Marie Sklodowska was born in an era when women seldom got a very long education, if they got one at all. Born on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw (modern-day Poland). Sklodowska was the youngest of five children, following siblings Zosia, Józef, Bronya and Hela. Their parents were both teachers. Her father, Wladyslaw, was a math and physics instructor. When she was only 10, Sklodowska lost her mother, Bronislawa, to tuberculosis. Sklodowska, being a woman, probably should have grown up to be a wide and mother, dependent on her husband for everything…not that that is a horrible thing, because it isn’t, but it was not all she wanted. She had a good mind for Physics and Chemistry…both subjects were almost unheard of for women in those days.
As a child, Sklodowska took after her father. She was bright and curious, and she excelled at school. Still, despite being a top student in her secondary school, she could not attend the men’s-only University of Warsaw. She instead continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” a set of underground, informal classes held in secret. Both Marie and her sister, Bronya dreamed of going abroad to earn an official degree, but they lacked the financial resources to pay for more schooling. Sklodowska would not give up her dream. She worked out a deal with her sister, “She would work to support Bronya while she was in school, and Bronya would return the favor after she completed her studies.”
Sklodowska worked as a tutor and a governess for the next five years. She didn’t want to get behind, so she used her spare time to study…reading about physics, chemistry and math. Then in 1891, Sklodowska finally made her way to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne. She threw herself into her studies, but this dedication had a personal cost: with little money, Sklodowska survived on buttered bread and tea. Sometimes, her health suffered because of her poor diet. Nevertheless, Sklodowska completed her master’s degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics the following year.
You might be wondering exactly who Marie Sklodowska was, and why she was important. It might help to know that on July 26, 1895, Marie got married to French physicist, Pierre Curie. They were introduced by a colleague of Marie’s after she graduated from Sorbonne University. Marie had received a commission to perform a study on different types of steel and their magnetic properties and needed a lab for her work. As most people already know, she did her work at a great cost to her own health, but what most people probably don’t know, is that the radiation levels Curie was exposed to were so powerful that her notebooks must now be kept in lead-lined boxes, and it’s not just Curie’s manuscripts that are too dangerous to touch, either. If you visit the Pierre and Marie Curie collection at the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, many of her personal possessions…from her furniture to her cookbooks…require protective clothing to be safely handled. You’ll also have to sign a liability waiver, just in case.
In those days, things like radiation and it’s dangers were not known. Marie Curie was basically walking around with bottles of polonium and radium, both highly radioactive compounds, in her pockets all the time. She even kept capsules full of the dangerous chemicals on her shelf. “One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products,” Marie, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist wrote in her autobiography. “It was really a lovely sight and one always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” In case you didn’t know, Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Also, along with her husband, Pierre, they discovered the radioactive elements, Polonium and Radium, while working with the mineral, Pitchblende…a form of the mineral Uraninite occurring in brown or black masses and containing radium. She also championed the development of X-rays, following her husband’s death in a street accident in Paris on 19 April 1906.
The fact that the notebook and related paraphernalia are still radioactive a century later is not as well known. The most common isotope of radium, the deadly chemical Curie carried in her pockets, has a half-life of 1,601 years. That said, people will not be able to go digging through the Curie’s library any time in this century, either. It is also known now, but wasn’t then, that the chemicals would end Curie’s life at a fairly early age. Curie died on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, believed to be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. She was 58 years old.
When Alfred Bernhard Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and other high explosives, died on December 10, 1896, he left a request in his will, that the bulk of his vast fortune be placed in a fund to finance an award to be “annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” He did not state why he wanted to make such a bequest, but it was believed that he did so out of moral regret over the increasingly lethal uses of his inventions in war. The first Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The ceremony came on the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death.
Educated in private schools in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Nobel excelled in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics. His interest in literature and poetry, was upsetting to his father, who considered him an introvert. He wanted his sons to become engineers, and to join his enterprise. In an effort to redirect Alfred’s interests, his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering. During a two year period Alfred Nobel visited Sweden, Germany, France and the United States. In Paris, the city he came to like best, he worked in the private laboratory of Professor T J Pelouze, a famous chemist. There he met the young Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero who, three years earlier, had invented nitroglycerine, a highly explosive liquid. Alfred Nobel proved himself to be a brilliant chemist. When his father’s business faltered after the end of the Crimean War, Nobel returned to Sweden and set up a laboratory to experiment with explosives. In 1863, he invented a way to control the detonation of nitroglycerin, which was previously regarded as too dangerous for use. Two years later, Nobel invented the blasting cap, an improved detonator that brought about the modern use of high explosives. Previously, the most dependable explosive was black powder, a form of gunpowder. Nitroglycerin remained dangerous, however, and in 1864 Nobel’s nitroglycerin factory blew up, killing his younger brother and several other people. Searching for a safer explosive, Nobel discovered in 1867 that the combination of nitroglycerin and a porous substance called Kieselguhr produced a highly explosive mixture that was much safer to handle and use. Nobel called his invention “dynamite,” for the Greek word dynamis, meaning “power.” Securing patents on dynamite, Nobel acquired a fortune as humanity put his invention to use in construction and warfare. Over his lifetime Alfred Nobel earned 355 patents.
All his work, left little time for a social life. At 43 years of age, feeling lonely and old, he placed an add for a woman who might become a suitable mate for him. The only one who came close to being the one, was Countess Bertha Kinsky, unfortunately she returned home and married Count Arthur von Suttner, but she and Nobel remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms and became a prominent figure in the peace movement. No doubt this influenced Alfred Nobel when he wrote his final will which was to include a Prize for persons or organizations who promoted peace. Several years after the death of Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Parliament decided to award the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize to Bertha von Suttner.
The first Nobel Prizes were awarded on December 10, 1901, and subsequent prizes are awarded each year on December 10, because it is the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. It is the perfect day for the awards to be given. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decides the prizes in physics, chemistry, and economic science. The Swedish Royal Caroline Medico-Surgical Institute determines the physiology or medicine award. The Swedish Academy chooses literature, and a committee elected by the Norwegian parliament awards the peace prize. In 2006, each Nobel Prize carried a cash prize of nearly $1,400,000 and recipients also received a gold medal, as is the tradition. Some notable winners have included Marie Curie, Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr, the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. All made Nobel efforts in their field.