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 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.

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.

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 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.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be scientist? Why/why not?


  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?

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.
What do we not know?
How the reputations of historical figures will change in the future. For example, Mother Theresa — who came 20th — was lauded during her lifetime, but has since been the subject of controversy surrounding the treatment of her patients.

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.
Rosalind Franklin
British scientist (1920-1958). In recent years she has been the subject of greater attention.
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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