Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Nobel Family

The Nobel Prize Awards are normally announced in the month of October. With this year's [2007] recent announcements, I was reminded of a unique Polish lady sceintist who won the Nobel Awards twice--once in Physica and the second time in Chemistry -- Marie Curie. Besides, Marie Curie has the rare distinction of belonging to a family which has won three Nobel Awards within the family, with Marie's daughter Irene having won the Nobel Prize fort Chemistry in 1935 [ with her husband Frderic Juliet].

The attachment outlines the poignant, pathetic and moving story of Marie and how she gave up her very life in the cause of science.

B.M.N.Murthy, Saturday 20th Oct 2007

MARIE CURIE [1867-1934]
--The Only Person to have received the Nobel Prize twice.

In the history of the Nobel Prize Awards ever since it was instituted in 1901 by Alfred Nobel, the unique distinction of having won the prestigious award twice---once for Physics in 1903 and the second time for Chemistry in 1911—goes to a Polish lady scientist by name Marie Curie. Apart from her individual distinction as a scientist, Marie could bask in the glory of having added one more feather to the crown of the family when her own daughter Irene, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935 with her husband Frederic Juliet for their joint work on ‘Artificial Radio-activity’. This sort of achievement by a single family is unparalleled in the history of science. Notwithstanding this unique name and honour which she had earned by sheer dint of merit and hard work, Marie Curie was the very personification of humility and modesty. No wonder, speaking in an assembly of top world scientists, Albert Einstein once observed “Marie is, among all distinguished people, the only one whom fame has not corrupted”

Marie was born on 7th May 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, as the second daughter of Professor Wladislaw Sklodowski. In those days, Poland was ruled by the Czar of Russia—a rule known for its oppression and cruelty and suppression of individual liberty and freedom. A man of self-respect, Marie’s father had his own share of trouble by the government. Influenced by her father who was a scientist by profession, Marie always dreamt of following science as a career when she grew up. But in Poland her ambition of becoming a scientist remained a dream, since the Czarist government did not allow girls to join the university. Even her elder sister Bronya, who had desired to take up medicine and become a doctor, suffered the same fate. When Bronya was 20 and Marie 17, the sisters took a bold decision to quit Poland and go to Paris where they could take up some employment and earn some money. Marie joined a household as a governess and after earning enough money she secured admission in The University of Sorbonne, Paris in the year 1891. She graduated in 1893 by standing first in the college. While at Sorbonne, Marie led the austere life of a monk. Her residence was a sixth floor attic with no proper light and ventilation.. A crevice in the slanted ceiling brought in a little bit of light. Evenings and nights were quite chilly since there was no heater in the room. Nor was there any running water. Her daily diet used to be bread and tea with the luxury of an egg occasionally. One day, during a morning class, she fainted. When she recovered, they found out that during the last 24 hours she had eaten nothing but a few radishes, since she could not afford any other food.

In course of time she met Pierre Curie who was working as a Physicist at the Paris Faculty of Science. He was a handsome bachelor about 34 years. Both fell in love and got married in 1895 when Marie was 28. Thus began one of the most glorious husband and wife collaboration in the history of science. After their marriage it was decided that the couple would work together in a laboratory. Their mutual devotion to science led Pierre Curie to remark “I have got a wife made expressly for me to share all my preoccupations”. Husband and wife worked together through eight hard years from 1898 on their chosen topic of separating the highly radioactive radium from its ore, pitchblende.. While they were engaged in research, their first daughter Irene was born. In 1903 Marie was awarded the Doctorate for her thesis on Radioactivity. In the whole of Europe she was the first lady to secure a Doctorate in science. In 1903 the Royal Institute of London awarded the Davy Medal to her and invited her to the Institute. Marie was the first woman to enter the Royal Institute of London .The D-Day in the couple’s life finally came on 10th December 1903 when the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to the Curie Couple for their work on Radioactivity. Marie went down in the history of science as the first woman scientist to receive the Nobel Prize. By the time the Nobel Prize was announced the health of both the husband and wife had deteriorated so much due to constant exposure to radioactive rays that they were not in a position to travel to Sweden personally to receive the Award. The discovery of Radium by the Curies had not spared the foster parents; it had affected the health of both.

Notwithstanding that the whole world recognized her as a celebrity; Marie continued to be the very embodiment of simplicity. . While her wealthy hostesses at parties wore glittering and fabulous diamonds, Marie did not even wear a ring. She did not even know that such ornaments existed. She was shy of publicity and felt uncomfortable when journalists interviewed her. Marie’s simple disguise for avoiding recognition was to remain undisguised. One American journalist, hot on the trial of elusive Marie, tracked the publicity-shy couple to a fishing village of France. He found a woman sitting at the doorstep of a cottage. Mistaking her to be a housekeeper, she asked her “Is the lady in?” “No, she is not in” was the reply. “Do you expect her to return soon?” asked the curious journalist. ‘I don’t think so” was the reply. “Could you tell me something intimate about the lady?” requested the persistent journalist. “Nothing” replied Marie Curie” “except one message from the Madam to the reporters: Be less inquisitive about people and more inquisitive about their work”.

The Curies got their second daughter in 1904. The continued research on radioactivity had its adverse effect on their health. The swelling of joints and pain in the legs of Pierre had intensified making him almost a cripple. On 16th April 1906 it had been raining the whole night. In the morning Pierre left for the laboratory when it was still raining. He stepped into the road, umbrella in hand. The road was crowded with people, trams and hand carts. There were puddles on the road which was quite slushy. Pierre tried to cross the road but a cart drawn by a horse and heavily loaded with goods knocked him down. The wheel ran over his head and he died on the spot. Marie was shocked and became inconsolable.

With admirable composure of mind, Marie continued her research work in spite of failing health. Her work in the field of producing Radium in the form of a metal earned her the Nobel Prize for a second time, this time in the field of Chemistry, in 1911 at the age of 44. By about the winter of 1933, her health had further deteriorated. Constant exposure to Radium for over 30 years had pushed her to the verge of death and she passed away on 4th July 1934 at the age of 66 years.


Created: Friday, October 19, 2007 10:10 PM


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