Editor's Pick

Three Outstanding Women in Science

Women’s rights are human rights.
—Feminist slogan famously quoted by Hillary Clinton during the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women

Since the very beginning, humankind has been male dominated, often violent and cruel in the extreme. Over the centuries, things have gradually evolved in many ways; however, in many places, change has been slow to occur (or taken place only clandestinely). A large number of essays and (supposedly) scientific papers have even claimed women to be inferior to men in terms of intellectual capacity. Sometimes, preposterous discrimination has taken place in otherwise liberal academic environments…discrimination that has, surprisingly, continued up until recent times. Hard to believe, hard to accept.

This article considers three examples of amazing women who reached the highest intellectual levels, suffered tremendously, demonstrated unbeatable courage, and were, in the end, recognized simply by virtue of their own abilities and merit.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850–1891)

Sofia Kovalevskaya. (Photo licensed via Wikipedia Commons.)

Sofia Kovalevskaya.

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was a Russian mathematician who authored significant original contributions to analysis, partial differential equations, and mechanics. She was also the first woman appointed to a full professorship in northern Europe and one of the first women to work for a scientific journal as an editor (Figure 1, right). Along with her sister, the socialist and feminist Anya Jaclard, Sofia (sometimes called Sonya) advocated for women’s rights in the 19th century.

In Recollections of Childhood, Sofia vividly describes her early years: her education by a strict governess of English extraction; life on a country estate and then a move to Saint Petersburg, where her family’s social circle included the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881); and her parents’ dismay with the new ideas espoused by the two sisters.

It was her struggle that started to open universities’ doors to women. In addition, her groundbreaking work in mathematics made her male counterparts reconsider their archaic notions of women’s inferiority to men. Sofia was raised in posh surroundings, although she was not precisely a happy child, as she felt neglected in a family that included a widely admired, firstborn daughter, Anya, and a younger male heir, Fedya—all of which led her to the nervous and withdrawn personality she manifested throughout her lifetime.

Mathematics attracted Sofia while she was very young, and she often spent time studying her father’s old calculus notes. She credited her Uncle Peter, too, for first sparking her curiosity in mathematics. At 14 years old, she taught herself trigonometry to understand the optics section of a physics book whose author, a certain Prof. Tyrtov, was incidentally her neighbor: Tyrtov was extremely impressed and convinced her father to allow her to attend school in Saint Petersburg. After concluding her secondary education, Sofia wanted to continue at the university level; however, the closest universities open to women were in Switzerland, and young, unmarried women were not permitted to travel alone—unbelievable customs of those days, indeed!

To resolve the problem, Sofia, then just 18, entered into a marriage of convenience with Vladimir Kovalevsky in 1868. The newlyweds remained in St. Petersburg for a few months and, thereafter, traveled to Vienna and Heidelberg, where Sofia gained some notice. She was allowed to study physics there but could not find a mathematics professor to work with. Sofia took courses on a variety of other subjects, while her husband studied geology and paleontology. During this time, the couple traveled extensively and had social contacts with the leading intellectuals of that time, including Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and Thomas Huxley (1825–1895) [1], [2]. While in Heidelberg, in 1869, Sofia took courses with the outstanding German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896), as well as Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) and Gustav R. Kirchhoff (1824–1887)—an impressive group of high-level scientists. Soon thereafter, in 1870, Sofia pursued studies under Karl Weierstrass (1815–1897) at the University of Berlin. Weierstrass was considered among the most renowned mathematicians of his time (he formalized the continuity of a function, proved the intermediate value theorem, and studied the properties of continuous functions on closed-bounded intervals). Meanwhile, Vladimir moved to Jena to obtain his doctorate.

After some time, Weierstrass realized Sofia’s caliber and immediately set to work privately tutoring her because the university still would not permit women to attend. Sofia continued her studies under Weierstrass for four years. She is quoted as saying, “These studies had the deepest influence on my entire career in mathematics. They determined finally and irrevocably the direction I was to follow in my later scientific work: All my work has been done precisely in the spirit of Weierstrass.” At the end of her four years, she had produced three papers. The first of these, “On the Theory of Partial Differential Equations,” was published in Crelle’s Journal, the common name of (in English) the Journal for Pure and Applied Mathematics founded by August Leopold Crelle in 1826—a very high honor for an unknown mathematician.

Finally, in July 1874, Sofia Kovalevskaya was granted a Ph.D. degree from the University of Göttingen. Yet, even with such a prestigious degree and the help of Weierstrass, who had grown quite fond of her, she was not able to find employment. She and Vladimir decided to return to her home. Shortly after, her father died unexpectedly. It was during this period of sorrow that Sofia and Vladimir bore a daughter (theirs had been an essentially arranged marriage, but during this time it blossomed into a more deeply emotional attachment). While at home, Sofia neglected her work in mathematics and instead developed her literary skills in fiction, theater reviews, and scientific articles for a newspaper.

Soon, however, in 1880, Sofia returned to mathematics with a new fervor. She presented a paper on Abelian integrals at a scientific conference. [Originally, Niels Henrik Abel (1802–1829), the famous Norwegian mathematician, had solved for those difficult integrals.] Once again, though, she was faced with the dilemma of finding employment, and she decided to return to Berlin, working again with Weierstrass. Sadly, not long after, news reached her of Vladimir’s death; he had committed suicide when all of his business ventures collapsed. A grieving Sofia threw herself into her work more passionately than ever.

In 1883, she received an invitation from an acquaintance and former student of Weierstrass, Gosta Mittag-Leffler (1846–1927), a Swedish mathematician, to lecture at the University of Stockholm. Then came a series of great accomplishments: a tenured position at the university, her appointment as editor of a mathematics journal, publication of her first paper on crystals, and, in 1885, the coveted appointment as chair of mechanics. At the same time, she cowrote a play, The Struggle for Happiness, with a friend, Anna Leffler, perhaps to vent her inner troubles and turmoil.

In 1887, Sofia again received devastating news: the death of her sister, Anya. This was particularly hard on Sofia because the two had always been very close. Not long afterward, as a kind of compensation, Sofia achieved her greatest personal triumph: in 1888, her paper “On the Rotation of a Solid Body About a Fixed Point” won the Prix Bordin awarded by the French Academy of Sciences. In this paper, Sofia developed the theory for a nonsymmetrical body where the center of its mass is not on an axis in the body. The paper was so highly regarded that the prize money was increased from 3,000 to 5,000 francs.

At this time, a new man entered her life: Maxim Kovalevsky (Vladimir’s cousin), who had come to Stockholm for a series of lectures. The two had a scandalous affair—although both were too passionate about their work to give it up for the other. Maxim’s work took him to France, and he wanted Sofia to give up her hardearned positions to simply be his wife. She flatly rejected such an idea but still could not bear the loss of him. She remained with him in France for the summer and fell into another one of her frequent depressions. Again, she turned to her writing, returning in the fall of 1889 to Stockholm. She was still miserable at the loss of Maxim, even though she frequently traveled to France to visit him. She eventually became ill with pneumonia, exacerbated by her depression. On 10 February 1891, Sofia Kovalevskaya died, at only 41, and the scientific world mourned her loss. During her career, she had published, in addition to her literary works, ten papers in mathematics and mathematical physics [3]–[4].

Let us stress her accomplishments. During Sofia’s years at Stockholm, she carried out her most important research and taught courses (in the spirit of Weierstrass) on the newest and most advanced topics in analysis. She completed research already begun on the subject of the propagation of light in a crystalline medium. In mathematics, her name is mentioned most frequently in connection with the Cauchy–Kovalevsky theorem, which is basic in the theory of partial differential equations. Augustin Louis Cauchy (1789–1857), a French mathematician considered a pioneer of analysis, had examined a fundamental issue in connection with the existence of solutions, but Sofia pointed to cases that neither he nor anyone else had considered. Thus, she was able to give his results a more polished and general form. In short, Cauchy and, later, Kovalevsky, sought necessary and sufficient conditions for the solution of a partial differential equation to exist and be unique.

In the case of an ordinary differential equation, the general solution contains arbitrary constants and therefore yields an infinity of formulas (representing curves). In the general solution of a partial differential equation, arbitrary functions occur, and the plethora of formulas is even greater than in the ordinary case. Hence, additional data in the form of initial or boundary conditions are needed if a unique, particular solution is required. Abel (mentioned previously) died within a year of the research he started in that area, leaving to Weierstrass and his pupils the strenous and exciting task of developing the theory of general Abelian functions and the corresponding Abelian integrals.

Sofia’s doctoral research contributed to that theory by showing how to express a certain species of Abelian integrals in terms of the relatively simpler elliptic integrals. Complex analysis and nonelementary integrals were also a feature of the paper that led her to the Bordin Prize. In her paper, she referred to works by Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707– 1783), Siméon Denis Poisson (1781–1840), and Joseph L. Lagrange (1736–1813). They had considered two elementary cases concerning the rotation of a rigid body about a fixed point. Her predecessors had treated two symmetric forms of the top or the gyroscope, whereas she solved the problem for an asymmetric body. This case is an exceedingly difficult one, and she was able to solve the differential equations of motion by the use of hyperelliptic integrals. Her solution was so general that no new case of rotatory motion about a fixed point has been researched to date.

In a different field, she studied the form of Saturn’s rings, once more with a great predecessor: in this case, Pierre- Simon Laplace (1749–1827), whose work she generalized. Whereas, for example, he thought certain cross sections to be elliptical, she proved that they were merely egg-shaped ovals symmetric with respect to a single axis. Although it was at the time claimed that Saturn’s rings could not possibly be continuous bodies, either solid or molten, and, hence must be composed of myriad discrete particles, Sofia considered the general problem of the stability of motion of liquid ring-shaped bodies—that is, the question of whether such bodies tend to revert to their primary motion after disturbance by external forces or whether deviation from that motion increases with time. These were groundbreaking theories and the impetus for future discoveries.

Sofia was remembered by her daughter who, at the age of 72, was guest speaker when the centenary of her mother’s birth was celebrated in the Soviet Union. There is no question that Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was an incredible scientist and human being, an example to remember and respect.

Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867–1934)

In 1896, Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) was studying the properties of X-rays, which had been discovered the year before by Wilhelm Roentgen (1845–1923). Henri proved that uranium emitted radiation without an external source of energy, which meant that he had discovered radioactivity. The new radiation was bent by magnetic fields so that it was different from X-rays. When different radioactive substances were put in the magnetic field, they deflected in different directions or not at all, showing that there were three classes of radioactivity: negative, positive, and electrically neutral. The term radioactivity was actually coined by Marie Curie, who, together with her husband, Pierre, began investigating the phenomenon, so initiating a new field in physics, chemistry, and medicine. The Curies extracted uranium from ore, finding that what was left over showed more activity than pure uranium. The ore contained other radioactive elements, and so they found polonium and radium.

Then, it was Ernest Rutherford (1871– 1937) who, after many experiments, named and classified the radiated alpha, beta, and gamma particles according to their ability to penetrate matter. Because alpha particles carry more electric charge, are more massive, and move slowly compared to beta and gamma particles, they interact much more easily with matter. Beta particles are much less massive and move faster but are still electrically charged. A sheet of aluminum 1-mm thick or several meters of air will stop these electrons and positrons, but gamma rays carry no electric charge, and they can penetrate large distances through materials before interacting. Several centimeters of lead or a meter of concrete is needed to stop gamma rays [5].

By the end of World War I (1914–1918), Marie Curie was probably the most famous woman in the world. She had made a conscious decision, however, not to patent radium or its medical applications. But as the price of radium escalated, she found that she did not have sufficient supplies at the Institute of Radium, in Paris.

From infancy, she had been beaten down by difficulties and insufficiencies [6]. In her own words, and as an ethical rule in all her life, displaying generosity, humility, and human empathy, she once wrote,

As for the radium prepared by me out of the ore we managed to obtain in the first years of our work, I have given it all to my laboratory. The price of radium is very high since it is found in minerals in very small quantities, and the profits of its manufacture have been great, as this substance is used to cure a number of diseases. So it is a fortune which we have sacrificed in renouncing the exploitation of our discovery, a fortune that could, after us, have gone to our children. But what is even more to be considered is the objection of our many friends, who have argued, not without reason, that if we had guaranteed our rights, we could have had the financial means of founding a satisfactory Institute of Radium, without experiencing any of the difficulties that have been such a handicap to both of us, and are still a handicap to me. Yet, I still believe that we have done right.

Marie Curie with President Warren G. Harding at the White House, 20 May 1921. Harding (1865–1923) was the 29th president of the United States. ( Image courtesy of ACJC.)

Marie Curie with President
Warren G. Harding

Marie’s decision to forego a patent would ultimately lead her to visit the United States twice—once in 1921 (Figure 2, right – Marie Curie with President Warren G. Harding at the White House, 20 May 1921. Harding (1865–1923) was the 29th president of the United States. (Image courtesy of ACJC.)) and again in 1929, both times in search of funds for her work.

In the spring of 1920, Marie Mattingly Meloney (1878–1943), a small, dynamic, trailblazing journalist and editor, known to all as “Missy,” succeeded in obtaining an interview with Marie in her Paris laboratory. Despite Marie’s disdain for the media (as well as the two women’s differences in temperament), Marie and Missy became close friends for the rest of their lives. It was well known that, in a magnificent gesture of magnanimity, Marie and Pierre Curie had decided not to patent their most famous discovery, radium, or its medical applications [7]. When Missy asked Marie how she could help her, the answer was that she had no radium for research. The Radium Institute had no money for equipment, and the entire supply of radium (1 g) was used in the institute’s biological section to provide radon tubes for cancer therapy. The United States had the world’s most plentiful supply (50 g).

Instead of merely getting a story for her magazine, Missy decided to use her influence, contacts, and clout to provide the institute with a gram of radium, which cost roughly US$120,000. She became chair of the Marie Curie Radium Fund and asked prominent New York doctors to join the fund’s board. Marie was highly respected among them because, during the war, she had educated numerous American physicians at her Radium Institute. One of the prime movers behind the fundraising was Robert Abbe, who had visited the Curies in Paris as early as 1902 and was the first American physician to use radium to treat cancer and other diseases. Prominent people joined the board, and the advisory scientific committee included the president of the American Medical Association and leading representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard, Cornell, and Columbia universities.

On 3 May 1921, the Marie Curie Radium Fund Committee awarded a contract to the Standard Chemical Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the gram of radium, with the price reduced to US$100,000 in her honor. The radium was later presented to Marie at the White House in Washington, D.C., on 20 May 1921. Missy had convinced Marie to travel to the United States on a tour that involved numerous receptions and long receiving lines to accept the gift. Accompanied by her daughters, Irène and Ève, Marie arrived in New York City aboard the Olympia on 12 May 1921, her first transatlantic trip (Figure 3).

Figure 3: From left: Marie Mattingly (“Missy”) Meloney with Irène (23), Marie, and Ève Curie (16) as they arrived in New York City on 12 May 1921 [20]. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Figure 3: From left: Marie Mattingly (“Missy”) Meloney with Irène (23), Marie, and Ève Curie (16) as they arrived in New York City on 12 May 1921 [20]. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

A large crowd met the Curies at the dock, which was decorated with the flags of the United States, Poland, and France. Missy protected Marie, who was in fragile health, from the press’s excessive inquisitiveness. Irène and Ève took over many of the functions expected of their mother. It was not until this trip that Irène and Ève realized their mother’s global fame. The highlight of Marie’s trip took place on the afternoon of 20 May, when she was received in the East Room of the White House in the presence of more than 100 eminent scientists and diplomats from Poland and France. She is said to have worn the same black dress that she wore when she received her Nobel Prizes. What a lesson of humility!

Marie came to the United States the second time in October 1929, when Herbert Clark Hoover (1874–1964) was the 31st president (1929–1933) [8]. Newly elected President Hoover, who had been a member of the Marie Curie Radium Fund Committee of 1921 and had met Marie during her first visit, invited Marie to stay at the White House, an unprecedented event. The purpose for the visit was the same: to receive a gift of radium from the people of America. This time, Marie needed the radium for a new Polish Radium Institute in Warsaw.

During the 1920s, she and her older sister Bronislawa, a physician, had established the Radium Institute (now the Marie Skłodowska Curie Institute of Oncology) in their hometown of Warsaw. The financial situation in post–World War I Poland was even more acute than in France. Poland had just attained its independence as the Second Polish Republic in 1918, and Marie not only called upon the population to donate funds for the founding of the institute but also contributed some of the money from her first trip to the United States to rent (shocking, rent!) radium for Warsaw scientists.

Previously, in 1928 in Paris, Marie asked Missy Meloney if the United States could provide funds for another gram of radium for the Polish Radium Institute. Missy began to organize a second trip but cautioned Marie that since her last visit the United States had become politically small-minded, isolationist, and less magnanimous.

Marie, whose sight was failing by 1929, was met with considerably less fanfare on the second visit for several reasons. First, she did not receive the radium itself. She was presented with a bank draft of US$50,000. (Notice that in the eight years since her previous visit, the price of radium had dropped from US$100,000 per gram to US$50,000 per gram. This was due primarily to the introduction of commercial radium from ore deposits in the Belgian Congo. So the US$50,000 was used to purchase radium from a Belgian chemical company.)

Her visit was overshadowed by other events that week. She arrived in late October of 1929, two days after the dramatic stock market crash. Nevertheless, Marie was the guest of honor at the American Society for the Control of Cancer (now the American Cancer Society). On 21 October, she was honored at the 50th anniversary celebration of Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb in Dearborn, Michigan; President Hoover spoke at the event. There were other demanding activities, too. On 30 October, at the building of the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, President Hoover presented Marie with the bank draft [9].

Figure 4: Pierre and Marie Curie in their humble Paris Laboratory in 1899 [27]. (Photo courtesy of ACJC.)

Figure 4: Pierre and Marie Curie in their humble Paris Laboratory in 1899 [27]. (Photo courtesy of ACJC.)

So what led to all of these events from a scientific viewpoint? In 1897, at age 30, Maria Skłodowska, who had married the already well-known physicist Pierre Curie in 1895 (Figure 4), concluded her studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and was thinking of a subject for a thesis. The Becquerel uranic rays raised a puzzling problem. Uranium compounds and minerals appeared to maintain an undiminished ability to blacken a photographic plate over a period of several months. Marie later said, “We felt the investigation of the phenomenon very attractive, so much the more so as the topic was quite new and required no bibliographical research.”

In addition to blackening a photographic plate, uranic rays rendered air conductive for electricity. This later property was much more amenable to quantitative measurement, leading Pierre to develop instrumentation based on piezoelectricity (his finding) and the quadrant electrometer (his invention jointly with his brother).

Marie’s strategy is clearly expressed in her first note published on 12 April 1898 in the Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences: “I have searched [to see] if substances other than uranium compounds render air conducting for electricity.” She found that all compounds and minerals that contained uranium were active and that pitchblende as well as chalcolite, a natural uranium phosphate, were more active than metallic uranium itself. Marie noted, “This fact is quite remarkable and suggests that these minerals may contain an element much more active than uranium.”

Her hypothesis was immediately confirmed. Hence, the hunt for the supposed element became paramount. Pierre Curie was fascinated by Marie’s findings, and he abandoned his own projects and joined his wife in the venture. The research on uranic rays now turned from physics to chemistry. Marie explained, “The method we have used is a new one for chemical research based on radioactivity. It consists of separations performed with the ordinary procedures of analytical chemistry and in the measurement of the radioactivity of all compounds separated. In this way, one can recognize the chemical character of the radioactive element sought; the latter is concentrated in fractions which become increasingly radioactive in the course of the separation.”

Neither Marie nor Pierre were chemists, so they were assisted by Gustave Bémont (1857–1937). On 14 April, the trio began research on pitchblende, which was two-and-a-half times more active than uranium. On 18 July 1898, Pierre and Marie wrote to the Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences concerning a new radioactive substance contained in pitchblende, “ If the existence of this new metal is confirmed, we propose that it be named polonium in honor of the native land of one of us.” The publication, signed both by Pierre and Marie, was based on experiments performed from 9 April to 16 July. The title is historic: it proclaims that the search for the element more active than uranium was successful, and the word radioactive appears for the first time. The announcement of a new element that remained invisible and was identified solely on the basis of its emission of uranic rays was unique in the history of chemistry.

The isolation of polonium from uranium had been accomplished, although the Curies were unaware of the relationship between the two elements. They considered the entire material as a mixture. They knew nothing of radioactive decay. In this sense, it was purely a matter of chance because the experiments were performed within three months, a relatively short time with respect to the 138- day half-life of polonium.

It was only a few years later that the authors noticed with astonishment and great perplexity that polonium was progressively disappearing, still unaware of its half-life. They were preoccupied with the authenticity of polonium for several years, and, with their customary honesty, they did not hide their doubts, which persisted for several years.

Eventually, in 1910, Marie Curie and André-Louis Debierne (1874–1949), another chemist, separated from several tons of uranium ore residue a final product that weighed 2 mg and contained about 0.1 mg of polonium. The spark spectrum of this sample revealed for the first time a few lines characteristic of the element. The position of polonium in the periodic table was not assigned by the discoverers, but the new element could obviously be placed to the right of bismuth as “eka-tellurium,” with atomic number 84.

The discovery of radium took place on 26 December 1898. The Curies suspected the presence of a further radioactive element in the pitchblende that behaved like “nearly pure barium.” Their hypothesis was confirmed in three steps. First, they verified that “normal” barium was inactive. Second, they found that a radioactive substance could be concentrated by fractional crystallization from barium chloride contained in pitchblende. They pursued this operation until the activity of the chlorides was 900 times greater than that of uranium. Their third and last argument was decisive. The spectroscopic analysis was successful. They concluded, “We think this is a very serious reason to believe that the new radioactive substance contains a new element to which we propose to give the name radium.”

The determination of the atomic mass of radium became an obsession for Marie. On 21 July 1902, she obtained the value 225 ± 1 (now known to be 226.03). With the previous discovery of polonium, the Curies had, oddly enough, begun with the most difficult part of the work. Radium had outstanding advantages: its half-life is 1,600 years, and its concentration in the ores was approximately 5,000 times greater than that of polonium. On 12 June 1903, Marie presented her thesis, “Researches on Radioactive Substances,” at the Sorbonne. Later that year, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre Curie and Henry Antoine Becquerel. None of the three attended the Nobel ceremony.

Life for Marie Curie was, in many ways, a struggle. She suffered from loneliness, financial hardship, difficult work conditions, and even fame, which, she said, “makes life more difficult.” She was remarkable for having a strong sense of duty toward humanity and no other ambition than to be able to work for science freely. From a ton of pitchblende residue, Pierre and Marie Curie isolated radium as a pure element in a “miserable old shed” where for years (from 1898 to 1902) they were too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and exposed to irritating gases. She later mentioned that one year would have probably been enough for the same purpose if reasonable means had been at their disposal. However, in her autobiographical notes, she elaborated: “But I shall never be able to express the joy of the untroubled quietness of this atmosphere of research and the excitement of actual progress with the confident hope of still better results.”

After Pierre Curie’s tragic death in 1906, run over by one of the heavy horse-pulled cars of those days, she faced increasing difficulties but was able to manage the care and education of two young daughters (Irène, 9, and Ève, not quite 2, when Pierre died) while maintaining with unabated stamina her scientific research until her death in 1934.

During World War I, she established several hundred radiology stations to facilitate the examination of the wounded and tirelessly trained assistants in using X-ray machines. The end of the war brought her great joy with the “deserved resurrection” of Poland, after a century of oppression. Her most ardent desire, the creation of a radium institute in Warsaw, was fulfilled in 1932 with the inauguration of the Marie Curie-Skłodowska Radium Institute. As mentioned earlier, Pierre and Marie Curie chose not to patent the process they used to prepare radium, even though their later research might have benefitted from the greater financial security it would have provided. However, as Marie later wrote,

Humanity…needs dreamers, for whom the unselfish following of a purpose is so imperative that it becomes impossible for them to devote much attention to their own material benefit.

What a lecture, with such strength and willpower! Doctor Madame Marie Skłodowska Curie, professor at La Sorbonne, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911) and the only person ever to be recognized in two different sciences, died at Sancellemoz, Haute-Savoie, France, at the age of 67, on 4 July 1934. The hands that had accomplished so much work were calloused and deeply burned by radium. She was among those who believe that “science has great beauty, and a scientist in his laboratory is also a child placed before natural phenomena that impress him like a fairy tale.” In the cemetery at Sceaux where she was buried, a new epitaph was added to the family tomb: Marie Curie-Skłodowska, 1867–1934. In 1995, Pierre and Marie Curie’s remains were laid to rest under the dome of the Pantheon in Paris, where many of France’s national heroes are buried, with great pomp and ceremony— an event that belied the couple’s own modest humility [10]–[14].

There are also some other events, perhaps less well known, that need to be underlined, for they add even greater luster to an already exemplary human being, full of compassion and empathy. In November 1911, when Marie was weeks away from being awarded her second Nobel Prize, she became the object of scandal among the gossip-eager Parisians [15]. Left a widow at only 38 years old, she later became romantically involved with physicist Paul Langevin (1872– 1946), who had been a doctoral student of Pierre’s. Though Langevin was separated from his wife, they were still technically married. In the fall of 1911, she, Langevin, and roughly 20 other scientists were invited to an elite conference in Brussels. During this time, love letters between Curie and Langevin were given to members of the media by Langevin’s wife, who portrayed Curie as an evil homewrecker. When Curie returned to France after the conference, she was greeted by a mob that surrounded her house and terrified her daughters, who were only 7 and 14 years old at the time. Curie and the girls temporarily moved in with a friend until the scandal died down. Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who had just recently been introduced to Curie at the Brussels conference and developed deep respect and affection for her, was disgusted by the media’s actions, prompting him to write this letter to Marie [16]:

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism! I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin, too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin [Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870–1942), a family friend of the Curies and Langevins, who defended Curie in the aftermath], yours very truly,

A. Einstein

P.S. I have determined the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule in Planck’s radiation field by means of a comical witticism, naturally under the constraint that the structure motion follows the laws of standard mechanics. My hope that this law is valid in reality, is very low.

The letter is a clear testament to how impressed the younger Einstein was with Madame Curie’s personal as well as intellectual qualities.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920–1958)

Rosalind E. Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938. (Photo licensed via Wikipedia Commons.)

Rosalind E. Franklin

Rosalind Franklin is a sad example, perhaps not of gender discrimination, but nonetheless of blatant lack of due recognition. Born in 1920, in London, England, Rosalind (Figure 5, right – Rosalind E. Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938. (Photo licensed via Wikipedia Commons.)) earned a Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. She learned crystallography and X-ray diffraction, techniques that she applied to DNA fibers. One of her X-ray diffraction photographs provided key insights into the structure of DNA [17]. Much has been written and much slowly uncovered about the backstage laboratory drama that unfortunately tarnished this undoubtedly momentous discovery.

Rosalind belonged to an affluent and influential Jewish family, of Notting Hill, displaying an exceptional intelligence from early childhood, knowing from her teenager years that she wanted to be a scientist. Educated at several schools, such as North London Collegiate, she excelled in science. Thereafter, Rosalind enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938, to study chemistry. In 1941, she was awarded Second Class Honors in her finals, which, at that time, was equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in terms of qualification for employment. She went on to work as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal; this subject became the basis of her 1945 Ph.D. degree dissertation.

In the fall of 1946, Rosalind was appointed to the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat, Paris, France, where she worked with crystallographer Jacques Mering (1904–1973), a Russian-born naturalized French engineer. He taught her X-ray diffraction, which would play an important role in the research that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. (According to the website of XOS, a chemical manufacturer, “X-ray diffraction relies on the dual wave/particle nature of X-rays to obtain information about the structure of crystalline materials” [18].) In addition, she pioneered the use of X-rays to create images of crystalized solids in analyzing complex, unorganized matter, not just single crystals. No doubt she was a true scientist, well familiar with the subject she dealt with.

In January 1951, Rosalind began working as a research associate at King’s College London in the biophysics unit, where director Sir John T. Randall (1905–1984) used her expertise and X-ray diffraction techniques (mostly of proteins and lipids in solution) on DNA fibers. Studying DNA structure with X-ray diffraction, Rosalind and her assistant, Raymond G. Gosling (1926–2015), made an amazing discovery: they took pictures of DNA and found that there were two forms of it, a dry A-form and a wet B-form. One of their X-ray diffraction pictures of the B-form of DNA, known as “Photograph 51,” became famous as critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. The photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Rosalind herself had refined.

Despite her cautious and diligent work ethic, Rosalind had a personality conflict with her colleague Maurice H. Frederick Wilkins (1916–2004), a New-Zealand-born British physicist and molecular biologist. Sadly and erroneously, he regarded her as a technician, leading to a conflict that would end up costing her greatly. The other members of the group, it must be understood, did not do much to ameliorate the situation [19].

In January 1953, Wilkins changed the course of DNA history by disclosing—without Rosalind’s permission or knowledge—her Photo 51 to competing scientist James D. Watson (1928–present), who was working on his own DNA model with Francis H. Crick (1916–2004) at Cambridge. Upon seeing the photograph, Watson said, “My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race,” according to author Brenda Maddox, who in 2002 wrote the biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.

The two scientists did, in fact, use what they saw in Photo 51 as the basis for their famous model of DNA, which they published on 7 March 1953 and for which they received a Nobel Prize in 1962 (four years after Rosalind’s death). Crick and Watson were also able to take most of the credit for the finding: when publishing their model in Nature in April 1953, they included a footnote acknowledging that they were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s and Wilkins’s unpublished contribution, when, in fact, much of their work was rooted in her photo and findings. Randall and the Cambridge Laboratory director came to an agreement, and both Wilkins’s and her articles were published second and third in the same issue of Nature. Still, it appeared that their articles were merely supporting Crick and Watson’s.

According to Maddox, Rosalind did not know that these men based their Nature article on her research, and she did not complain either. “Rosalind did not do anything that would invite criticism; that was bred into her,” Maddox was quoted as saying in an October 2002 National Public Radio interview. John Desmond Bernal (1901–1971), one of the United Kingdom’s most well-known and controversial scientists and a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, spoke highly of Rosalind around the time of her death in 1958. “As a scientist, Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook,” he said. “Her photographs were among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs.”

Summing up: an enduring controversy was generated by Watson and Crick’s unauthorized use of DNA X-ray diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (her assistant). The controversy arose, it must be stressed, from the fact that some of Rosalind’s unpublished data were used without her consent.

Rosalind left King’s College in March 1953 and relocated to Birkbeck College, where she studied the tobacco mosaic virus and the structure of RNA. Because Randall let her leave on the condition that she would not work on DNA, she turned her attention back to studies of coal. In five years, Rosalind published 17 papers on viruses, and her group laid the foundations for structural virology. Why did Randall impose these conditions on her? Was that not sheer discrimination? Was he hiding something?

In the fall of 1956, Rosalind was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She continued working throughout the following two years, despite having three operations and experimental chemotherapy. She experienced a ten-month remission and worked up until several weeks before her death on 16 April 1958, when she was 37 [17].


Table 1. The Female Scientific Nobel Laureates

Modified from [21]. While a number of women have received Nobel recognition in other categories, this table refers only to scientific prizes, that is, medicine or physiology, physics, and chemistry. (All images licensed via Wikimedia Commons.)

Table 1. Female Scientific Nobel Laureates

This article honors three outstanding examples of women in science who suffered all sorts of discrimination and for a long time. The first two, finally through sweat and tears, reached the top of the mountain.

The third is perhaps the most moving, for she remained in obscurity, and her true contributions began to emerge too late for her to enjoy them. In this regard, it must be stated that there is nothing wrong with basing any research on previously obtained information; in fact, that is the general and most usual path. The ethical blunder regarding Rosalind Franklin resides in the fact that her data were used without clear authorization and the fact that this was later disguised, as is clearly reported in several sources. Copyright infringements have been raised for much lesser cases.

Table 1 above shows an interesting fact. From 1903 to 2015 (that is, in 112 years of Nobel laureates), only 18 women won the prize in the scientific arena, either shared or alone. That represents a very low average per year. Seven of them were U.S. citizens (38.9% of the 18). In terms of these few numbers, the performance appears no doubt poor. Is there any valid interpretation or conclusion? Discrimination, disregard, male dominance? Hard to dare advance any conclusion, but questions are unavoidable.


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