Stefania Maracineanu, a pioneer woman of radioactivity

Surely, you must have heard of Marie-Curie. But have you heard of Stefania Maracineanu? Her name should be well known as her research and discoveries at the Radium Institute in Paris has lead to Joliot-Curies’ Nobel Prize in 1935. It is said that the discovery of the artificial radioactivity was already done by Stefania 10 years before Curie’s discovery. 

It is important to bring names such as these to light and to recognize their contribution to human kind. Who was this amazing woman and why were we not taught about her and why documentaries and books ignore her?

Life story

She was born an orphan in Bucharest in June, 1882 and has graduated with a physical and chemical science degree in 1910. Professor Traian D. Gheorghiu, member of the Romanian Academy remembered her as “a tiny human being that inspired everyone with her energy, she was a revelation”.

She decided to start her career in teaching at the Central School for Girls in Bucharest, but then she earned a scholarship which allowed her to move to Paris and start her research at the Radium Institute.  She has then enrolled at the Sorbonne and in only 2 years she has managed to finish her PhD in physics.

Stefania Maracineanu

She then returned to Romania in 1925 and has started working as an assistant instructor at the University of Bucharest. She has returned to Paris for another 4 years where she worked at the Astronomical Observatory in Meudon. She then moved back to Romania for good where she published a manual on radioactivity and founded the first laboratory for the study of radioactivity in the country.

A few years later, in 1935 Marie Curie and Frederick Joliot-Curie have received the Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity. Curie has published an article about the discovery in Neues Wiener Journal in which several facts about their colleagues were mentioned. Curie recognized Maracineanu’s contribution to the discovery:

It was a Romanian, Miss Mărăcineanu, who a few years ago was probably the first one to observe that non-radioactive elements could be made radioactive under certain conditions, meaning they emit radiation similar to the type which, until now, has been only observed for the few radioactive elements.

Marie Curie

Maracineanu’s work was recognized by the Academy of Sciences of Romania in 1936 and she was elected as a Director of Research.  In her letter to the Academy of Sciences she stated that she does not contest the Nobel prize, however she asks that her role in the discovery to be recognized. She noted that she was the first one to discover this phenomenon in 1924. Curie used the same method as her, the only difference was that Currie was placing the metallic foil over the polonium and Maracineanu was placing it under. Maracineanu also noted that Curie promised that her name will also be on the paper, however this has not happened.

Why is she unknown and why was her work not recognized?

According to a research paper written by Fontani et al, there was a lot of competition among the scientists at the Institute of Radium in Paris. Apparently, Curie’s daughter  received special treatment because her mother lead the Institute. Thus, Maracineanu was discriminated not only for not being part of Curie’s family but also because she was a foreigner.

When madame Curie moved to France and married a Frenchman she decided that her daughter will get the best treatment and this is how Marie Curie ( the daughter) received special treatment and managed to advance her career at the Institute. The paper states:

Regarding the more personal, Marie became extremely jealous: the most prestigious discoveries in the field of radioactivity could not but be due – as if it were by right of blood – to any other than a member of her family. And so it seemed regarding the discovery of artificial radioactivity in 1934: a milestone in the study and understanding of atomic nuclei.

It is also said that when this phenomenon was discovered By Maracineanu 10 years prior to Curie’s publication, she was not able to explain it properly. However, when Curie received the Nobel Prize she did not mention Maracineanu’s work and did not give her any type of recognition (according to Danut Serban). Moreover, a few days after the Nobel awards, professor A. Boutaric, a Dijon science university professor has published an article called ” Radioactivity” in which Maracineanu’s research results are presented. The article was published in the French magazine called La Nature. In the end, Maracineanu was thanked for her contribution but she has never received full recognition. Her name should be well known just as Curie’s name.

Maracineanu went on to live in Romania. She has continued her research into inventing artificial rain together with Romanian researchers Dimitrie Bungentianu and Nicolae Vasilescu-Karpen. The experiments were made in Algeria, with the support of the French government. Towards the end of her life Maracineanu volunteered in a hospital and published several research articles.

bibliography : Marco Fontani, Mary Virginia Orna, Mariagrazia Costa and Sabine Vater: Science is Not a Totally Transparent Structure: Ştefania Mărăcineanu and the Presumed Discovery of Artificial Radioactivity






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