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Vol. 33 No. 6
November-December 2011

IYC logo

An IYC Philatelic Tribute to Marie Curie

A pioneer in the field of radioactivity, Marie Curie was the first female professor at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and the first (and, to this date, the only) woman to receive two Nobel Prizes. Perhaps more significant, her legendary perseverance and dedication to research have inspired multiple generations of boys and girls to pursue careers in science, and Curie herself, characteristically reluctant to be in the spotlight, would have been particularly proud today of such a legacy. Thus, it is not surprising that the centennial of her Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911) for the discovery of radium and polonium is not only one of the thematic pillars of the International Year of Chemistry, but a timely and well-deserved recognition of her enduring role in promoting the public’s appreciation for chemistry and encouraging interest in the field among young people.
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Marie Curie is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated scientists in history and her contributions to science have been honored in multiple ways. For example, several biographies of Madame Curie are available, starting with the very personal account published in 1937 by her youngest daughter Eve, which quickly became a bestseller in Europe and the United States. Many movies and documentaries have been made highlighting various aspects of Marie Curie’s scientific career and personal life, and countless magazine articles have been written about her, including those comprising an entire issue of Chemistry International earlier this year. A myriad of streets, parks, schools, institutes, and universities throughout the world honor her memory, as do an assortment of coins, banknotes, and commemorative medals. In addition, the names of element 96 (curium) and one of the common units of radioactivity (the curie, symbol Ci) pay joint tribute to Marie and her beloved husband Pierre. There’s even a crater named Skłodowska (i.e., Marie’s maiden name) located on the far side of the Moon!

An abridged philatelic tribute to Marie Curie, whose likeness has appeared on more than 100 stamps and souvenir sheets, is presented herein. She is certainly in the “top 10” list of scientists most often portrayed on postage stamps, an illustrious cohort that includes the likes of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. Therefore, postage stamps represent a viable medium to highlight key aspects of her fascinating life and scientific accomplishments.

The first stamp to depict Marie Curie [1] was issued in Turkey on 17 April 1935, less than a year after her tragic death from leukemia on 4 July 1934. It is part of an eclectic set of 15 stamps dedicated to promoting women’s rights and the 12th Congress of the International Women’s Alliance, which took place in Istanbul from 18–24 April 1935. Significantly, also featured on the set of stamps are fellow Nobel laureates Bertha von Suttner (Peace ’05) and Selma Lagerlöf (Literature ’08), both of whom were the first women to receive the coveted prizes in their fields.
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The 40th anniversary of the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie was remembered in France in 1938 with the release of a stamp bearing a 50-cent surtax to benefit the International Union Against Cancer [2]. Although the original idea of the French Postal Service was that every country member of the Universal Postal Union would prepare a similar stamp, only Monaco [3] and Cuba [4] did so. This lack of response prompted France to issue stamps for 21 of its colonies (Cameroon, French Polynesia, Guadeloupe, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, New Caledonia, Senegal, etc.), with each stamp having an identical design except for the name of the colony.

More than 30 countries and territories have issued close to 80 stamps honoring Marie and/or Pierre Curie since then, including Albania [5], India [6], Liberia [7], Mali [8], Poland [9], Surinam [10], and Sweden [11].

A few additional stamps with a Curie theme have been issued recently (2011), although those from Bosnia and Herzegovina [12] and the British crown dependency of Jersey [13] unfortunately do not refer explicitly to the IYC, unlike those from France [14], North Korea [15], Paraguay [16], Spain [17], and Sri Lanka [18].

A philatelic tribute to Marie Curie would not be complete without showing at least one of the stamps portraying her daughter Irène and son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity [19]. Now that the end of the IYC is quickly approaching, let’s hope that the Curie family continues to be a source of admiration and inspiration for many generations to come.
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Daniel Rabinovich <drabinov@uncc.edu> is a professor of chemistry at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research interests are in synthetic and structural inorganic, bioinorganic, and organometallic chemistry. He is also the editor of Philatelia Chimica et Physica, a quarterly publication dedicated to the study of postage stamps related to chemistry and physics.


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