MARIE SKLODOWSKA CURIE

NOVEMBER 7, 1867 - JULY 4 , 1934

Marie Curie.jpg

   Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, in the Russian partition of Poland, on November 7th, 1867.  She was the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronislawa, (maiden name: Boguska), and Wladyslaw Sklodowski.

     On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family lost their property and fortunes through their involvements in Polish national uprisings aimed at restoring Poland’s independence.  This condemned the subsequent generations, including Maria, to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life.

     Maria was in some ways a precursor to the women’s rights movement, BUT, it wasn’t through harsh rhetoric, or through sensational acts that Maria proved her worth.  Rather, it was through hard work, sacrifice, diligence and a supreme dedication to scientific discovery. 

      Maria’s father had been fired by his supervisor because of his pro-Polish sentiments, sentiments that Maria carried with her through life.  This in turn, put additional financial hardship on the family.

     Maria’s mother was a devout Catholic, whereas her father was an Atheist.  After Maria’s sister died of typhus, she became an Agnostic.  Personal tragedy has a way of testing one’s faith.

     When she was ten years old, Maria attended a gymnasium for girls, from which she graduated with a gold medal in 1883.  Unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher learning because she was a woman, she and her sister became involved with the clandestine Flying University (sometimes translated as Floating University), a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women students.

      Maria took positions as both a tutor and governess.  As a governess, she fell in love with Kazimierz Zorawski, a future eminent mathematician, whose parents prohibited him from marrying a penniless woman. 

     In late 1891, Maria (or Marie, as she would be known in France) left her beloved Poland for France where she found shelter with her sister and brother-in-law.  She would later rent a garret close to the University of Paris, where she enrolled in 1891. There, she proceeded with her studies of physics, chemistry and mathematics. She subsisted on her meager resources, suffering from cold winters and occasionally fainting from hunger. 

     Maria studied during the day and tutored evenings, barely earning her keep.  In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics and began work in an industrial laboratory.  She continued studying a the University of Paris, and with the aid of a fellowship, she was able to earn a second degree in 1894. 

      Maria began her scientific career investigating the magnetic properties of various steels.  Needing space for these she was introduced to Pierre Curie, who would eventually fall in love with her.  Their shared passion for scientific research drew them closer together, and Pierre proposed. Maria did not accept at first because she still desired to return to Poland, at which point Pierre declared that he was willing to go to Poland as well, even if it meant just to teach French. 

     Because there is a common misconception that Maria’s accomplishments were somehow linked to Pierre, that she wouldn’t have achieved the success she had without Pierre, it is important that we correct that.  In fact, in contemporary France the quip was that Pierre’s greatest discovery was Maria.  That too was unfair because Pierre was a giant in his own right, but he recognized his wife’s genius as well.  In fact, in one instance, while working on crystals, he saw where his wife’s research was going , and he dropped his line of scientific investigation to assist her.  Unfortunately, Pierre was killed by a horse drawn buggy, but not before two daughters were born.

     Maria’s achievements included the development of the theory of radioactivity (a term she coined), techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and the discovery of two elements, radium and polonium, the latter named after her native Poland.  Under her direction, the world’s first studies into the treatment of neoplasms were conducted using radioactive isotopes.  She founded the Curie Institute in Paris and in Warsaw, which remain major centers of medical research today.  And during World War I, she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals.  It is estimated that over a million soldiers were treated with her X-ray units.

     Maria was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win a Nobel prize in two different sciences, and the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. She was a Giant, and she was Ours! v