Today I went to a public hospital for an x-ray, an appointment that happened to fall on the 144th birthday of Marie Curie (as Google’s doodle reminds us) a pioneer of the technology — for which we can all be thankful.
Born in Russian occupied Poland, Maria/Marie, winner of two Nobel Prizes, met her husband Pierre at the Sorbonne, where she was studying physics and mathematics — which cannot have been very common for a woman then. They were married in 1895 and worked together investigating radioactivity. Pierre’s life was cut short in 1906 when he was knocked down and killed by a carriage. By then they had two daughters, Irene — who herself received a Nobel Prize — and Eve.
Skłodowska-Curie was devastated by the death of her husband. She noted that, as of that moment she suddenly had become “an incurably and wretchedly lonely person”. On 13 May 1906, the Sorbonne physics department decided to retain the chair that had been created for Pierre Curie and they entrusted it to Skłodowska-Curie together with full authority over the laboratory. This allowed her to emerge from Pierre’s shadow. She became the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, and in her exhausting work regime she sought a meaning for her life.
Marie herself died in 1934 from leukaemia, caused by exposure to high-energy radiation from her research, at the age of 66.
Famed and honoured as she is, not only for her important work but also as a feminist precursor, it is good to think of her also as a wife and mother, who could combine those roles with demanding research. A reference to her cookbook — kept along with other papers in lead-lined boxes because of their dangerous radioactivity — conjures up a picture of her leaving the laboratory at the end of an exhausting day and going home to cook dinner.
Yes, it’s all been done before, and probably with less complaining…