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Time to remember

6 February, 2018

Author: Warren Town, director of industrial strategy

Marie Curie
Marie Curie

Today marks the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote for the first time in the UK. As a profession that is predominantly female and has a long history of supporting women’s rights, it is only fitting that we make an effort to mark this auspicious event.

There are many famous women we could mention but possibly one that stands out is Marie Curie.

Maria Sklodowska was born in 1934. Youngest of five children of poor school teachers and Polish by birth, she was naturalised as a French citizen and studied in Warsaw before following her sister to Paris, where she studied physics at the Sorbonne University. In 1894 she met Pierre Curie and later that year they married. She adopted the French spelling of her name and became Marie.

Following on from the work conducted by Henri Bechaquerel, the Curies looked for the mysterious element that inhabited pitchblende that caused film to fog and air to conduct electricity. The rest is now common knowledge and resulted in the discovery of radium in 1902.

Pierre and Marie suffered badly from exposure to the radiation and often worked under very difficult conditions, but that one discovery has saved many lives and helped alleviate suffering. The discovery of radium resulted in the awarding of a Nobel Prize jointly with Bechaquerel in 1903.

However, the story does not end there. After the death of her husband in 1906, which affected Marie greatly, she continued to work tirelessly and succeeded him to the professorial chair at the Sorbonne. 

Not content with one Nobel Prize, Marie was awarded another in 1911 for chemistry, for establishing the means to measure radioactivity.

During the First World War she campaigned and raised money for small independent mobile x-ray units, referred to as ‘Petite Curies’. Marie and her daughter toured the casualty clearing stations close to the front line to image wounded men for fractures and shrapnel. This apparatus was the forerunner of many of the machines we use today and rely on to image patients.

In addition to two Nobel Prizes, Marie Curie’s other honours were numerous, such was the high regard in which she was held by the scientific community.

She died young at 66 years of age in 1934 from aplastic anaemia caused by exposure to radiation, but her name and her heritage lives on. Many are grateful for her contribution to science.

Rosalind Franklin was also a remarkable person, who along with Watson and Crick, used x-ray diffraction to discover the double helix (DNA) and open the way to genetic research. But here lies the controversy because it was the work by Rosalind Franklin that led to the ground breaking discovery. She was an expert in x-ray diffraction and had, with two colleagues, established the knowledge that Watson and Crick exploited. But her contribution was only recognised posthumously. Franklin was never awarded a Nobel Prize, unlike Watson and Crick, because the honour cannot be awarded posthumously.

These women, groundbreakers and innovators, are just two of many that we need to remember today as the fight for equal rights and pay continues.

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