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LOOKING BACK: Marie Curie, France & Poland

Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person to win two, used her award money to replace the faulty plumbing and peeling wallpaper in her Paris home. For Curie, spending money from the world's most laudable prize on the most banal of repairs only reinforced the bittersweet dichotomy of her life. She is arguably the most famous woman scientist in history — but she was also a wife and, later, a cash-strapped single mother struggling to find that elusive work-family balance. "I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy." But there is no question that her trailblazing work did much to lower one stubborn barrier: the mindset that girls and numbers don't mix.

The daughter of two teachers, Curie was taught to explore and excel, playing with her father’s test tubes and crucibles as a child. But the untimely deaths of her mother and sister, along with the financial ruin of her family tied to Polish uprisings, drove her to Paris, where she earned degrees in physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne University. She also met and married Pierre Curie, and the couple collaborated on studies in radiation and radioactivity. The Curies discovered polonium and then radium. In 1903, they received the Nobel Prize for Physics — the same year they lost a child, born prematurely. More heartache followed: in 1906, a carriage ran over Pierre, killing him and leaving Marie with two young daughters. Curie buried her sorrow in her work, exploring the medical uses of radiation in the treatment of cancer and lupus. And in 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Like many explorers, Curie died because of her journey. She succumbed to pernicious anemia, an effect of her work with radioactivity, in 1934. The library she left behind speaks to a pioneering path that wasn’t limited to science. Today Curie’s notebooks are still too radioactive to be handled. So, too, are her cookbooks.


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 this thing must be attained.

- Marie Curie

SOURCES: 1 The People’s Almanac: David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, 1975; Doubleday and Company. 2 Jone Johnson Lewis, other collaboration. 3 "Mme. Curie is Dead; Martyr to Science," New York Times, July 5, 1934. 4 Manning, "The Society: Race, Gender and Science." History of Science Society. Photo Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis.    

© Bettmann/Corbis.