The Mother of Modern Physics

On November 7, 1867, Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland. Born to two teachers, she was an incredible bright student, distinguishing herself among her classmates. Despite this, she was not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw, as enrollment was only open to males. She dreamed of moving abroad to attend a university that allowed women but had no money to do so. With so many obstacles in her way, it may have been hard for her to imagine that she would go on to discover two new elements, win two Nobel Prizes, and become a household name around the world.

In 1891, Maria did finally have enough money to get herself to Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne under the name Marie. She earned degrees in mathematics and physics. While studying at the Sorbonne, Marie met Professor of Physics, Pierre Curie. The two married in 1895. While studying the work of physicist Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie performed experiments on uranium rays. She hypothesized that the rays came from the element’s atomic structure. When this hypothesis proved true, she had discovered radioactivity, a word Curie herself invented.

At this point, Pierre joined his wife’s research. Together they discovered the elements polonium (named after Marie’s home country) and radium. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was granted the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, alongside her husband and Henri Becquerel, for her work in radioactivity. She was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of polonium and radium. After her husband’s untimely death, Marie Curie took over his professorship, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne.

Marie Curie died in 1934 as a result of aplastic anemia, a condition that causes the body to cease producing new blood cells. The condition is a known side effect of radiation exposure. Curie’s life and work changed the field of science immutably. Her research led to other discoveries that have changed our understanding of the world, including the discovery of artificial radioactivity and the existence of the neutron. She was the first woman to achieve many things, opening the door for generations of female innovators after her.

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May History Hits: The Smallpox Vaccine

Smallpox was a highly contagious disease that affected millions of people throughout history, causing severe scarring, blindness, and even death. For centuries, there was no effective treatment for smallpox, and outbreaks turned quickly into devastating epidemics. On May 14, 1796, the smallpox vaccine was finally developed.

In the late 18th century, a British physician named Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had contracted a mild disease called cowpox seemed to be immune to smallpox (1). He hypothesized that exposing people to cowpox could protect them from smallpox and set out to test his theory.

Jenner conducted a series of experiments on volunteers, including his own son. He collected pus from cowpox lesions on the hands of milkmaids and used it to inoculate healthy individuals. He found that the inoculated individuals developed a mild form of cowpox but did not contract smallpox when exposed to the disease.

Jenner named his discovery “vaccination,” derived from the Latin word for cow, “vacca.” His method of vaccination became widely accepted and was instrumental in eradicating smallpox from the world.

The development of the vaccine was a significant scientific breakthrough that paved the way for the development of modern immunization techniques. Vaccines work by introducing a weakened or inactivated form of a disease-causing pathogen into the body, triggering the immune system to produce antibodies that can fight off the disease. This process creates immunity without causing the disease itself (2).

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that smallpox had been eradicated from the world thanks to the global vaccination campaign. This was the first time in history that a human disease had been eradicated (3).