Marie Skłodowska Curie changed the world not once but twice. She founded the new science of radioactivity – even the word was invented by her – and her discoveries launched effective cures for cancer.
“Curie boasts an extraordinary array of achievements,” says Patricia Fara, president of the British Society for the History of Science, who nominated the Polish-born French scientist. “She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person – note the use of person there, not woman – to win a second Nobel Prize.”
Born in Warsaw, Curie studied physics at university in Paris where she met her future research collaborator and husband, Pierre. Together they identified two new elements: radium and polonium, named after her native Poland. After he died, she raised a small fortune in the US and Europe to fund laboratories and to develop cancer treatments.
Marie Curie was a woman of action as well as enormous intellect. During the First World War, she helped to equip ambulances with x-ray equipment, and often drove them to the front line herself.
“The odds were always stacked against her,” says Fara. “In Poland her patriotic family suffered under a Russian regime. In France she was regarded with suspicion as a foreigner – and of course, wherever she went, she was discriminated against as a woman.”
Despite becoming ill from the radioactive materials she constantly handled, Curie never lost her determination to excel in the scientific career that she loved. Her memory is preserved by the cancer society that bears her name and continues to help terminally ill patients all over the world.