AP PHYSICS 2After 110 Years: The Legacy of Marie Curie

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Authored by

  • Dolores Gende
    Parish Episcopal School
    Dallas, Texas

I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.

Marie Curie

December 10, 2013, marked the one hundred and tenth anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Physics. To honor the significance of that achievement, it is instructive to discuss the number of firsts Marie Curie experienced in her groundbreaking life as a scientific pioneer. As we do so, we realize that what makes her achievement all the more noteworthy is that it was accomplished within a context that discouraged women from participating in rigorous intellectual and scientific investigation. In its typical use, the title "first lady" often refers to a role subservient to and deriving influence from an elected political spouse, but Marie Curie was subservient to no one, and her influence in her own day and in ours results directly from the power of her own intelligence and the strength of her character that made her persevere and succeed when much was stacked against her. In the case of Marie Curie, we are precise in describing her as truly the First Lady of Science.

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 Curie

One of the more startling firsts in Marie Curie's career is that she was the first woman in Europe to receive her doctorate of science. As teachers, many of us find ourselves encouraging our female students to pursue interests in mathematics and the sciences. That we are able to point to women who have achieved in these fields began with Marie Curie. That we continue to battle against gender-based stereotypes merely points to the distance we have yet to go.

Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for research on radioactivity. She was the first scientist to realize that radioactivity is an intrinsic property of matter only changing the nucleus, rather than the result of a chemical process affecting the outer electrons. She shared that first award with Pierre Curie, her husband, and Henri Becquerel, but her contribution was unique and individual. She was the first to use the term of radioactivity to describe the radiation phenomena.

In 1906, Marie Curie became the first woman to be named not only lecturer and professor but also "head of the laboratory" at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

It is my earnest desire that some of you should carry on this scientific work and keep for your ambition the determination to make a permanent contribution to science."

Marie Curie

The second Nobel Prize was awarded to Marie Curie in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium, making her the first person ever to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes. This time the award was in chemistry.

Upon her death in 1934 from leukemia, Curie became the first woman to be laid to rest under the famous dome of the Panthéon in Paris as a recognition of her own merits rather than being the wife of a famous man.

A year later, Marie Curie became the first Nobel Prize winner to have a daughter also win the Nobel Prize when Irene Joliot-Curie won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Marie Curie was aware that she was a pioneer as a woman in science, but that was not her main concern. What motivated her was the pure pleasure of the beauty of science and the enormous satisfaction she derived from making the previously unknowable known. It is a motivating force we can challenge ourselves to instill in all our students. Having only scratched the surface of Curie's lifetime accomplishments when making the case for her as the First Lady of Science, I offer what follows as possible paths for further exploration of this remarkable woman for you and your students.

Dolores Gende is a teacher at the Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, Texas. Although her degree is in chemical engineering, she has taught physics for 22 years. She is a Table Leader for the AP Physics Exam, an AP workshop consultant, and a Web designer. She has been AP Central's content adviser for physics since 2004.