In 1935, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to a woman for the second time. Her name was already notorious by inheritance in those halls. Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of the already consecrated Marie and Pierre, engraved her name on the summit of the Olympus of the sages, in the company of her husband Frédéric.
The reason for the award was a discovery that would expand – even more – the scope of her parents’ contributions. The Joliot-Curie spouses had evidence of having achieved artificial radioactivity. Until then, the physical phenomenon described by Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) had only been appreciated in a “natural” way.
Of course, it was not an exclusive result of the marriage. Throughout the last decades of her life, Marie Curie had devoted her physical and cognitive efforts to the study of this process. In addition, she involved several of her students in various measurements and studies related to him.
Shortly before she died, the mother of radium and polonium was aware that her daughter and her son-in-law obtained the tests of artificial radioactivity.
The international scientific community closely followed the issue and even the verdicts of the verification committee created by the French Academy to verify the evidence offered by Irène and Frédéric. Needless to say, after the pertinent verifications, the applause was practically unanimous.
However, a voice was raised against the laurel. Ștefania Mărăcineanu, a timid figure condemned to oblivion among the experienced scientific elite, stated that the Nobel Prize could not go exclusively to the Joliot-Curie.
She was one of the students of the institute dedicated to radioactivity, created by Curie, and she claimed that her observations had a significant weight in the success of the French marriage. Her aspiration was not to snatch the Nobel Prize from the daughter of the notorious scientist. She only intended for her name to receive equal recognition.
Hand in hand with science
According to the public records of his country, Ștefania was born on June 17, 1882 in Bucharest. His father Sebastian was a young man of just 20 years old. Apart from this official document, little is known about Mărăcineanu’s childhood in Romania. There are no details or personal letters that offer any kind of information about the formative stages of the young woman.
Her contemporaries and friends agreed that the girl must have suffered throughout the first years of her life. She always made it clear that she did not want to talk about her childhood or her family.
However, her academic development has been well verified. Ștefania entered the University of Bucharest in 1907. There, after three years, she obtained her first degree in chemical and physical sciences. After this educational stage, she took pedagogy courses and, in 1914, she obtained the necessary accreditation to teach high school students.
The First World War broke into her life while she was working as a teacher in a major school in her hometown. Like her compatriots, she went through difficulties due to the Austro-German invasion of her country.
At the end of the war, new opportunities opened up for Ștefania. In the mid-1920s she obtained a scholarship to work at the Radium Institute in Paris. At the same time, she obtained enrollment at the Sorbonne University to start her doctorate.
After moving to France, Mărăcineanu became actively involved in the study of the half-life of polonium. Furthermore, he devised methods to measure the alpha decay of atomic nuclei. From this result of work an important conjecture appeared.
Ștefania’s tests indicated that radioactive isotopes could be thought to form from atoms, as a result of exposure to alpha rays from polonium. This hypothesis triggered the research that, in the following decade, led the Joliot-Curies to the discovery of artificial radioactivity.
In mid-1925, the researcher returned to the Romanian capital. She enrolled in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bucharest and even requested an instructor who will monitor her research progress. But, without warning, Mărăcineanu retracted her intentions and moved back to Paris.
Over the years, and subsequent events, many historians have speculated that this was the first sign of Ștefania’s disagreements with the authorities of the Radio Institute.
The next four years of the scientist’s life were spent at the Meudon Astronomical Observatory. She from there she also investigated the possibility that sunlight induces radioactivity. However, this conjecture was disputed by other experts.
On the other hand, 1928 was a decisive year for Ștefania. She officially published her results on radioactivity and gave various lectures in significant academic settings. Less than a year after this success, Mărăcineanu returned to Romania for good.
Once installed at the University of Bucharest, she took up some of her research on the nucleus of the atom. She also alternated her duties with teaching in secondary schools, mainly for girls, in order to promote the link to science in them.
A path of thorns
In 1934, the Joliot-Curie couple officially announced the discovery of artificial radioactivity. Almost immediately their names entered the bidding for the following year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ștefania felt that her efforts and professionalism were being mocked or, at the very least, forgotten.
The scientist even wrote several letters of protest that she sent to the leaders of the Radium Institute, to the authorities responsible for the prize of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and even to some media outlets. The only newspaper that was kind enough to mention her claim was the Austrian Neues Wiener Journal. Although neither in that space was it possible to demonstrate the real magnitude of Mărăcineanu’s contributions.
A year after the marriage received the academic award, the Romanian Academy of Sciences sent an official claim to its Swedish counterpart. The letter emphasized the institution’s support for the professor and demanded that the importance of recognizing her name in the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded in 1935 be evaluated in greater depth.
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After these debates, the Romanian academy was locked in the ostracism of knowledge for several years. The Western elite was not willing to let anyone tarnish the name of one of its most adored symbols: the Curie family. Some investigations were even initiated to show that Ștefania’s analyzes had no real significance in the contributions of the Joliot-Curies. For her part, the researcher was simply condemned to oblivion.
The following years of her life, the Romanian scientist was devoted to the study of the links between radioactivity and rain, as well as rain and earthquakes. At the same time, she continued to write periodic letters that forced the Romanian Academy not to close the file that demanded the compensation of her name in the discovery granted to the French spouses.
Ștefania Mărăcineanu died on August 15, 1944. Like many other pioneers of radiation studies, she suffered from serious cancer. Even today, almost a century after her death, the debate continues. The question remains: did she also deserve the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry?