What’s the connection between two deadly elements – Radium and Polonium and a daffodil? The answer is Maria Skłodowska-Curie.
Every March millions of people in the UK wear a daffodil pin to show the support for Marie Cure Cancer Care, a charity which helps organize care for cancer patients and their families.
Who was Marie Curie? Why a daffodil, and what does it have to do with two deadly elements?
Marie Curie or Maria Skłodowska-Curie was a brilliant Polish scientist who, with her husband Pierre Curie, studied and made important discoveries in the field of radiation – she discovered two radioactive elements: Radium and Polonium – the latter named after Poland.
Maria Skłodowska [skwo-dof-ska] was born in Warsaw on 7th November 1867 at the time when Poland did not exist as an independent country and Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire. Her parents were teachers. Her father taught mathematics and physics.
Maria wanted to study at University but under the Russian occupation women students were not admitted. Instead, she and her older sister Bronia enrolled in the Flying University (Uniwersytet Latający), a Polish clandestine institution of higher education that was open to women students.
However, Maria had not stopped dreaming of studying in Paris. Finally, in the autumn of 1891, following in Bronia’s footsteps, she left for Paris and enrolled in the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) to study physics, chemistry and mathematics. Life in Paris was hard. Maria was living in a small room in an attic, often without any heating in winter and with very little money to support herself. Yet, despite the hardship, she completed her studies and earned two degrees.
In 1894 she met Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist. They shared a passion for science and soon Pierre proposed to Maria. For her wedding, Maria chose to wear a simple dark blue dress, which she could later use as an outfit in the laboratory. They became not just a married couple with two daughters but partners in pursuing scientific discoveries and soulmates sharing a passion for bike rides and travel.
In 1903, together with Pierre, Maria received the Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radioactivity. In 1911, after the premature tragic death of Pierre, Maria received a second Noble Prize in chemistry for isolating radium.
During the First World War, Maria and her daughter, Irene organized mobile X-ray machines to assist field surgeons. Maria had a very hands-on approach and was one of the first women to learn to drive in order to deliver and operate the radiology ambulances wherever they were needed.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie was a truly remarkable person. Her biography is peppered with phrases: ‘the first’ and ‘the only’, sometimes both in the same sentence.
She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize.
She was the first person, and the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize twice.
She was the first person, and the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize in two different sciences.
She was the first person to coin the term radioactivity.
She was the first woman professor at University of Paris (the Sorbonne).
She was the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Pantheon in Paris.
She created the first cancer treatment hospital – the Radium Institute in Paris in 1914 and the Radium Institute (Instytut Radowy) in Warsaw in 1929. Maria was a strong supporter of Polish independence. She invited many Polish scientists to work with her in Paris. She also published her papers simultaneously in France and in Poland to enable Polish scientific institutions to compete with their foreign counterparts.
Her discoveries brought enormous hope for cancer patients. They also brought a development in nuclear power and fantastic opportunities to examine precious works of art without invasive techniques. Even a humble smoke alarm uses her discoveries. But, as she warned in her acceptance speech when awarded the Noble Prize, her discoveries can bring death and destruction. Prophetic words indeed – who can forget haunting photographs of Alexeander Litvinienko poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 served in a cup of tea.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie firmly believed in morality and beauty of science. She overcame a lot of obstacles to achieve her dreams and was very generous with her knowledge, training and financial support. She intentionally refrained from patenting the radium isolation process so that the scientific community could do research unhindered.
Finally, what has a daffodil got to do with all this? In the UK, it’s a first flowering plant in Spring, and therefore an apt symbol of renewed life and hope – something Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s discoveries brought to all of us.
Research Maria Skłodowska-Curie further – what other interesting facts can you find out about her and her family?
Search the internet for quotations by Maria Skłodowska-Curie. Try to translate them and learn them by heart.
Practice your listening skills – you can listen to a Polish radio programme about Maria Skłodowska-Curie here.
You can watch a documentary about Maria Skłodowska-Curie here.