Monday, March 08, 2010

OK, it seems like a manufactured red-letter day, but in collaboration with and respect for my feminist collaborators, I'm honoring Marie Skłodowska Curie today, for International Women's Day.

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (Physics, 1903, w/ advisor Henri Becquerel and fellow student Pierre Curie). She was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different subjects (Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911). The work of her and her family on radioactivity and nuclear chemistry and physics has had a tremendous influence on modern physics, chemistry, biology.

With respect to society, she was the first woman to serve on the faculty of the University of Paris. As a woman, she faced considerable discrimination from her male peers, and it wasn't until her husband's tragic death that she truly emerged from his shadow and became the first woman professor at the University of Paris / Sorbonne. Despite her second Nobel Prize, the French Academy of Sciences (barely) failed to elect her into its membership in 1911 (her student became the first woman member in 1962). The revelation of her affair with physicist Paul Langevin was fuel for her rivals in academia, helped spur xenophobic (she was Polish, though working for France) and anti-Semitic rumors against her (she was not actually Jewish, though apparently even the anti-Semitic bigots that would fuel the Dreyfus affair wanted a piece of her).

She founded the Radium Institute (now the Maria Skłodowska–Curie Institute of Oncology) in Warsaw in the early 30's, while actively continuing her research in radioactivity at the Sorbonne to the very end. Sadly, it was that very subject matter that ultimately killed her by way of aplastic anemia, from exposure to the very radioactivity and substances that she discovered.

She has been described as an early feminist: emancipated and independent. And, it was said of her by Einstein, "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted."

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 that this thing must be attained. -- Marie Skłodowska Curie