Marie Curie beats Princess Diana as world’s most influential woman

Marie Curie beats Margaret Thatcher, Jane Austen and Princess Diana to be voted the most influential woman ever

  • Polish cancer researcher was voted most influential by experts for BBC poll 
  • Rosa Parks who championed the US civil rights movement came second 
  • British suffragette who fought for women’s rights came in third place  

Politics, science, sport, technology and literature… it’s impossible to find an area where women haven’t made a powerful impact.

So the task of finding the female figure who has made the greatest contribution was always going to be a tough one.

But experts have finally narrowed it down – and named Marie Curie as the woman who did the most to change the world.

The scientist, whose discoveries in the field of radiation helped develop X-rays and cancer treatments, beat Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana and Jane Austen in a poll by BBC History Magazine.

In second place was Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement activist who protested against racial segregation in the US by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst came third.

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Curie was the first to win two Nobel prizes – one in physics and one in chemistry – and coined the word ‘radiation’. 

She had a tough childhood in her native Poland, then under oppressive Russian rule. Her mother died when she was ten and she had to work as a young governess for six years.

Going on to study at the Sorbonne in Paris, she met fellow physicist Pierre Curie, and the pair dedicated their lives to science.

She began cracking the secrets of radioactivity in their primitive laboratory in a shed.  

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (pictured being arrested) came third 

Curie helped fit X-ray machines to ambulances in the First World War while working for the Red Cross, and suffered leukaemia from long-term exposure to radiation. She died in 1934 aged 66. 

Patricia Fara, of the British Society for the History of Science, said: ‘She was the first person – note the use of person there, not woman – to win a second Nobel prize. The odds were always stacked against her.’

Readers were given a list of 100 women to choose from, selected by experts in ten fields of human endeavour. 

In second place was Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement activist who protested against racial segregation in the US

Some of the less familiar names include computer programmer Ada Lovelace, 19th-century philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, who helped crack the structure of DNA. 

Other figures in the top 20 include early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, women’s rights activist Josephine Butler and queen Eleanor of Aquitaine – one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages.

BBC History Magazine deputy editor Charlotte Hodgman said: ‘The poll has shone a light on some truly extraordinary women from history.’

Marie Curie beat former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to number one 

Princess Diana of Wales came 15th in the BBC poll of 20 most influential women ever 

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