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First Woman to Win the Nobel Prize

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"First Woman to Win the Nobel Prize"
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I wasn't trying to be smug but I was fairly certain that I knew the answer to this title. Madame Curie. I first discovered this amazing woman back in the early 1970s. I was in junior high school at the time. I was very impressed by her intelligence, her work ethic, her stamina and her absolute love for scientific discovery. I'm not quite certain why I painstakingly devoured that thick biography of her amazing life. Because at that time of my life, I was somewhat fascinated by musicians, writers and poets. I didn't especially admire scientists because I didn't feel any real connection to any of them. But I could connect to that lady. I was of French descent and she chose to make France her home. I was female and she was female. They were loose connections but they were strong enough to compel me to finish that gigantic book. Her life and her accomplishments were incredible for a woman of any era.

Her birth name Maria Salomea Sklodowska. She was born in the capital of Poland. The date would go down in history. It was November 7, 1867. Warsaw was probably an exciting city for a young girl like Maria. That city provided notable contributions to European culture. If you look up the city of Warsaw, this incredible scientist is the first renowned person who was listed. Her legacy certainly enveloped her hometown and native country but it also spread out to include France. Then it extended to the rest of the European countries and to the United States. Then across the rest of the globe.

She was noted for her dual nationality: French and Polish. She was also noted for her dual fields of study: Physics and Chemistry. A site that pays proper homage to this exceptionally gifted woman is It brought up some facts that I had not learned or that had not been absorbed by my youthful mind. This remarkable woman had seriously considered life as a writer or as a poet. Her father compelled his children to learn not only science and mathematics but also literature and poetry. Had she applied her life to literary pursuits, she probably would have won several Nobel Prizes for Literature instead of the TWO Nobel Prizes for Science that she received.

Another fine site ,, provides biographical material for all ages of Madame Curie admirers. Both Maria Sklodowska's parents were educators. Her grandfather was a teacher and a principal. Her family definitely valued the concept of education: personally and professionally. I'm certain she lived up to her family's expectations for her. She was the Valedictorian of her class at the tender age of fifteen. But she was exhausted by her efforts. Her father sent her to the country estate of her aunt and uncle. She was able to enjoy an entire year off. She didn't have to worry about any academic endeavors during that time. I discovered more information that filled in some crucial gaps for me. Maria Sklodowska could not have attended any university in her hometown or anywhere in Poland because women were not allowed to pursue any advanced studies at the university level. But that technicality did not stop Madame Curie. She received further academic knowledge at the Flying University in Warsaw. It was an illegal operation. It was open to both males and females. The school was operated from 1885 until 1905. The school boasted some of the best Polish educators available during that era. 5,000 women and thousands of men were educated there during its twenty year existence. Only Madame Curie and two others were mentioned. She stood out from all the others at a very early age.

One of her older sisters had moved to France. Bronia Sklodowska journeyed to Paris. She went to medical school, then she graduated and opened her own practice. She also got married. She urged her sister to move to Paris. Maria was torn between two worlds. She was devoted to her father and her other sister. Maria also truly loved Poland and its people. Maria Sklodowska did move to Paris and she enrolled at the Sorbonne. When she enrolled at this prestigious university, she used the French equivalent of her name. Marie. For a time, she lived with her sister and her brother-in-law. But it was very cramped. Both of them were doctors and the apartment also functioned as their office. Madame Curie had always been different. Ahead of her times. She moved to an attic room near the university. There she joined a sea of scholars: nearly 9,000 men and approximately 200 other women. Nearly of all of those women were like Madame Curie. Foreigners.

Marie and Pierre Curie met through mutual friends. They forged a scientific relationship first. Gradually, their shared love of science turned into a real romance. These two great minds and souls were joined in matrimony on July 26, 1895. They were practical yet fun-loving newlyweds. As a wedding present, they made a healthy purchase. Bicycles. They spent their honeymoon in Brittany. Madame Curie and her husband were exceptional people. They were brilliant yet they seemed very humble. They appeared to be prisoners of their labs yet they made time for bicycling, day trips, weekends and vacations. They loved nature. Madame Curie adored her flowers and her gardens. She was a superb scientist. That fact will never be disputed. But she was a woman, a wife and a mother. It would have been impressive enough for anyone to realize that she'd won TWO Nobel Prizes. But her husband, Pierre, won a Nobel Prize and their daughter, Irene, also won a Nobel Prize too. Sadly, neither of her parents would live to see her receive this honor. Incredible DNA and endless hours of painstaking labor had been duly compensated. You may ask why she received two different Nobel Prizes. She worked incredibly hard all her life. She should have been recognized for more prizes than she actually received. She and her husband discovered Polonium in 1893. Five years later, they discovered Radium in 1898. Those discoveries came at an exceptionally high cost for Madame Curie. Her health. She and her family were innocently unaware of the dangers they had been exposing themselves towhile meticulously performing their experiments.

A nearly insurmountable tragedy occurred between her first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. It was the death of her beloved husband. On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie stepped into the path of a horse-drawn wagon. The horses, pulling that heavy wagon, reared up. Pierre was flung beneath the wagon wheels and he was killed. Madame Curie was naturally devastated by this tragic accident. She fell into a severe depression. Many months went by until she was able to resume her work in the laboratory. It took many years until she could sufficiently recover from this staggering blow. Her husband had been a professor at the Sorbonne. His chair was left empty. Madame Curie, was the director of the laboratory. That would have been a rather demanding job all by itself. But she assumed his teaching duties. She was the first woman who ever lectured at that university. On top of all those responsibilities, she tutored her own children. One of her daughters won the Nobel Prize. Also for Science. Her other daughter, Eve, lived to be 102-years-old. She died on October 22, 2007. She was an author who wrote a venerated biography of her famous mother.

Madame Curie holds the distinction of being the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different fields of scientific work. Besides those incredible awards, she also received the Davy Medal in 1903 and the Mateucci Medal in 1904. Madame Curie has been honored in other various ways. Her likeness has appeared on both coins and stamps. Three radioactive minerals have been named after Madame Curie and her phenomenal family. A university has been named for Pierre and Marie Curie. But other schools bear just her name. She was the first and only woman to be laid to rest under this historic French structure: the Pantheon. Her husband was laid to rest there too but she did not ride on his illustrious coattails. She earned that honor through a lifetime of hard work and dedication to her scientific craft. Her absolute love for scientific research most likely resulted in her death. She died from aplastic anemia. Radiation was the probable culprit. The date was July 4, 1934.

More about this author: S.C. Kleinhans

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