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The Radioactive Madam

November 19, 2015

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Marie Curie experienced many firsts in her life. Born in times when females could get only basic education, she could not get into the all men Warsaw University. It took her five years working as a tutor and a governess, to raise enough money and fulfil her life dream to become a scientist. As many other talented women of her time, Marie headed for Paris, where she managed to enroll at the prestigious Sorbonne.

With little money, today the most famous female scientist, survived mainly on buttered bread and tea. Despite of the hardships she still finished two masters, one in physics and the other in mathematics. In the lab Marie met another gifted physicist, Pierre Curie and a short romance ignited a brilliant scientific duo. Fascinated by first research of uranium and its rays, she assumed they might come from the element’s atomic structure. This revolutionary idea opened a completely new chapter of physics. It was Marie that coined the word radioactivity and kept researching the phenomenon to her end. She found two new elements, polonium, named after her native country, and radium, the elusive radioactive gas and became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, along with her husband and Henri Becquerel. Even after giving birth to two daughters, Marie never gave up on her research work.

Second first happened when Marie became the first female professor at the Sorbonne. And another one, when Curie became the first person to win a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. Marie frequently got together with other famous scientists, like Albert Einstein and Max Planck to discuss the many groundbreaking discoveries of their time. Albert once even wrote her a letter saying not to cave under the pressure of trolls, or reptiles, as he put it.

Years of working with radioactive materials took a toll on her health. She was even known to carry radioactive samples in the pockets of her lab coat, something inconceivable today. Her adopted country honoured Marie in 1995, by putting her remains in the Parisian Panthéon, the final resting place of France’s greatest minds. Marie Curie Sklodowska died in 1934, leaving behind a huge legacy. She remains the most famous female scientist of all times.

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