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The Inventor Series: Madame Curie

Posted by Sidney Taylor on Dec 7, 2015 5:49:18 PM



Women in Science                                                                  Marie Curie


In the last article, we reviewed the role George Westinghouse played in “The War of the Currents” and his impact upon American engineering. Briefly, we touched upon the “Westinghouse Medal” that ASME awards each year in his honor. As you recall, the two winners in 2015 are both women. They are Karen Thole (gold) and Angela Violi (silver).

You may also recall that Westinghouse hired the first woman engineer. She was Bertha madame_curie_quote.jpgLamme Feicht, who graduated from Ohio State University in 1893.  A native of Ohio, Ms. Lamme followed her brother, Benjamin Lamme, into the field of engineering and eventually joined him at Westinghouse, as well. While at Westinghouse, she met her future husband, Russell S. Feicht. A fellow alumnus from OSU, Feicht was her supervisor. When Bertha married Russell in 1905, she retired from Westinghouse to start her family.


The Woman from Poland

In Europe, another woman was making her mark in the world of science. Marie Sklowdowska Curie was a Polish immigrant from an intellectual family. Unable to obtain the education she wanted in Warsaw, Curie studied in Paris where she earned her degree and began her scientific work. Marie Curie was two years older than Bertha Lamme Feicht, so they were contemporaries of each other. Like Feicht, Marie Curie was married to another scientist, the Frenchman Pierre Curie.

So why is Marie Curie so important? Her accomplishments include the discovery of polonium and radium.  She advanced theory of radioactivity, a term that she coined for the technique for isolating radioactive isotopes. The world's first studies into the treatment of neoplasm and cancerous masses using radioactive isotopes were conducted by her. During the First World War, Curie established the first military field radiological centers. This is just a start.


Here is a partial list of her awards that she received:




Although she headed the Radium Institute (now the Curie Institute), which was created for her by the Pasteur Institute, and she was the Physics Chair at the University of Paris, Marie Curie was largely viewed as a Polish interloper by the French. She was not elected into the French Academy of Science for many years.  Eventually, the public began to warm to her. In 1995, she was the first woman to be entombed on the merits of her own name in the Pantheon in Paris. The unit of measurement for radioactivity, the curie, is named for her.  Curium, the element with the atomic number 96, is named jointly for Marie and Pierre Curie as are three radioactive minerals: curite, sklodowskite and cuprosklododwskite.

madame_curie_fear_less_quote.jpgUnlike her American contemporary, Marie Curie did not retire when she married. In fact, she continued to work for nearly thirty years after her husband’s death in 1906. Her research ended with her death in 1934. A widow for many years, Curie raised her two daughters as the sole breadwinner for most of their lives. Apparently, she wasn’t bad as a mother. Her eldest daughter, Irene Curie, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1934. Her youngest daughter, Eve Curie, was a journalist and pianist.  Eve Curie was the only member of her family who was neither a scientist, nor a Nobel Prize laureate. However, her husband, Henry Labouisse, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 for his work with UNICEF. 

Imagine a family with four Nobel Prizes winners!  The competition must have been fierce.