Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

The Sorbonne
Spanning two centuries, the Curie family was affiliated with the Sorbonne, a college of the University of Paris. The University of Paris was founded in 1170, and the Sorbonne was founded in 1257. In 1793, as a result of the French Revolution, the University of Paris became one of the academies of the newly created University of France. In 1878, at the age of eighteen, Pierre Curie became a laboratory assistant at the Sorbonne. In 1891, Marie Curie moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, from which she eventually earned two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree. In 1900, Pierre was made a lecturer at the Sorbonne, and in 1904, he was given a post as professor. Upon his death, Pierre’s professorship was handed over to Marie, making her the first woman on the faculty of the Sorbonne. Decades after the death of Marie Curie, the Sorbonne gained international attention when, in 1968, radical leftist students occupied the college in a massive protest that sparked strikes by workers throughout France. Although this student uprising was quelled before long, it is considered to have had a significant effect on French politics, as well as on the role of students in the university system of France.

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The Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prize is highly regarded as the most prestigious international award in the categories it honors. The Nobel Prize was established in accordance with the will of the Swedish inventor Alfred Bernard Nobel and originally funded by his endowment. Nobel specified that the award should be given annually to those whose efforts most bene- fited mankind in the following five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Nobel died in 1895, and the first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. In 1903, Marie Curie shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And in 1935, Marie’s elder daughter Irene Curie- Joliot shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot. In 1969, a sixth category, economics, was added to the annual Nobel Prizes.

Scientific Achievement in the Nineteenth Century
Marie Curie’s early successes in the international scientific community came in the final years of the nineteenth century. Many significant scientific advances by an international community of scientists paralleled her own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845–1923) discovered the X-ray, so-named to indicate the unknown quantity of his discovery. In 1901, Roentgen was the first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics. Marie Curie was particularly taken with Roentgen’s work and was instrumental in disseminating X-ray machines for medical purposes in French military hospitals during World War I.

The French scientific community during the nineteenth century was particularly fertile. At the Sorbonne, Curie was a student under Gabriel Lippmann (1845–1921), the French physicist who first invented a process of color photography, for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1908. In 1896, Henri Becquerel (1852–1908), building upon Roentgen’s research on the X-ray, discovered radiation. Although Becquerel’s work preceded that of the Curies, it was their discoveries of new radioactive materials that made the work of Becquerel signifi- cant and brought it to the attention of the scientific community. Becquerel, in turn, made an important discovery when he found that a sample of the Curie’s radium, which he was carrying, burned through his pocket and into his skin. The presentation of a professional paper on this phenomenon quickly led other scientists to the development of radioactive materials for treating cancer. For their combined efforts, the...

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