I could explain the socio-biological aspects of this issue, but in this article, I want to illustrate my point with three life stories to make it clearer.
We will talk about the families of three great scientists.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, known historically as the period of scientific and technological progress, indeed marked a leap in the evolution of our civilization. The invention of electricity, radio, and radioactivity raised human society to a fundamentally new stage of development. Much has been written about the achievements of the scientists behind this development, but little is known about the tragedies of women behind their success.
Mileva Marić was born in Titel, Serbia (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1875. Keenly interested in physics and mathematics from an early age, the girl was admitted to the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of Zurich Polytechnic in 1896 with a high grade. Mileva studied in the same group as Albert Einstein and was the only girl in that group. She and Albert developed a friendship that would later turn into love. They did equally well in their studies. In her intermediate diploma examinations in 1899, Mileva scored a grade average of 5.05 on a 6-point scale, while her grade in physics was 5.5, the same as Albert’s, but she failed her final teaching diploma examinations. Mileva’s academic career ended in 1901 when she became pregnant by Albert. She resat the final diploma examination, but failed again. Her daughter, born in 1902, soon died of a disease. Later Mileva had two sons with Albert.
Completely engrossed in science, Albert was free from domestic chores. In addition to taking care of the household, Mileva helped Einstein with his studies. Albert, however, never mentioned his wife’s name in his work.
If she had not been in a relationship with Albert, if she had not had children, if she had not devoted herself to her family and her husband’s academic career, Mileva might have had a brilliant academic career of her own. If Mileva had not accepted the “order” of the European conservative society of the time, which held family values sacred, and focused on her own career instead of her husband’s, who knows which Einstein we would be talking about today. One of the two scientists, whose equality of mind, intellect and scientific potential was confirmed by examinations, had the freedom, the privileges and opportunities of his gender, as well as someone by his side who cared for his children and his home, and sufficient amount of time, while the other had responsibilities, domestic chores, challenges and barriers imposed by the society’s view of her gender. Wasn’t it natural that it was the male Einstein who succeeded in science in this setting?
The year 1901 was a turning point in the life of another female scientist. It was the year when Clara Immerwahr married Fritz Haber, one of the most prominent chemists of the time. Fritz Haber discovered the process of synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen and won a Nobel Prize for it. Clara graduated magna cum laude from the University of Breslau in 1900 with a PhD in chemistry under Richard Abegg.
She was the first woman to obtain a PhD from the University of Breslau.
But Clara’s marriage a year later put an end to her academic career, because, like Mileva, she devoted herself to family life and helping her husband. Clara Haber is known to have been closely involved in some of his academic work, also translating his monographs into English.
Clara was deeply dissatisfied with this situation, but it was only the beginning of the tragedy that awaited her. World War I played a crucial role in his life. Despite being Jewish, Fritz Haber, who had always considered himself a German, traded his lab coat for a military uniform and focused his scientific knowledge on the creation of chemical weapons for the victory of his native Prussia. In a short time, he developed chlorine gas, which killed thousands of people in one use, going down in history as the father of chemical warfare. More than that, he personally supervised the first use of this weapon against French and British troops near the Belgian city of Ypres on April 22, 1915, and was promoted to the rank of captain by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Clara was opposed to her husband’s work in chemical warfare with all her heart from the very beginning. She openly said that Fritz’s research was a “perversion of the ideals of science” and “a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.” Her relationship with Fritz became so strained that Clara’s nerves were completely frayed.
After Fritz returned from the “successful” Ypres operation, Clara learned that her husband had been personally involved in the massacre. After everyone had gone to bed at night, she quietly took Fritz’s service pistol, went out into the yard, and shot herself in the chest. A few days after burying his wife, Fritz Haber returned to the front.
In my opinion, there should be no question here of who remained faithful to the scientific position, scientific ethics, who took it closer to heart when these principles were trampled, and who acted with more honesty and integrity. If the historical realities, circumstances and destiny had been a little different, the world would now know another female scientist. That scientist would be remembered now not with shame, but with pride. Those discoveries would have contributed to salvation instead of crimes against humanity.
Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie
Maria and Pierre were introduced in 1894 by the Polish physicist Józef Wierusz-Kowalski. A student at the University of Paris at the time, Maria was looking for a laboratory space to conduct her scientific experiments. After learning about it, Józef introduced her to Pierre Curie, who had such a laboratory.
Pierre fell in love with Maria at first sight, but Maria did not return his feelings for a while. They got married a year later.
In fact, Maria had not seen herself living in France at first. She thought that her education at the University of Paris would help her build an academic career in her native Poland (then part of the Russian Empire). During the summer break of 1894, she returned to Poland and applied for a position at the University of Krakow only to be rejected by the university because she was a woman. It was then that Maria received a letter from Pierre, in which he suggested that she should return to Paris and pursue a PhD from the University of Paris. Maria followed his advice. At Maria’s insistence, Pierre defended his own dissertation on magnetism in 1895, and they married—without a religious service, as neither wanted it. Maria wore a beautiful dark dress instead of a white wedding gown. That dress would serve as her lab outfit in the years to come.
1895 was the year of another important event in Maria’s life: Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays, which would later be named after him. In 1896, Henry Becquerel discovered that uranium salts emitted X-rays-like radiation, which, unlike phosphorescence, did not depend on an external source of energy. Influenced by these two discoveries, Maria decided to look into the mysterious phenomenon herself.
The City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris [ESPCI]), where Maria taught, did not sponsor her research, but still provided her with a working space in a converted shed, formerly a dissecting room of the medical school. While exploring uranium and uranium-containing rocks, Maria also discovered several other radioactive substances. Inspired by her research, Pierre abandoned his research on crystals in 1898 and joined Maria in her studies of radioactivity. Although everything from the idea to the bulk of the work belonged to Maria, she indicated her husband Pierre as a co-author in her work. The male-centered Europe would not have accepted her work otherwise, regardless of its importance.
Finally, in 1898, the Curies introduced to the scientific community polonium and radium, the two elements they had discovered that were more radioactive than the uranium. Maria named one of the elements in honor of her homeland. Poland would remain part of the Russian Empire for another twenty years, but the element named after it already existed.
In 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel a Nobel Prize for their extraordinary services in the study of radioactivity. Upon hearing this, Pierre said that he would refuse the award if Maria’s name was not included in the list of winners. The Academy was forced to add Maria’s name to the nomination. Thus, Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie became the first woman in history to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
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