In 1903 the word on the street was that Pierre and Marie Curie were the front-runners for the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on radioactivity — inherent in which was the hypothesis that the atom was not the most basic particle but could emit subatomic particles. Some were affronted by the idea that a woman could have played any significant part in this work, and they argued for awarding the prize to Pierre and French physicist Henri Becquerel, but not Marie.
When Pierre caught wind of this, he argued vehemently on his wife’s behalf. When the award was finally presented to both Curies and Becquerel, Marie was lauded at the presentation as a “help meet” to Pierre. Thus, Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. The insulting irony was that Pierre had given up his work on crystals and magnetism to literally help his wife blaze a new trail in chemistry and physics with her work on radioactivity.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Marie Sklodowska Curie’s second Nobel Prize — this time in chemistry for the discovery of polonium and radium. The first woman to win a Nobel became the first person to win two. But the second award was not without controversy. After Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie was rumored to have begun an affair with French physicist Paul Langevin. The scandal broke around the same time as her second award. She refused to let the slander mar her scientific work. She wrote to a critic that “I believe there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”
One hundred years later, Madame Curie stars in an exhibit at the Nobel museum in Stockholm — giving her the credit that she was denied by many during her lifetime. Marie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia most likely due to her lifelong exposure to radiation. A year later, her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband Frederic Joliot won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their work on the synthesis of radioactive elements. Irene died in 1956 of leukemia, also likely due to her exposure to radioactive materials.
The opening of the exhibit coincided with the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress. Madame Curie’s discovery of radiation proved to be a double-edged sword. Exposure to ionizing radiation is associated with several cancers — lung, skin, thyroid, multiple myeloma, breast, and stomach. However, the physics of radiation underlie many imaging techniques that allow physicians to noninvasively identify and follow tumors in the body. Radiation also turns out to be an effective treatment of certain cancers. Her pioneering investigation provided the groundwork for cancer research that greatly increased the odds of survival for many cancer patients.
The Solvay Conferences in Brussels were initiated to have the brightest minds of the age work on preeminent open problems in both physics and chemistry. The most famous meeting was held in 1927 and is noted for the presence of so many scientific luminaries addressing the newly proposed quantum theory. Seventeen of the 29 members were Nobel winners or would become winners. In the photo, Marie Curie — with two Nobel prizes to her name — takes her place alongside Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and Werner Heisenberg, among others.