Piedad de la Cierva, the Spanish woman who could have been Marie Curie

Piedad de la Cierva, la española que pude ser Marie Curie

Piedad de la Cierva was a pioneer among female scientists in Spain, but her name is almost unknown. Nearly 90 years ago, she was formed so that the country would be at the forefront in the science of atoms and radioactive elements, but the end of the Civil War cut short her plans. She had the opportunity to travel abroad and learn in select environments when few women could; and she, although she could not develop a career in what she had prepared for, she did not stop researching in other fields.

Born in 1912, her father, Juan de la Cierva y López (first cousin of the inventor of the gyroplane), wanted his daughter to have an adequate training for the new times for women, "although it was complicated because at that time there were very few who could go to university", according to Inmaculada Alva, a professor at the University of Navarra and a researcher of her figure. Her father wanted her to study Pharmacy but she preferred Chemical Sciences, which she finished in 1932 with an extraordinary degree award. Later she moved to Madrid, the only place where it was possible to obtain a doctorate, with a scholarship to study it, where he presented himself with a letter of recommendation for Professor Julio Palacios, director of the X-Ray Department of the Rockefeller Institute, where the National Institute of Physics and Chemistry was located. and where she met Marie Curie. Palacios directs her thesis, on sulfur and lead. She, meanwhile, begins to study the atomic division of the e fundamental chemical elements and she publishes several articles on the subject in the journal 'Annals of Physics and Chemistry'. When she received her doctorate in 1935, Palacios encouraged her to travel to Denmark, to the Niels Bohr Institute, to specialize in artificial radiation.

That same year, he traveled to Paris and met Irène Juliot-Curie, daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie and who, together with her husband, Fréderic Joliot, investigated the structure of the atom and nuclear physics. He also traveled to Berlin, to the Institute for Atomic Physics, where he met Lise Meitner, a pioneer of nuclear fission.

With all this knowledge and the contacts he was making in Europe, the idea was that on his return to Spain he would found an institute for atomic physics at the Rockefeller. By then, she was the first woman in Spain who had extensive knowledge about radiation. But the Civil War changed the future of artificial radiation and atomic research in Spain. She meets José María Otero de Navascués, a soldier and scientist with a very important scientific career, who, aware of De la Cierva's talent, decides to sign her up for his team when she creates the Institute of Optics in 1939, which reports directly to the CSIC, and where investigates night vision and binoculars creating anti-reflective sheets that covered the lenses and prisms, something that allowed sighting targets in poor vision conditions. She also investigated with aluminum to create mirrors that would later be used to make binoculars.

In 1945, Otero de Navascués left the Institute of Optics and created the Laboratory and Research Workshop of the Army Staff, where he hired De la Cierva, and sent her to the United States, where she visited the main optical glass factories to check as elaborated. Upon her return to Spain, she directs the work so that optical glass begins to be manufactured and distributed at an industrial level. For this work, she won the Juan de la Cierva technical research prize in 1955, an award that bore the name of her relative.

It was the first but not the last time that she took that award. In the 50s, the Navy stopped being interested in the industrialization of optical glass, and even wanted to remove the ovens that exist in Madrid. De la Cierva found out that the United States was interested in rice husks for its insulating power and discovered that it has a large percentage of silica, which is obtained after burning it in powerful ovens. He begins to experiment in the glass furnaces that he still had and discovers that a white material with the appearance of sand is generated with which refractory bricks can be made, that is, they do not change with the high temperatures of the fire, which made him win in 1966, again, the Juan de la Cierva prize.

However, she also suffered from the sexism of the time. In 1941 he took part in competitive examinations for a university chair, even knowing that they were not going to give the position to a woman, as was the case. The disappointment was such that he abandoned his post as Miguel Catalán's teaching assistant and focused on research. This fact made De la Cierva help women to follow his academic career, directing the theses of many of them.

She passed away in Madrid in 2007.

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