Marie Curie's Influence on the Development of Science and Her Impact on Women in the Early 20th Century

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Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw Poland. In 1891 she moved to France; she attended Sorbonne University where she achieved a master’s degree in physics in 1893, a master’s degree in mathematics in 1894, and her Doctor of Science in 1903. In 1895 she married Pierre Curie, and together with her husband, researched radioactivity.

Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for scientific achievements twice:

The first time in 1903 in physics for research on the phenomenon of radioactivity.

The second time in 1911 in chemistry for the separation of pure radium and the study of chemical properties of the radioactive elements polonium and radium through her work with pitchblende.

How Marie Curie Employed: - Systems Thinking - Creative Thinking - Lateral Thinking - Problem Based Learning

Systems Thinking

Marie “studied the conductance of air under the influence of the uranium rays … [and] examined whether substances other than uranium were able to make the air a conductor of electricity.”

Marie was interested in her husband and brother-in-law’s invention, the Piezo- Electric Apparatus, an electrometer which was used to measure very low electrical currents.

Marie connected behaviors and concepts of radioactive elements and electricity. She used the electrometer to examine the degree of radioactivity of numerous metals, salts, oxides, and minerals.

Creative Thinking

Marie discovered that the two most active elements are uranium and thorium, however, “two minerals of uranium, pitchblende and chalcolite, are much more active than uranium itself.”

From these results Marie Curie theorized that the minerals may contain an undiscovered element that is more radioactive than uranium. As well, she hypothesized that radiation or the emission of rays is a potential property of atoms. This hypothesis challenged the accepted idea of the atom as the smallest form of matter. Marie hypothesized, and considered the possibilities of her research. She “used both intuition and logic to explore ideas.” Both of these hypotheses are proven to be true.

Lateral Thinking

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To prove the existence of the unknown elements (today known as polonium and radium), Marie had to isolate them from pitchblende; a mineral that can contain up to 30 different elements.

Marie had to use chemical analysis and an array of chemical procedures to separate the various elements from pitchblende. Chemical Analysis was barely known and not many scientific instruments were available to do this easily. The open mind and lateral thinking of Marie Cure allowed her to succeed.

There is about 0.1 mg of polonium, and 1.4 g of radium in one ton of pitchblende. It took Marie over three years of murderous work to isolate 1 decigram of radium.

This was a very complicated process which required an “attitude of mind that involves the willingness to look at things in different ways.”

Problem Based Learning

Marie’s greatest passion was learning. Before graduating high school, Maria spoke Polish, Russian, French, German, and some English. She played the piano, was excellent at drawing, was interested in poetry, psychology, sociology, mathematics, and the various sciences. Marie graduated at the top of her high school class. Marie desperately wanted to attain higher education, however, women were unable to attend university in Poland. Marie was confronted with problems, forced to find solutions, and execute them.

In occupied Poland, she began attending the “Flying University”; an illegal university where men and women were taught in private homes by Polish philosophers, professors, and historians.

Marie wanted a formal education. She wanted to attend Sorbonne University in Paris which admitted women. Since Marie could not cover all expenses by herself, she made an agreement with her sister: Marie would help her sister pay for her education at Sorbonne, and then her sister would spare some money to help Marie with her education in Paris.

Skłodowska devoted herself to organizational and social activities. She inspired the University of Paris to create the Radium Institute in 1914. She also created the Radiological Laboratory of the Warsaw Scientific Society.

Marie was chosen as the director of the Radium Institute where she organized a research department on the physical and chemical properties of radioactive bodies, and gave birth to a biological department in that unit as well. She supported the development of nuclear research in chemistry and in physics and their practical applications.

Curie educated scientists in her laboratories, supported local initiatives and obtained funds from the industry and financial institutions in order to ensure the continuation of research.

Research in Marie Curie’s laboratories lead to:

  • The creation of a new branch of analytics, chemical engineering, and radiation chemistry.
  • The elaboration of radon separation in industrial quantities.
  • The development of quantum mechanics.
  • An indication of the existence of non-electromagnetic short-range forces that bind the components of the nucleus.
  • The basis for the future use of nuclear energy by demonstrating that the release of significant amounts of energy is associated with nuclear phenomena.
  • The development of ionizing radiation applications in oncological therapy and dissemination of X-ray diagnostics.
  • During the First World War she became involved in the X-ray service Marie invented the first mobile x- ray ambulances which would be able to be taken to the battlefield and assist army doctors with surgeries.
  • Thanks to her efforts, about 200 radiological stations and over 20 “radiation cars” were created for the French army.
  • Marie discovered a new method of disinfecting tissue; hollow needles containing radioactive gas.
  • Marie learned about anatomy, some auto mechanics, learned how to drive, change deflated tires so she could devote time to the war effort herself.
  • Marie personally trained women volunteers to use the x-ray equipment. By the end of the war, Marie trained a total of 150 women.

Some Modern Technologies and Applications that arose from Marie Curie’s Research:

  • The discovery of radiotherapy, teletherapy, brachytherapy, radiography, and many more nuclear medicines and procedures which are used to study life processes, detect and treat diseases such as cancer.
  • The study of places that are unable to be reached such as the interior of materials and species, layers of the earth, bodies of water, astronomical objects, underground wiring and pipelines, etc.
  • The mutation of genomes which have altered characteristics of species so that we may have, for example, good-looking, pest resistant, fast growing, and longer asting fruits and vegetables.
  • The sterilization of foodstuffs, packaging, medical devices, manufacturing parts etc.
  • The control of chemical reactions.
  • Radiometric Dating.

Technologies emerged which have enhanced the quality of life around the world and advanced humanity’s knowledge and comprehension of the universe.

Without her research we wouldn’t be able to fully understand radiation which are necessary to provide cancer therapies, help us understand the earth, space, bodies of water, the climate, the age of artifacts, etc.

Marie Skłodowska Curie’s discoveries are having a greater significance as time goes by The number of cancer cases are projected to rise greatly in the next few decades. Nuclear medicines, which are involved in 40% of all cancer cases, will have an increasing impact on the years to come. X-rays of the earth’s oceans reveal the devastating impacts of human activity and detrimental effects on climate change indicating a necessary need for sustainability.

Marie Curie’s Influence on Society and Women

  • Marie Curie is the creator of radiochemistry; she coined the term “radioactivity.”
  • She strongly influenced the place of a woman in the scientific community.
  • The research and discoveries of Curie has had an extraordinary meaning for science.
  • They have become the foundation of nuclear physics, radiochemistry, radiation chemistry and the starting point for the development and modernization of many medical disciplines.
  • Marie Curie is the first woman to win the Novel Prize.
  • She is the only woman who received this award twice.
  • She is the only scholar in history honoured with the Nobel Prize in two different fields of natural science.
  • She became the first female professor at Sorbonne University in 1896 teaching general physics.
  • She was one of the first women to obtain a drivers licence.
  • Marie is one of the most influential women of all time and is an influential role model to women worldwide.

In a male predominated field of work Marie Curie excelled phenomenally in the international science community. She proves that women have an important place in science and society. She shows that a woman’s knowledge should be taken seriously, and should not be overlooked.

Marie Curie stated that: “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, at whatever cost, must be attained.” Marie shows that any obstacle we face has solutions; especially obstacles that may interfere with someone attaining their goals and dreams. Marie gave women and men the opportunity to be trained, as scientists and to operate x-ray equipment, which enabled them, especially women, a more predominant role in society.

Marie Curie passed away on July 4th, 1934.

Marie Curie sacrificed her life for her research. She died of aplastic anemia, which is believed to be caused by her constant exposure to radiation. Marie is remembered for being a strong, independent woman who had a strong influence on women, the scientific community, and the world.

Many institutions have been named on her behalf such as the Curie Institute, Pierre and Marie Curie University. The 96th element, curium, was named to honour the Curies.

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