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There are heroes in many walks of life. No, I don’t mean war heroes; at least not today. My purpose is to turn your attention to the only French woman awarded two Nobel Prizes including one for physics which she shared with her husband, Pierre, and Antoine Becquerel in 1903. She and her husband discovered the source of two radioactive substances — radium and polonium — the latter named after her native Poland. Madame Curie continued her work and by 1911 she had isolated radium and studied its chemical properties. For this she received her second Nobel Prize for chemistry.
By 1914 she helped found the Radium Institute in Paris and became its first director. Her contribution would allow x-rays to be used on the battlefield to locate bullets. This was necessary before operations and it was Madame Curie who invented x-ray vans that could work near the battlefields.
Sadly, it was the long exposure to radiation that took Maria’s life. Before she was sixty, due to leukemia brought on by her exposure to high levels of radiation, she passed on.
Madame Marie Curie, who was named Maria Sklodowska, was born in Warsaw on November, 7th 1867. She lived with her patriotic family who were determined to preserve Polish culture. She had been involved in a student revolution when Poland was under Austrian rule. But her studies took her to Paris and the Sorbonne in 1891. There she graduated with a degree in Physics and Mathematical Science. She met a Physics professor and was married in 1894. She succeeded her husband as head of the Physics Laboratory and by 1903 she received her Doctorate in Physics. They had two daughters, Eve and Irene who later assisted their mother in the lab.
Pierre Joliot Curie, who was a home taught boy who received the equivalent of a graduate degree at eighteen, was accidentally killed in a rainstorm on rue Dauphine when he was hit by a horse-drawn vehicle that fractured his skull. He too may have been suffering from a radiation illness. He had been complaining of severe pains in his back and legs. He had worked on crystallography, magnetism, radioactivity and piezoelectricity. After Pierre Curie died, Marie took his place as Professor of Physics in the Faculty of Science.
Marie Curie died in Savoy but her ashes were later moved with her husband to their final resting place in the Pantheon on April 20, 1995. The Pantheon holds one other woman. She was the wife of Marceline Berth, a prize winning chemist. But, as President Mitterrand said, “she was the first woman in our history honored for her own merits.”
Marie was a quiet unassuming woman who was respected by scientists the world over. American President Herbert Hoover presented her with a gift of $50,000, donated by American Friends of Science. She also received many honors such as honorary science, medicine and law degrees as well as honorary memberships to various learned societies around the world.
On the Isle St Louis, behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, is a home and Polish lab that Marie Curie once used. It is facing the Institute Du Monde Arabe across the Seine and is on the same street as Georges Pompidou. There are a number of places in Paris where she worked or lived after arriving from Poland. Places of interest would be:
- 4 rue de la Glaciere (south of Port Royal Blvd): She moved here on the 4th floor with Pierre Curie after their marriage. She is said to have had acertain trepidation about marrying someone who was not Polish, but as they say, “love conquers all.”
- 3 rue Flatters (just off Port Royal Blvd): Before she married, she lived alone in a 6th floor walk-up and another on rue des Feuillantes on the 6th floor.
- The Curie Museum is at N0 11 rue Pierre et Marie Curie. One can visit this Museum Mon. through Fri. 1:30-5:00 PM.
- There are other places to visit such as the Sorbonne itself in the Paris 5th.
For more information on this special lady you can read:
Marie Curie, a life by Susan Quinn, Addison Wesley, 1995. (It includes material taken from Marie Curie’s letters.
There is also a biography written by one of the Curie daughters, Eve a well known international activist.