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Humanist profile.

Marie Curie


Scientist and Two-time Novel Laureate

"You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and, at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity."

--Marie Curie

Madame Curie, one of the greatest scientists of all time, was born Maria Sklodowska on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland--then occupied by Russia. She was the daughter of two teachers, one a freethinking nationalist who taught physics and mathematics.

Early on Sklodowska was noted for an incredible memory and work ethic. At the age of fifteen she completed secondary school first in her class and received a medal for her outstanding academic work. However, because she was a woman, and Tsarist Russia was meting out reprisals for a nationalist uprising, Sklodowska wasn't permitted to enroll in a university and so attended the illegal Flying University.

But in 1893 Sklodowska was able to enroll at the world-famous Sorbonne in Paris where she met her husband, Pierre Curie, and adopted the French equivalent of her name (Marie). Her husband soon joined in her scientific investigations into the natural radioactivity discovered by another French scientist, Antoine Henri Becquerel.

It took Marie Curie only three years to earn degrees in mathematics and physics. In 1903 she presented the discovery of radium in her doctoral thesis. The examining committee expressed the opinion that her findings were the most important ever presented in such a forum. She became the first woman in France to complete a doctorate degree and later became the first woman to join the faculty at the Sorbonne.

Along with her husband and Becquerel, Curie was awarded in 1903 the Nobel Prize in physics for research into radioactivity. Incidentally, and in spite of the tremendous sexism that nearly precluded her being awarded the prize, this also made her the first female Nobel laureate.

Despite the vast wealth it might have brought them, the Curies didn't attempt to patent radium, instead allowing unhindered research access to the scientific community. As Marie Curie put it, "If our discovery has a commercial future, that is an accident. Radium is going to be of use in treating disease. ... It seems to me impossible to take advantage of that."

In 1911 Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for producing a pure metal sample of radium and establishing the atomic weight of radium and polonium. To this day she remains the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes and the first of only two people to have won Nobel Prizes in two fields (the second person was Linus Pauling).

At the onset of World War I, and although she despised war, Curie donated she and her late husband's Nobel Prize medals to the French war effort (Pierre had died an untimely death in 1906). She also pioneered the use of vehicles outfitted with x-rays or "mobile x-ray units" to help treat wounded soldiers.

On July 4, 1934, at the age of 67, Curie died of aplastic anemia, a blood disease that often results from radiation exposure. No doubt Curie, known to carry test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket, was exposed to massive amounts of radiation during her scientific career.

Curie is said to have become an agnostic as a teenager and was described variously throughout her life as a rationalist, atheist, and freethinker. "Nothing in life is to be feared" she said. "It is only to be understood."
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Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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