Marie Curie hailed most world-changing woman

Star scientists: Ada Lovelace came fourth in the poll, while Rosalind Franklin came fifth.

Is science the greatest historical force? Pioneering chemist Marie Curie has topped a poll of the world’s most influential women. She is joined by many other trailblazing female scientists.

In an interview some years before she died, Marie Curie was asked to sum up her life. She used just 21 words: “I was born in Poland,” she said. “I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”

Her laconic response obscures a remarkable scientific career. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for physics, and the first person to ever win a second prize, awarded for chemistry in 1911. Nobody else has ever won Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Chief among her achievements was the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. Further research into radioactivity planted the seeds for life-changing cancer treatments doctors still use today.

Her work was also crucial in the development of x-ray treatments. During the First World War, Curie equipped ambulances with x-ray machines which she would drive to the front line herself.

Despite her success she eschewed financial benefits, often insisting that monetary awards be given to the institutions she was affiliated with. Albert Einstein once remarked that “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”

She died in 1934 but her legacy shines brightly — confirmed this week when a BBC poll ranked her as the most influential woman in history. Curie came top of a shortlist of 100 women, which was dominated by scientists.

In fourth place was Ada Lovelace. Born in 1815, Lovelace is widely regarded as the first computer programmer — she started writing algorithms for “computing machines” over a century before the digital age began.

Then there is Rosalind Franklin. Her experiments in the early 1950s provided crucial evidence in identifying the structure of DNA.

However, the discovery of DNA was ultimately credited to James Watson and Francis Crick, who built on Franklin’s fundamental data to win the Nobel Prize in 1962. The crucial role that Franklin played in the breakthrough was largely ignored until recent years.

Is science the most influential force in history?

Wonder women

Of course, some argue. The greatest progress comes from science. Think of the way medicine has prolonged life, or the way computers have revolutionised all aspects of society. Not only are Curie, Franklin and Lovelace influential women, but pioneering human beings in their own right — all of whom shaped the world we live in.

Not so fast, others respond. Politics plays just as big a role. Think of Emmeline Pankhurst and Rosa Parks — colossal figures in the fight for gender equality and civil rights respectively. Campaigners like them changed the very fabric of society, forging a more just and equal world. What is more, their fight is not over.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be scientist? Why/why not?
  2. Who is your greatest female role model, famous or otherwise?

Activities

  1. Who would you consider to be the most influential woman alive today? Write down the names of some suggestions and rank them in order. Discuss your list with the class. What makes these women admirable?
  2. Look at the women ranked in the top 20 by following the Guardian link in Become An Expert. Do you agree with the list? Why/why not? Are there any people you think should be higher/lower? Has the list missed off someone you believe to be more important?

Some People Say...

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

Marie Curie

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For the BBC poll, experts were asked to nominate 10 women across 10 different fields, then the public voted for their favourite. Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst came second and third, behind Marie Curie. The highest placed politician was Margaret Thatcher who came sixth.
What do we not know?
How the reputations of these historical figures will change in the future. Rosalind Franklin was not largely celebrated during her lifetime, whereas now some are calling for the award of a posthumous Nobel Prize (technically against the organisation’s rules). Furthermore, Mother Theresa — who came 20th — was lauded during her lifetime, but has since been the subject of controversy surrounding treatment of patients in her missionaries.

Word Watch

Pierre Curie
Marie worked with her husband extensively during her early career, with whom she shared her first Noble Prize in 1903. He was tragically killed in 1906 after being struck by a horse-drawn carriage.
Laconic
Speech which uses very few words to make a point.
Radioactivity
A term coined by Curie, it refers to a substance which emits ionising radiation or particles.
Algorithms
A set of rules to be followed in calculations, normally by a computer. Lovelace’s first algorithm instructs a computer to generate Bernoulli numbers.
Rosalind Franklin
British scientist (1920-1958). In recent years she has been the subject of greater attention. The play Photograph 51 tells the story of her work — it was performed in London in 2015 with Nicole Kidman taking on the role of Franklin.
Emmeline Pankhurst
British political activist and leader of the Suffragette movement (1858-1928).
Rosa Parks
Civil rights campaigner known for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott (1913-2005).

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