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December 10, 1903: Marie Curie Was Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

On December 10, 1903, Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in physics. Eventually, she became the first person and only woman to win the prize twice and the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize in two different sciences. Keeping up this boundary-breaking pattern, she was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. In 1995, she was the first female to be entombed based on her own merits in the Pantheon in Paris.

Born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867, Curie was the daughter of school teacher parents who provided her with scientific training alongside the education she received in the local schools. In 1891, she moved to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne where she attained licentiateships in physics and mathematical sciences. She had very few resources as a student and her hunger would sometimes cause her to faint. In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, a professor in the School for Physics, when she was looking for a laboratory space to conduct research. Their shared passion for the sciences brought them together and a year later they married.

Although Curie wanted to return to her home country of Poland, she was denied a spot at the university because she was a woman. She eventually became the head of the physics laboratory at the Sorbonne and received her Doctor of Science degree in 1903. When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie and Henri Becquerel, who also worked with them developing the theory of radioactivity, with the Nobel Peace Prize, they were initially not going to include Marie in the honor due to her gender. However, one of the committee members was an advocate for women in the sciences, so he insisted that Marie be included.

In 1906, Pierre was tragically killed when he was struck by a horse-drawn vehicle. Although devastated by her husband’s shocking death, Curie was asked to take over his position as professor of general physics. She was the first woman to hold this position. In that time period, she succeeded in isolating radioactive isotopes and received her second Nobel Peace Prize in 1911 for her discovery of two new elements, polonium, which she named after her native country of Poland, and radium. In 1914, she was appointed the director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris. She directed the world’s first studies into the treatment of neoplasms using radioactive isotopes. During World War I, she and her daughter traveled around World War I battlefields with the mobile x-ray units that she invented in order to help treat wounded soldiers.

Although her tireless work in the science field would go on to save many lives and yield more groundbreaking discoveries, it had detrimental effects on Curie’s health. Due to her exposure to radiation, she died of aplastic pernicious anemia, a rare disease that severely damages the bone marrow and hematopoietic stem cells, in 1934 at a sanatorium in France. Her daughter died of leukemia in 1956 linked to her own radiation exposure as a scientist. Curie’s work with the elements she discovered and named was so dangerous that her research notebooks are still locked in lead boxes. It will take another 1,600 years for them to be safe enough to handle. Additionally, all her personal belongings are still considered too radioactive to be around without wearing protective clothing.

Curie put her life on the line and her impact is felt to this day every time we step into an x-ray machine. Although Curie is still one of only two women to win a Nobel Peace Prize in physics and one of 49 to hold a Nobel Prize in all, her legacy lives on with the growing number of women entering the STEM field.

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