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Marie Curie: a Major Agent in the Scientific Revolution

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Marie Curie is one of the most important figures in science with her pioneering research on radioactivity: a technique for isolating radioactive isotopes. Her discovery of polonium and radium paved the way for many modern medical inventions and treatments that would not exist if not for her efforts. She was a major agent in the scientific revolution in the 19th and 20th century which allowed experimental investigations beyond the macroscopic world. However, Marie Curie’s significance is not just limited to her scientific contributions. A woman pioneer in a heavily male dominated field of study, Marie Curie proved that women were as intelligent and worthy of recognition of men. As “perhaps the first major woman scientist to receive full credit for her work”, she proved that gender played no part in greatness.

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Born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland as Maria Sklodowska, Marie Curie’s childhood was marked with Russian dominance. Poland hadn’t been independent for almost century with rule over its lands divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. From a young age Curie experienced oppression aseducation, for both men and women, had become a political issue as the Russian sought to dominate the people. They even took laboratory instruction out of the Polish curriculum to possible create restrictions in the progress of the Polish people. Yet, despite the odds against her due to her nationality and gender, Curie continued to pursue her passion for the sciences.

From a young age Marie Curie displayed a keen interest in mathematics and physics, often ranking first in her classes throughout high school. Since university admission was forbidden for women in Poland, Curie travelled to Paris to further her education. Despite the city having an unsupportive environment towards female scientists, Marie Curie was admitted to the Sorbonne where she worked diligently to complete her studies. For her entire life, Curie would be constantly reminded that, because she was a female, she would never contribute great things to the scientific community. Sexism would follow her wherever she went.

The main reason why Marie Curie is the greatest person in the 20th century to ever live is due to scientific works. She was interested in Henri Becquerel’s work on uranium rays which influenced her hypothesis that “the emission of rays of uranium compounds could be an atomic property of the element uranium – something built into the very structure of its atoms”. Her hypothesis led her to experiment with other elements, trying to find if they would emit Becquerel rays or, in more common terms, were radioactive. While her experiments may seem insignificant, her crucial discoveries proved that the prior belief that the atom was the smallest particle in existence was false. Curie, along with her husband Pierre, worked intensely to isolate possible new elements responsible for high radioactivity. They had to obtain pitchblende (mineral containing uranium) and attempt to extract new materials from that. The extractions were grueling, hazardous as the Curies were exposes to toxic radioactive particles in a poorly ventilated space. The couple knew the dangers of working with the pitchblende as Pierre became to show weakness, dizziness, pain and blurred vision which are all signs of overexposure to radiation. However, they both pressed on to eventually discover two new radioactive elements: polonium and radium. The very fact that Curie sacrificed her life for science is no small feat, making her deserving of the title of one of the greatest people to ever live.

For her remarkable work, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre received the Novel Prize in Physics in 1903. However, despite the couple’s mutual efforts, Curie was described as Pierre’s assistant. In 1906, Curie experienced a great tragedy in her life as Pierre was accidently killed by a carriage. Curie was absolutely devastated, stating that she had lost “all hope and all support for the rest of my life”. The difficulties of continuing her work almost prevented her from returning to the scientific field, but it was ultimately her love for the sciences that gave her solace and comfort. Despite the tragedy, Pierre’s death was groundbreaking for women’s rights as French academic authorities made the historic decision of offering Curie Pierre’s former position as a professor at the Sorbonne. Her first lecture as celebrated as successful victory for feminism as she was the first woman to ever teach at the institution. Her second, and independent, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for isolating radium and studying the nature and compounds of the element made her the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes. She inspired change in social norms, making it acceptable for women to pursue academic careers in any field of their choosing and proved that women and men were of equal intellectual capabilities.

Marie Curie’s research has led to a significant impact on medicine. During World War I, she found a usage for her studies in the form of x-ray technology. She spearheaded efforts to set up x-ray stations in French hospitals and to develop portable x-ray machines for treating wounded soldiers in remote locations. She often examined the wounded on scene and trained nurses to interpret the data provided by the machines. Today, scientists have built upon her discoveries of radioactivity to create radiotherapy: a type of cancer treatment that controls tumour cells through radiation. This treatment is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy and has saved countless number of lives.

In exchange for revolutionizing the way the world saw radiation, Marie Curie paid with the dear price of her life. Her death in 1934 due to leukemia caused by exposure to radiation shows her dedication and willingness to her studies. Her remarkable life was filled with triumphs and difficulties that reflect her caring and determined character. Given her scientific accomplishments and those of many other women whom she inspired, science and the word should be grateful for Marie Curie.

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