerous cells, ushering in proton-beam therapy. While traditional radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill cancer cells, proton-beam therapy uses protons to kill the cells, which has proven to be safer and more effective than traditional radiation therapy. M.Curie’s Radium Institute facilitates such breakthroughs in cancer research as it encourages contributions from both male and female scientists.

Marie Curie would never have had the opportunity to discover/isolate radium, develop the Radium Institute, or win her two Nobel Prizes if it weren’t for the support of her husband Pierre Curie, who welcomed M.Curie into his laboratory, and her father in law Eugene Curie, who tended to their children so that M.Curie did not, like most Victorian women, have to forgo an intellectual career to solely devote herself to household and motherly duties; they eschewed Victorian assumptions so that M.Curie could indelibly leave her scientific footprints on the world. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, the United Nations named 2011 the International Year of Chemistry to recognize Curie’s global impact on the world of science as well as on women, who now have greater academic opportunities available to them. Presently, men and women receive research grants at equal rates. Furthermore, 56% of college graduates with a scientific degree are women and 43% of scientists and engineers, under the age of 75, are women. Yet, women still only account for 5.6% of Nobel Prize laureates; women still need to fight to be taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Despite Marie Curie’s ground shattering scientific discoveries, most notably her discovery of radium which revolutionized the way in which cancer is treated, women still need to prove that they are more than just capable of contributing to the realm of science: they may be the future of scientific research and numerous innovational discoveries.

16 December 2021
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