Lise Meitner – Nobel Prize Denied

Lise Meitner in 1906

Lise Meitner in 1906 (source)

In December of 1938, Lise Meitner received a letter from colleagues in Germany explaining their latest experimental results and questioning what these results could mean. For almost 30 years Lise had worked with Otto Hahn, and later Fritz Strassman, performing experiments related to radioactivity. Although she had begun as Hahn’s assistant without pay, their relationship had evolved to the point where she was the recognized expert in matters related to physics; Hahn was a chemist.

Lise’s nephew Otto Frisch was visiting for the holidays and together they discussed the letter she received. Researchers working on radioactivity had known for some time that one element could change into another, such as radium to polonium in Marie Curie’s experiments. But recently several researchers, when bombarding uranium with neutrons, had been finding elements with smaller atomic weights, almost half the atomic weight of uranium. At the time no one believed that the nucleus of an atom could be split. Hahn and Strassman’s research repeated this result. Meitner realized that this was exactly what was happening and that the power that would result from a chain reaction would be immense. Together she and Frisch worked out the mathematics and she conveyed the information to Neils Bohr who was on his way to the United States for a conference. And the rest as they say is history.

I knew this basic scenario when I began to read about Lise Meitner, but as usual there is more to the story. Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight children born to Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Philipp, a freethinker and humanist, was one of the first to become a lawyer in Vienna after the professions were opened up to Jews. Hedwig was an accomplished pianist. Their home was filled with music and interesting people. When asked about her childhood Lise remembered all “the unusual goodness of my parents, and the extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere in which my brothers and sisters and I grew up.”

The educational opportunities available to Lise were similar to those available to Emmy Noether in Germany; they consisted primarily of training that would enable a girl to become a good wife and mother. Public education ended for girls at age 14 and they were not admitted to the universities, so there were no secondary preparatory schools for girls. Lise wanted to study physics and her father agreed to pay for tutors if she would complete a teacher training course first. There were few employment opportunities for men or women in physics, and since Lise had shown little interest in marrying this would give her a way to support herself.

Lise studied constantly and by 1901 when Vienna allowed women to enter the university she was able to pass the entrance examinations at the age of 23. Over the next six years, she completed her doctorate in physics and published several papers related primarily to radioactivity. She also spent a year practice teaching French in a girl’s school to ensure a backup means of support. She was fortunate to study under Ludwig Boltzmann in Vienna. He was an inspiring lecturer and a proponent of atomic theory when it was still controversial. Unfortunately, he died in 1906, but he had inspired Lise to continue studying physics if at all possible.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Looking for a direction to go in her study, Lise applied to work with Marie Curie, but was rejected. In 1907, Max Planck in Berlin agreed to allow her to audit his lectures. Although Planck’s experiences with women in the sciences had been good, he wasn’t really in favor of it. He did, however, welcome Lise into his home where he had twin daughters her age. Here she would find friendship and music during her stay in Germany. One of the friends she made through Planck was Otto Hahn. Hahn was a chemist working on radiochemistry at Emil Fischer’s Chemistry Institute. He needed a physicist to work with and proposed this idea to Lise; she accepted and they began what would be a very productive working relationship.

Under conditions that will sound familiar if you’ve read my previous posts, Lise began working without pay as Hahn’s assistant at the Fischer Institute. The catch – Fischer didn’t allow women in his facility. (One reason was that he had the idea that women’s hair styles were a fire hazard.) He did “compromise” and let her work in a basement room which had been a carpentry shop and had an outside entrance; she was not allowed upstairs and had to use a toilet down the street. This meant that she couldn’t attend lectures or observe Hahn’s experiments. In spite of this, they published several papers together. In 1908, German universities were opened to women and she was finally allowed to enter the building (and they installed a toilet for women!)

Hahn and Meitner worked well together. At first she was deferential to him, but over time she became the recognized leader of their partnership, in the area of physics. In 1912, they moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, a facility funded by German industrialists. She was still unpaid, but Planck was able to get her an assistant position grading papers at the University with a small salary. Because she was developing a good reputation, the University of Prague offered her a position of associate professor with the possibility for advancement. As a result the Institute finally decided to give her a salary, although at the time still less than Hahn, so she decided to remain in Germany. Finally in 1917, Meitner became the head of her own department of radiophysics at the Institute.

The 1920s and 30s were a “golden era” in physics and Meitner was a prominent part of that. Einstein referred to her as “our Madame Curie” and Wolfgang Paul, a 1989 Nobel Prize winner considered her “a really great scientist” and the superior of Hahn. During this time she and Hahn primarily worked apart, but in 1934, she began experiments that required the expertise of a chemist and Hahn agreed to collaborate again. A number of scientists, including Meitner and Hahn, Enrico Fermi, and Irene Joliot-Curie, began their experimentation with uranium.

Solvay Conference in 1933. Lise Meitner is the second from the right, seated. The other two women in the photo are Irene Joliot-Curie, seated second from the left, and Marie Curie, seated in the center. (source)

Unfortunately, Lise wasn’t competing only with other physicists. In 1933, Jews such as Emmy Noether were expelled from university positions. Although Jewish, Meitner had been baptized a protestant and had an Austrian passport. This, and the fact that the Wilhelm Institute was not a government facility, gave her some protection. This ended however, when Hitler invaded Austria and the Institute was under increasing pressure even from within by Nazi-sympathizers. She now found herself with an invalid passport and a tenuous job. Friends abroad worked feverishly to find her a position and finally in 1938, she slipped over the border into the Netherlands with only a few possessions and moved on to take a position in Sweden.

Hahn and Meitner continued consulting via letter with one secret meeting in Copenhagen in November to plan experiments. These experiments resulted in the letter of December 1938, which she discussed with Otto Frisch. In the letter, Hahn does not draw conclusions and in fact questions the results. Meitner trusted Hahn’s results, he was an excellent chemist, and accepted the obvious conclusion, and that the atom had split. Hahn published his experimental results without drawing conclusions and without crediting Meitner, a move which she understood; he couldn’t officially collaborate with a Jew. She and Frisch published their conclusions soon after along with corroborating experimental results by Frisch. In their paper they coined the term fission to describe what had happened.

Meitner’s recognition of the principle of fission was momentous. When Frisch described the theory to Bohr, he slapped his head and said “Oh what idiots we’ve been.” Understanding the experimental results and knowing that the German’s had the information prompted action within the physics community and then the Allied governments. Meitner was eventually offered a position with the Manhattan Project, which she refused having no desire to work on a bomb.

Everyone in the physics community recognized what Lise had done. Although she wasn’t there for the final experimental results, she had originated the project, gathered the team, worked on it for almost 4 years, and interpreted the final results. Nevertheless, only months after publication Hahn began denying that Meitner had been an important part of the discovery at all. Then in 1944, the Nobel Committee voted secretly to give the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Hahn, and Hahn alone, for the discovery of nuclear fission. No one disputed that Hahn deserved it, but everyone in the physics community knew that Meitner deserved a Nobel Prize as well.

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner continued to work in Sweden until her retirement, when she moved to England to be near her relatives. In spite of the hurt of Hahn’s betrayal, and Lise’s intense criticism of the scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis, they remained friends. Her family didn’t inform her of Otto Hahn’s death in July of 1968 because of her frail condition, and she died later that year in October. Although denied the Nobel Prize, she led a very fruitful life with recognition from her peers and the love of family and friends. Her nephew Otto Frisch had her tombstone inscribed with the statement, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking by William H. Cropper

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Emmy Noether – Original in More Ways Than One

Emmy Noether c. 1910 (source)

Emmy Noether c. 1910 (source)


“Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”  ~ Albert Einstein

If you ask anyone to name a famous woman mathematician, the names that come to mind will usually be Hypatia, Ada Lovelace, Emilie du Chatelet, or Maria Agnesi, if they can name any at all. I must admit that these women were the ones who attracted my attention as well when I started reading the history of mathematics. Each of these has something that attracts us apart from mathematics: Hypatia’s brutal death, Ada’s famous father, Emilie’s famous lover, or Maria’s piety. Yet with each of these women there are debates about how much original work they actually did and how much was primarily building on the work of others. There is no doubt that they were all brilliant and deserve to be remembered, but there is one who undoubtedly did work that was so original that it changed the way we do mathematics and is virtually unknown outside of specialist circles: Emmy Noether.

Emmy Noether made groundbreaking contributions to theoretical physics and abstract algebra. She developed several formulations to support Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, in fact he wrote to David Hilbert, “You know that Frl. Noether is continually advising me in my projects and that it is really through her that I have become competent in the subject.” The principle behind Noether’s Theorem is foundational to quantum physics proving that the laws of physics are independent of time and space. And yes you can even blame her for “New Math,” her approach, just very, very, watered down. In spite of all of this, she worked almost her entire life without pay because she was a woman.

The facts of Emmy’s childhood are pretty normal for the time. She was born Amalie Emmy Noether on March 23, 1882, in Erlangen, Bavaria, the oldest of four children in a well-to-do Jewish family. Her mother, Ida Amalie Kaufmann, came from a wealthy family and her father was a well-respected Mathematics professor at the university in Erlangen. Emmy was the only girl and while her three brothers followed the traditional educational track for boys, she was schooled in music, religious instruction, language, child care, household management, etc. Girls were not admitted to universities in Germany, so there were no college-preparatory schools for them. When Emmy completed her instruction around age 15, she entered a teacher training program with the idea of teaching French and English. She did very well, except in her practical teaching skills.

Emmy was very likeable and easy to get along with. She was interested in mathematics, showed a definite aptitude for it, and was certainly exposed to it. One of her brothers went on to be a math professor and a good family friend Paul Gordon would be a very important mentor to Emmy in her early professional life. Her father was supportive and spent time with her teaching her mathematics even though it wasn’t part of her course of instruction. So why the teacher training? As a child Emmy was clever, friendly, and sociable, but she was also considered plain and ordinary. She spoke with a slight lisp, was near-sighted, and later in life would be described as loud and “heavy of build.” Emmy said herself that she didn’t have the patience to be a wife or mother, and she seemed to have little interest in clothes. Her mother may have expected Emmy to have to support herself, so she encouraged the teaching career.

Emmy passed her examinations to teach, but when she finished her course of instruction some of the university rules were being relaxed and she decided she wanted to study mathematics. Women still couldn’t officially enroll, but they could audit with the permission of the professor, so with the support of her father and Paul Gordon, she took classes over the next two years and prepared to take the university entrance exams. In 1903, she passed these exams and even though she still couldn’t officially enroll, she went to Göttingen to study mathematics. Göttingen had the leading math department in Germany led by Felix Klein, who was a proponent of admitting women to higher education. While there she met David Hilbert and was exposed to his work in abstract algebra. Hilbert is considered by some to be the greatest mathematician since Gauss, and he would later have a great impact on Emmy and her work.

Hilbert, considered by some to be the greatest mathematician since Gauss, was a proponent of admitting women to the university. (source)

Emmy only spent one semester at Göttingen and returned home, possibly due to illness. During this time, the University at Erlangen had decided to admit women and Emmy officially enrolled as a student. Working closely with Paul Gordon, she completed her dissertation and in 1907 at the age of 25 was awarded highest honors. Over the next seven years, she worked at the university, writing papers, speaking abroad, and filling in for her father as his health declined, all without pay. The money wasn’t important to Emmy as long as she could do mathematics.

Emmy’s dissertation and Gordon’s style of work was very dense, full of many equations and calculations. Although, Emmy thought very highly of Gordon, she was not entirely happy with this approach, and she began to apply Hilbert’s abstract approach to algebra. She had written some very important papers already in her career, but this is where she would make her greatest contribution. In 1915, with the help of her father, she arranged to go back to Göttingen to study with Felix Klein and David Hilbert. It wasn’t long before Klein and Hilbert both felt that Emmy deserved a teaching position. They met with a lot of resistance. It wasn’t until 1919 that she was allowed to teach classes on her own, but it had to be as Hilbert’s assistant. The classes would be registered under Hilbert’s name, but Emmy would be the professor, and she still wouldn’t be paid. Fortunately, her mother’s brothers had set up a small trust fund for her, so she had some income. By 1923, she had gained more recognition and was granted a position with a small stipend.

Emmy had a unique teaching style. She had little patience with presenting established concepts, rather she would often work out her own research with the class. Needless to say many weren’t able to follow her, but the students who stuck with her were very loyal and were sometimes referred to as “Noether’s boys.” They would come to her house to discuss math and even when school was officially out, she would meet them at a local café for discussions. Gordon had often continued teaching during what he called “math walks” and Emmy adopted this style as well. One of her students from her time at Byrn Mawr in the 1930s said that they had to watch to keep her out of the streets or from running into things, because she would get so involved in talking about math. She had an enthusiastic style, often ending up disheveled by the end of class with her hair coming out of its pins.

Throughout the 1920s, Emmy established herself as one of the leading mathematicians in the new field of abstract algebra. At the same time, she contributed greatly to the work of others. There seemed to be no jealousy or resentment in her at all. In 1933, with Hitler’s rise to power, many Jews lost their positions at German universities. Emmy was one of the first six to be dismissed from Göttingen. Yet she continued to hold clandestine classes in her home for the students who would come. One of her favorite students Ernst Witt would come to her home in his Brownshirt uniform. As far as the university was concerned she had three strikes against her; she was a Jew, a liberal pacifist, and she was a woman. But for Emmy, it was all about the math, nothing else mattered. If someone wanted to learn or work with her she would do it.

After her dismissal from the university, her friends began to try to find her a position out of Germany. She initially wanted to go to Oxford, or Russia where her brother went, but finally ended up at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania in the United States. This also gave her the opportunity to lecture at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton as well where Einstein was working. At the age of 51, she had her first real salary as a professor of mathematics. Her time here was good, but it was short. In 1935, Emmy went into the hospital for surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. The surgery appeared to go well, but four days later, her fever spiked and she lost consciousness. Emmy Noether died on April 14, 1935.

At her memorial, her close friend Hermann Weyl had the following to say about her:

“It was too easy for those who met her for the first time, or had no feeling for her creative power, to consider her queer and to make fun at her expense. She was heavy of build and loud of voice, and it was often not easy for one to get the floor in competitions with her. . . But she was a one-sided human being who was thrown out of balance by the over-weight of her mathematical talent . . . The memory of her work in science and of her personality among her fellows will not soon pass away. She was a great mathematician, the greatest, I firmly believe, that her sex has ever produced and a great woman.”

The entrance to Bryn Mawr, where Emmy spent the last year and half of her life. (source)

Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
(Note: There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Noether is included in this book because she contributed significantly to the mathematics involved in Einstein’s theories.)
Notable Women in Mathematics
edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century
by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

Dame is a Four Letter Word – an audio recording about the life of Ada Lovelace and Emmy Noether.

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Madame Curie – Part 2

Marie Curie c. 1898 (source)

Marie Curie c. 1898 (source)

To read about Marie’s early life click here.

Marie and Pierre Curie were both people who preferred to stay out of the limelight. As their fame grew, Marie probably adjusted to the attention better than Pierre did, but doing the work of science was foremost for both of them. Pierre still had a low level position in one of the less prestigious schools in Paris even though he had friends who worked to try to get him a position at the Sorbonne. Marie had finished her work on magnetism and began to look around for a topic for her doctoral thesis. They took a small apartment, Pierre took on more tutoring work and Marie got her teaching certification. Their income was small, but they could make it.

During this time, there was a series of discoveries which would set the stage for the work which would bring Marie Curie her fame. Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays. The exact nature of this radiating energy was unknown, but a connection was hypothesized between X-rays and phosphorescence. Henri Becquerel, with an interest in phosphorescence, experimented to determine whether or not other minerals known to be florescent produced X-rays. After testing many different minerals, the only one which exhibited a similar type of radiating energy was uranium.

The discovery of X-rays created quite a stir, particularly with its implications for medicine, so of course the Curie’s followed the related research. Marie thought that uranium and this radiating energy were of interest and decided to investigate further. By examining ore samples containing uranium, she determined that the amount of radiation was directly related to the amount of uranium in the sample. It wasn’t affected by other factors such as temperature or other elements contained in the sample. This led her to hypothesize that the radiation was a characteristic of the atom itself.

 Marie and Pierre in the laboratory c. 1904 (source)

Marie and Pierre in the laboratory c. 1904 (source)


One of the minerals that she investigated was pitchblende. Here she measured much higher levels of radiation than could be accounted for by uranium. She concluded that there must be additional elements within pitchblende that also exhibited this property of radiating energy and began the long and tedious process of isolating and identifying them. She coined the term radioactivity and established the science that would be used to analyze it.

It is important to remember that other scientists were actively involved in similar investigations. Becquerel had in fact discovered, and maybe more importantly, published the concept of radioactivity first. In Marie’s experiments she discovered that the element thorium was radioactive, but Gerhard Schmidt in Germany had discovered the same thing and published it earlier. Marie knew of the importance of announcing and publishing her work in a timely fashion. Since, neither she nor Pierre were members of the French Academy of Science, her former professor Gabriel Lippman presented her first paper on the subject for her in 1898.

It took about four years for Marie to complete her work. She isolated two radioactive elements in pitchblende: polonium and radium. At some point, Pierre put his work aside and began to work with her, as did other scientists and students. Much of the work, especially at the beginning, required back breaking effort. As it turns out, they had to process from 6- 7 tons of pitchblende to get a miniscule amount of radium. Radium is the element that caught the imagination of the world and would be used in things from paint on watch dials to “health” drinks, much to the detriment of those that came in close contact with it.

During this period of time, Marie gave birth to their first daughter, Irene, in 1897. It was, of course, expected that a woman would take care of everything related to the home. When Marie and Pierre were married, their home and lives were simple. It is said that they only had two chairs at their table to discourage visitors from staying. In the evening, they would companionably read physics together. They had a shared obsession with science that overshadowed everything else. When Irene was born this changed dramatically.

Marie and Pierre with Irene c. 1902 (source)

Marie and Pierre with Irene c. 1902 (source)


Marie went back to her work, but would have to rush home to nurse Irene. She didn’t have enough milk and had to hire a wet nurse. With two nurses to care for the baby, their meager income was stretched even more. With the hard physical work she was doing, the increased expenses, and the feeling of failure at not being able to nurse her baby, the stress took its toll on Marie’s health. Pierre’s father came to the rescue. Dr. Eugene Curie was the physician who had delivered Irene. During the same month, his wife, Pierre’s mother died of breast cancer. So, at the beginning of 1898, Dr. Curie moved in with Marie and Pierre to care for Irene.

Dr. Curie was a godsend. He was a warm, expressive man who Irene and later Eve would remember fondly. He is probably responsible for meeting most of their emotional needs. There is no doubt that Marie loved her children, but she and Pierre were in many ways lost in their scientific world. And after Pierre died in 1906, Marie would close herself off emotionally, preventing them from even mentioning Pierre’s name in her presence.

Pierre had been denied the acclaim in France that he had received internationally, in part due to his unconventional background, and Marie faced these kinds of prejudices as well because she was a woman. By 1902, she had isolated enough radium to determine its place on the periodic table and to satisfy the chemists that it was indeed a new element. She wrote her thesis and received her doctorate and in 1903, Marie, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel were nominated for and received the Nobel Prize in physics.

It wasn’t quite that simple though. The Nobel Prizes were first given beginning in 1901. That first year, and again in 1902, Charles Bouchard nominated all three of them. Other people were chosen both years. Then in 1903 four influential scientists, including Gabriel Lippman, Marie’s former professor whom she considered a friend, nominated Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for the physics prize with no mention of Marie. Magnus Gustaf Mittag-Leffler a respected Swedish mathematician who was on the nominating committee told Pierre of the nomination. Pierre wrote him that he would not accept the prize unless Marie was included. He approached the committee with this letter, and with the support of Charles Bouchard, the nomination was changed to include Marie.

(Mittag Leffler believed that women were under appreciated in the sciences. He was also the person responsible for raising the private funds to support the appointment of Sonya Kovalevsky to a position of full professor in mathematics at his university in Sweden. She was the first woman to become a professor of mathematics and Marie Curie the first woman to become a Nobel Prize winner. Thank you Professor Leffler!)

Life changed after the Nobel Prize. Although, the Curie’s had not patented their process for extracting radium, they did receive some income from it due to its immense popularity, but probably not enough to make up for the time they had to spend dealing with other people. They had made this choice on principle believing that it was more important to facilitate the work of science than to profit from it.

In 1904 Pierre was finally offered a chair at the Sorbonne, the same year a second daughter, Eve, was born. And in 1905, he was offered membership in the French Academy of Science. The latter came with lab facilities and three posts, one of which he gave to Marie. Then tragedy struck in 1906, when Pierre fell in the street and was struck in the head and died.

Pierre’s death changed Marie. Joy and light seemed to be taken from her. Dr. Curie sustained his granddaughters and taught them about their father, because Marie refused to discuss him after his death. This would be especially important for Eve since she was less than two years old when he died. Marie would be actively involved in their lives, planning their education and being with them, but it was never the same.

Life is complicated and it is difficult if not impossible to determine cause and effect in many areas of our lives. But Pierre Curie understood his wife in a way that I’m not sure anyone else did. Her drive to study science was probably motivated by several things, interest and ability of course, but possibly a need to do the things that had been denied her father, as well as a need to retreat from every day life when depression threatened to overwhelm her.

Curie in a World War I mobile x-ray vehicle (source)

It’s also impossible to give an accurate picture of a complicated person in 3000 words or less. Marie went on to become a professor at the Sorbonne in 1908 and win the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of radium, an award that was almost derailed because of an affair with Paul Langevin. (This, in itself, is a study of how women were treated differently even in the “rational” world of science. The same standard certainly wasn’t applied to Langevin or to Einstein for that matter.) She oversaw the building of The Curie Institute, developed and implemented mobile X-ray machines during World War I, and even got involved in a little intrigue to prevent the Germans from getting their hands on radium during the war.

Marie continued to teach young scientists, although she would do no more original work of the caliber she did in her early life. Some (at least at the time) would try to claim this as evidence that Pierre was the real scientist of the two, but I don’t think this is the case. Many scientists do their best work at an early age. I think they were both exceptional scientists with individual accomplishments and an understanding of each other that brought out the best of each.

Note: The next woman to win a Nobel Prize would be Marie and Pierre’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie with her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie in 1935, the year after Marie’s death.

Read about Marie’s early life.

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Six Great Scientists by J. G. Crowther

Madame Curie – Part I

One of the most famous pictures of Marie Curie is the photograph taken at the 1911 Solvay Conference. In it she is the only woman surrounded by some of the most well known scientists and mathematicians of her day: Perrin, Poincare, Einstein, Rutherford, and Langevin to name a few. It is easy to assume that genius is always recognized whether it is in a man or a woman, but Marie Curie’s fame was hard won. She also didn’t get there due exclusively to her own efforts, but in part due to the fact that there were those in her field who weren’t willing to let her be denied simply because she was a woman. There were scientists who worked against her, but also those who defended her, her discoveries, and her genius.

1911 Sovay Conference, Marie Curie is second from the left and the only woman

1911 Sovay Conference, Marie Curie is second from the right seated and the only woman (source)

Marya Salomee Sklodowska, nicknamed Manya, was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. Her parents, Wladyslaw Sklodowski and Bronislava Boguski were intelligent members of the lower aristocracy. Their families no longer had wealth but they valued education and had a fierce loyalty to their native Poland. From the time of Manya’s birth until after World War I, the area of Poland where she was born and grew up was occupied by Russia. After several uprisings, the Russian government worked to suppress Polish nationalism.

Because of the suppression of the Polish people, although educated in St. Petersburg, Wladyslaw was a physicist who was not allowed to perform experiments or practice his science. He was reduced to taking low paying teaching positions in schools administered by Russians. Bronislava worked hard to get an education and worked her way up to becoming headmistress of the Freta Street School, a private school for girls in Warsaw. During this time, women were not expected to work outside their homes and were not eligible for higher education.

When Wladyslaw and Bronislava married in 1860, they moved into the apartment provided for Bronislava as the headmistress of the Freta Street School. Five children followed in six years: Zofia in 1862, Jozef in 1863, Bronislava (Bronya) in 1865, Helena in 1866, and Manya in 1867. The year Manya was born Wladyslaw received a position as assistant director of a Russian school on the western side of Warsaw which came with an apartment. The family moved and for a while Bronislava tried to continue in her position as headmistress. Eventually, the strain of caring for her family combined with travel to the Freta school and maintaining her job there took its toll and Bronislava resigned her position.

It seems that their family life was happy for a time. Both parents valued education and loved their children. At first Bronislava educated the older children at home, but her health began to decline. In 1871, when Manya was four, her mother began to show the classic symptoms of tuberculosis. Over the following years, she would go away several times for a “cure” taking Zofia with her as a nurse. When Manya was 10 her sister Zofia died from typhus. Two years later her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. These deaths hit Manya very hard. For most of her life she would suffer from periodic bouts of severe depression. At times she was able to hide it, retreating into a book, her studies, or later her work, but other times she would take to her bed refusing to eat or see anyone.

Marie Curie at 16 years old (source)

Marie Curie at 16 years old (source)

Manya continued her studies, graduating first in her class in 1883. This continued perseverance in the face of great loss took its toll. After she graduated she withdrew into despair. As a remedy, she was sent to spend the next year with relatives living in the country. She would later describe this year as one of the happiest of her life. Manya came back to Warsaw determined to work to help her family. She made a deal with her sister Bronya. She would work to help Bronya get her medical degree, then Bronya would in turn help her. To do this she took a series of jobs as a governess. One of these jobs was for the Żorawski family. During this time she fell in love with their son Kazimierz Żorawski. The feeling was mutual and they wanted to marry, but his parents were adamantly opposed to their son marrying a penniless governess.

In 1890, Bronya, who had finished her medical training and married another doctor, wrote to her sister to come to Paris. Manya still had hope that Kazimierz would be able to go against his parents and marry her. She decided not to go to Paris and began her scientific training in what was called the “Floating University.” The Floating University, or Flying University, was an underground, illegal, series of courses taught in private homes. The goal was to keep alive the Polish culture under the repressive rule of the Russians. This also provided a means for girls to get a higher education.

Eventually, Manya received a letter from Kazimierz which ended any thoughts of marriage in Manya’s mind and she decided to accept Bronya’s offer and go to Paris. In the fall of 1891, she arrived in Paris and taking the French form of her name, Marie, she entered the Sorbonne to study physics and mathematics. Initially staying with her sister, Marie found the constant activity in the home distracting and eventually rented a small garret room where she would spend her evenings studying, often without heat and neglecting her own health. She worked hard and received her degree in physics in 1893, and her degree in mathematics in 1894.

Sklodowski Family: Wladyslaw Skłodowski and his daughters Maria, Bronisława and Helena c. 1890 (source)

One of Marie’s professors, Gabriel Lippman, was able to get a small research opportunity for her to study magnetism. While attending the Floating University, Marie had begun work investigating magnetism in a laboratory run by a cousin, so it was an area of interest to her, but she had little laboratory space and poor equipment. Friends suggested that she consult a young scientist named Pierre Curie. Pierre had also done work in the area of magnetism which Marie was familiar with, but more importantly he and his brother Jacques had invented several pieces of equipment that would make Marie’s work much easier.

Pierre was a quiet man who had an unconventional upbringing. As a child he struggled learning some basic things such as reading and writing, but his genius in mathematics was recognized early. For this reason, his parents chose to educate him at home. Whether because of temperament or because of his early lack of experience with others outside the home, Pierre would always shy away from the public spotlight. This affected his ability to promote himself and achieve recognition in the form of lucrative positions in universities.

Before Marie met Pierre, he and Jacques had discovered piezoelectricity, a concept that explained the relationship between volume changes in crystal quartz and electricity. This discovery would become the foundation of many inventions in the future, such as sonar, ultrasound, and quartz wristwatches. It also brought Pierre and Jacques international acclaim in the scientific community. In spite of this, when Marie met Pierre, he was teaching at an industrial school for engineers with a small salary. It certainly wasn’t a position commensurate with his abilities or fame.

Pierre Curie c. 1906 (source)

Pierre Curie c. 1906 (source)

In many ways they were made for each other. Pierre never thought he would meet a woman who didn’t distract him from his science. Marie also had a need to be free from distraction, and in Pierre, she had met a man who not only understood her, but wasn’t threatened in any way by her genius. It took some persuading along with help from Marie’s sister Bronya and Pierre’s mother, but Marie finally agreed to marry Pierre in 1895. Although she needed persuading, they were very much in love, and after the wedding they settled down to work together.

Next Post – The discovery that made Madame Curie famous and how she and Pierre were able to balance science with family life.

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Six Great Scientists by J. G. Crowther

Three Women Win Nobel Peace Prize for 2011

Three amazing women have won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman. The prize has been awarded to them “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. Sirleaf and Gbowee are from Liberia which suffered under violent civil war from 1989 through 2003. Karman is from Yemen where people have risen up and demanded a regime change, democracy and peace for all Yemenis. Their struggle is ongoing, but Karman has had an ongoing role in making the voice of women heard since 2005.

Between 1901 and 2011, 826 individuals and 20 organizations have been honored with a Nobel Prize or the Prize of Economics Sciences also given by the Nobel Committee. A few individuals and organizations have been honored more than once. Of all of these, to date only 43 women have been awarded either a Nobel Prize or the Prize in Economic Sciences, fifteen of these women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Almost half of these awards, 21, have been awarded since 1990. It looks like perhaps women are finally being noticed for the excellent things they can achieve when given the chance.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
This photograph was produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current president of Liberia. She studied economics and public administration in Liberia and in the United States. She served as Assistant Minister of Finance and Minister of Finance in Liberia until the military coup in 1980. After making remarks critical of the new leader Samuel Doe and the ruling People’s Redemption Council, she fled the country and worked at various financial institutions including the World Bank and Citibank.

During 1985 and 1986, Sirleaf returned to Liberia where she ran for vice-president, but was arrested and convicted for sedition because of her criticism of the Doe regime. She was released because of international pressure and removed from the presidential ticket, but ran for senate instead. Although she won her Senate seat, she refused to take it in protest of the fraudulent elections which had returned Doe to power. She was imprisoned again and when released 8 months later fled the country. In 1992, Sirleaf began work for the UN. During this time she held a number of positions where she was involved in investigations into the Rawandan genocide, as well as the effect of sexual assault and conflict on women and women’s role in peace building.

The First Liberian Civil War in 1989 brought Charles Taylor to power. Sirleaf initially supported him, but came to oppose his rule and returned to Liberia for the 1997 presidential elections. The election results were controversial and Sirleaf again went into exile. The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 and conflict continued until the summer of 2003. Charles Taylor resigned and fled to Nigeria and in October vice-president Moses Blah, then acting president, turned the government over to the National Transitional Government of Liberia. In 2005, Sirleaf again ran for president for the Unity Party. After a runoff election against George Weah, she won 59% of the vote. The election was contested, but Sirleaf was finally declared president on November 23, 2005. Sirleaf won a second term in office in 2011.

Leymah Gbowee
Press conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA (US). Jon Styer/Eastern Mennonite University

Leymah Gbowee was 17 when the First Liberian Civil War broke out. After the war, she heard of a training program given by UNICEF to help victims of war cope with their tragedies. She was also the victim of abuse and looking for peace and a way to support her children fled to Ghana. They were basically homeless refugees and eventually returned to Liberia. When she returned she became a volunteer in the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program run by St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. While volunteering, she worked on her Associate degree in Social Work, which she received in 2001. The pastors and lay people of the Lutheran church joined with the Christian Health Association of Liberia to try to help heal the damage done during the conflict.

All war is brutal, but the Liberian conflict made extensive use of child soldiers and many women and girls were victims of rape as a weapon of war. Gbowee realized that “if any changes were to be made in society it had to be by the mothers.” She began reading about peaceful protest, authors such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. She also met other people who were committed to peace, such as Thelma Ekiyor of Nigeria who organized the first meeting of the Women in Peacebuilding Network. Ekiyor named Gbowee as coordinator of the Liberian Women’s Initiative.

In 2002, Gbowee had a dream where God told her to “Gather the women and pray for peace.” She thought the dream was for others to act on, but the women she was working with and whom she respected convinced her that God expected her to act on it. Soon, Gbowee and a few allies, including Asatu a Muslim woman, began going around to churches and mosques after services, and into the market, to talk to women. They handed out fliers with both words and pictures for the women who couldn’t read. Their flyers said “We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!”

Their movement the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, started with local women and spread. They dressed in white and tried many different strategies, constantly re-evaluating what worked and didn’t. They sang and prayed both Christian and Muslim prayers, staged protests, had sit-ins and even went on a sex strike. Finally, they occupied a soccer field that President Charles Taylor had to pass every day going to and from the Capitol. Charles Taylor finally agreed to meet with them. They extracted a promise from him to go to the peace talks in Ghana.

In June 2003, Gbowee led a delegation of women to the peace talks. They didn’t have a seat at the table, but kept up their demonstrations outside the building. As the talks stalled inside the luxury hotels where the men were meeting, the women kept up their vigil outside in the heat through the month of July. Finally, the women moved inside and blocked the door. Locking their arms together they told the men that they wouldn’t let them out. When the men threatened to break through, their last resort was to take off their clothes. In Gbowee’s book Mighty Be Our Powers, she explains that “In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself.” The entire atmosphere of the talks changed and eventually an agreement was reached. The Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed on August 18, 2003 and the Liberian War was officially over. There is still much work to be done. After her election this year President Sirleaf announced “a national peace and reconciliation initiative” headed by Leymah Gbowee. You can see a delightful interview with Leymah and Jon Stewart of the Daily Show here.

Tawakkol Karman
This photo was taken by Harry Wad.

Tawakkol Karman has been fighting for human rights in Yemen for a number of years. Although the Arab Spring has brought the fight for democracy and freedom in the Middle East to our attention in the west only this year, it is not new to Karman. She is a married mother of three with an undergraduate degree in commerce and a graduate degree in political science. In 2005 she founded Women Journalists Without Chains along with 7 other female journalists to promote freedom of expression and democratic rights. This group has documented Yemeni abuses of freedom of the press since 2005. She has openly criticized the government for trials targeting journalists and led demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, in Yemen’s capitol Sana’a since 2007.

She is a strong advocate for freedom of the press and for women’s issues, such as education and a ban on forcing women younger than 17 to marry, and has spoken out against government corruption. In January of 2011 after organizing protests against the current government, Karman was arrested and held in chains for 36 hours. Protests and demonstrations through out the country called for her release. She has continued to lead demonstrations.

In a June18 article in The New York Times article “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution,” she has also been critical of the role of the US in continuing the status quo and putting the “War on Terror” over the human rights of the people of Yemen. In the article she expresses deep regard and respect for the US and its government, as well as US security concerns, and asks that they engage the democratic movement in Yemen rather than depending only on the members of the old regime. She asks the same thing of the government of Saudi Arabia.

Karman was in New York in October to demonstrate in front of the UN against giving amnesty to Saleh and calling for his prosecution in the International Criminal Court. During that meeting the UN Security Council signed a resolution condemning Saleh’s government, but supporting an initiative that would give him immunity. While Karman was in New York, she gave an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now which you can see here.

Women are coming into their own in many ways. These three women demonstrate courage that is inspiring. May they inspire us to be all that we can be.

Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee written with Carol Mithers.
This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
“The Nobel Peace Prize 2011”. 13 Dec 2011
“Facts on the Nobel Peace Prizes”. 13 Dec 2011
Tawakkul Karman on wikipedia
Leymah Gbowee on wikipedia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on wikipedia