Marie Curie and International Women’s Day

2011 year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

The day was commemorated for the first time on 19 March 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland!  It had been established  during the Socialist International meeting the year before.

More than one million women and men attended rallies on that first commemoration.

In 1975, during International Women’s Year, the United Nations began celebrating 8 March as International Women’s Day. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions. The Day is traditionally marked with a message from the Secretary-General.

The Theme for International Women’s Day 2011 is Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women

So I thought this was an ideal time to write about my great inspiration; Marie Curie.

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) is famous for her work on radioactivity.

I can’t remember now in which girl’s comic I saw a pictorial  story of her life. I was very young!  But it made a huge impression –  I can still remember the images quite clearly.

Curie founded the Curie Insititutes in Paris and Warsaw.  She shared her Nobel prize in physics with her husband.  (Her daughter and son-in-law, also shared a Nobel prize, so it wasn’t just me who was inspired).  She was the sole winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry!

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and she is the only woman to win the award in two different fields

Having left her native Poland to live in Paris, her achievments include the creation of a theory of radioactivity (a term she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two new elements, polonium and radium . Under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of cancers using radioactive isotopes.

Everyone one who is treated with radiotherapy owes her a debt!

Her struggles to study and to support herself and her sister, penniless and caught up in the politics of Europe, are inspirational in themselves.

She became the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne.  But she clearly led a full, complex and at times scandalous private life.

During World War I,  she pushed for the use of mobile radiography units, which came to be known popularly as petites Curies (“Little Curies”), for the treatment of wounded soldiers.  After the war started, she donated the gold Nobel Prize medals she and her husband had been awarded, to the war effort.

But she paid a price for her work.

On the 4th of July 1934,  Marie Curie died  from aplastic anaemia.  This was almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation. The damaging effects were not known then and much of her work had been carried out in a shed, without proper safety measures. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket and stored them in her desk drawer.  She was know to remark on the pretty blue-green light that the substances gave off in the dark.

She was interred in a  cemetery in alongside her husband, Pierre. Sixty years later, in 1995, in honor of their achievements, the remains of both were transferred to the Paris Panthéon.  She became the first, and so far the only, woman to be honored with interrment in the Panthéon on her own merits.

To attain her scientific achievements, she had to overcome barriers  because she was a woman.  This is highlighted in Francoise Giroud’s Marie Curie: A Life, which emphasizes  her role as a feminist icon.

She was ahead of her time; emancipated, independent and incorruptible.

Albert Einstein is reported to have remarked that she was probably the only person who was not corrupted by the fame that she had won.

Who better to inspire us on International Women’s Day!

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2 thoughts on “Marie Curie and International Women’s Day”

  1. Marie Curie was a female that is simple, beautiful, and revolutionary in the field of atomic physics. I really admire her as a teacher of physics … with his partner Pierre Curie, very instrumental in the development of radioactivity.

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