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Subverting the genre

One hundred years ago, Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry

Marie and Pierre working in the laboratory

Hulton Archive/Getty Images Marie and Pierre working in the laboratoryHulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her work on radioactivity (a name that she coined in 1898), for having discovered polonium and radium, and for having isolated radium. This was her second Nobel Prize. She, her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903 for their studies on spontaneous radioactivity. Madame Curie was a pioneer in several other aspects as well. Furthermore, she is still the only Nobel laureate to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in different fields of science. She was the first woman to get a PhD in physical sciences, the first female university professor and laboratory coordinator in France, and the first woman to rise up to the rank of full professor at the Sorbonne. “Her significant discoveries transformed the fields of physics and chemistry,” says physicist Vanderlei Salvador Bagnato from the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) at São Carlos.

The hundredth anniversary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize will be on the list of commemorations in 2011, which the United Nations has named the International Year of Chemistry (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue 180). March 8 is also International Women’s Day. For very many years, this prominent scientist has been a symbol of female competence in chemistry and physics, fields dominated by men. Her battles and challenges, however, are less well known.

The Solvay Conference in 1911: the only woman among the most prominent physicists of the times

Hulton Archive/Getty Images The Solvay Conference in 1911: the only woman among the most prominent physicists of the timesHulton Archive/Getty Images

Madame Curie (1867-1934) was born in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which was under Russian domination at the time. Maria Sklodowska (her maiden name) finished high school and attended a clandestine center of studies for women, as the Russians only allowed men to go to university. Maria wanted to continue her studies and get a doctorate. To this end, she went to Paris in 1891 and was accepted into the Sorbonne, where she got a degree in physics and mathematics. Meanwhile, she had met and married physicist Pierre Curie in 1895 and changed her name to Marie Curie.

In her quest for a research topic, Marie chose to focus on the rays that had been recently discovered by France’s Henri Becquerel, who was involved in researching phosphorescent and fluorescent substances. Becquerel wanted to find out whether these substances emitted X-rays, which had been discovered in 1895 by Germany’s Wilhelm Röntgen. Using uranium, the French scientist realized that the element emitted radiation, but the rays were different from the X-rays. In late 1897, Marie went on her quest to discover other materials that produced the same kind of radiation as that of uranium. In Germany, G. C. Smith had had the same idea. In April 1898, both scientists had already reported that thorium emitted similar rays. However, Marie noticed that two uranium minerals – pitchblende and torbenite – were more active than uranium itself. Based on her studies, she predicted the existence of two new elements – polonium, named in honor of Poland, and radium, the most radioactive of the minerals analyzed by her. At the same time when she announced her discoveries, in 1898, she also stressed that uranium and thorium had higher atomic weights.

The Curies’ laboratory, where they discovered polonium and radium

ARCHIVES CURIE ET JOLIOT-CURIE The Curies’ laboratory, where they discovered polonium and radiumARCHIVES CURIE ET JOLIOT-CURIE

Marie and Pierre worked for very many years in a storage facility made available to them by the École de Physique et Chimie Industrielle. The facility lacked infrastructure, but was conveniently located near the couple’s home, which allowed Marie to take care of her house and her daughter and work in the lab. Marie always conducted her research with the support and aid of Pierre, who helped her not only with the scientific research but also provided her with the support to be taken seriously by the scientific community. The first Nobel Prize, for example, was to have been awarded only to Pierre and Becquerel. Pierre had to mobilize all his efforts to persuade the Swedish Academy to include Marie as a Nobel Prize laureate.

“Marie Curie was always as capable as any other important scientist. But as she was a woman, she was left on the sidelines of any scientific center of that period,” says anthropologist Gabriel Pugliese, from the School of Sociology and Politics, who did research work on this under the advice of Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, from USP. “The awards did not erase a path full of difficulties. When Marie Curie came back from Stockholm, after winning the Nobel Prize in 1911, she came home to find that her house in Paris had been stoned. The reason was that the newspapers had published that she was having a love affair – at that time she had already been widowed for five years. Her alleged lover was a colleague, a married Frenchman with four children.