(b. November 7, 1867, Warsaw, Poland – d. July 4, 1934, Passy, France)
Marie Curie, a humble and virtuous woman, earned her recognition as a historical pillar of the physical sciences through her unwavering commitment to education, discovery, and innovation—venturing her endeavors to never before discovered fields.
Born to two teachers, Curie developed an early fascination with education, namely, the physical sciences, becoming the top student of her secondary school. Despite excelling academically, Curie’s application to the University of Warsaw was rejected due to her status as a woman. In light of this, Curie secretly attended Warsaw’s “Flying University,” an unofficial schooling system that remained hidden from the Russian authorities and anti-feminist sentiment that governed Poland at the time. Her secret education, however, proved unsatisfactory for Curie, who—along with her sister Bronya—developed a commitment to earning an official degree abroad. To make this dream financially feasible, Curie struck up a deal with her sister: while Bronya attended school, Curie would work to support her sister’s academic career and, once graduated, Bronya would then return the favor. During her time working, Curie took on the position of a governess and tutor, spending her free time feeding her curiosity on physics, math, and chemistry. Once Bronya completed her studies, Curie moved to Paris, attending Sorbonne University and fully devoting her time to academics. By the age of 26, Curie graduated with two master’s degrees: one in Physics, the other in Mathematical Sciences. She was subsequently granted the opportunity to work at a lab, investigating the magnetic properties of various kinds of steel. Around this time, inspired by Henri Becquerel’s work with uranium rays, Curie began conducting her own experiments, eventually confirming Becquerel’s conclusion that the rays remained constant in nature, regardless of uranium’s state or condition. Curie took the conclusion a step further by attributing this constancy to the atomic structure of uranium, a groundbreaking discovery that eventually birthed the field of atomic physics, and ultimately named this phenomenon “radioactivity.” Because of her work, Curie became the first woman to win the Noble Prize in Physics—in part, sharing the recognition with Becquerel. Just a few years later, Curie’s continued research on radioactivity allowed her to discover the radioactive elements polonium (named after her home country Poland) and radium, becoming the only person in the world to win a second Noble Prize, this time in Chemistry, awarded for her discovery. On top of these highly esteemed awards, Curie additionally participated in righteous missions: supporting the World War I cause by employing her knowledge of radium to medically aid wounded soldiers and scientifically backing the use of portable x-ray machinery, later nicknamed “little curies,” to image injuries. Curie went above and beyond, using her intelligence for virtuous causes and to advance humankind’s understanding of our world—a realization wonderfully encapsulated by her steadfast belief that: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”