In 1867, Russia had assumed rule over Poland and sought to extinguish Polish language and culture. Into this world of strife and uncertainty, Maria Salomea Skłodowska, later known as Marie Curie, was born. Russian domination meant Polish children like Marie were inculcated with Russian language, history and culture in school, where a class on Russian language was often turned into a class on Polish history in the absence of a Russian teacher. And so did young Marie’s pattern of learning behind closed doors begin.
“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
To do their part to preserve Polish nationalism and culture, Marie’s parents placed extreme importance on education, believing knowledge was the one thing the Russians couldn’t take from them. When Marie was 10, her mother died of tuberculosis. Temporarily crippled with grief, the young girl threw herself into her studies, remembering how her mother had told her that knowledge was more valuable than material possessions. Her father, now solely in charge of his children’s upbringing, worked hard to turn any situation into a learning experience, something which captured Marie’s ongoing curiosity in the world around her and a propensity for problem solving. In the Sklodowska household, a night of stargazing was an opportunity for an astronomy lesson.
Marie graduated from high school at age 15. She wanted to continue her education, but Polish universities didn’t accept women. Yearning to learn more, she joined the “Flying University,” a secret and illegal underground educational group for women in Warsaw. Comprising about 1,000 women, the organization frequently moved its location, staying one step ahead of Russian police. Seventeen-year-old Marie studied French philosopher Auguste Comte, the father of Positivism, and began to believe that education, not military force, was the way to extricate the Polish people from Russian dominance.
“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”
Longing to go to college and armed with the determination instilled in her by her parents, Marie came up with a plan for pursuing further education. Bronia, an older sister who aspired to be a doctor, would go to medical school in Paris while Marie worked as a governess to support her. In return, Bronia agreed to help Marie go to college after Bronia became a doctor.
In 1891, after graduating from medical school, marrying a doctor and starting a thriving practice, Bronia was able to repay her debt to Marie, who boarded a train to Paris to live with her sister and attend school at the Sorbonne. Marie, only one of two women pursuing a degree in the physical sciences, graduated with a degree in physical and mathematical sciences.
“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.”
In 1894, Marie met Pierre Curie, a well-known scientist and professor at the Paris School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry. After they married in 1895, Pierre supported Marie as she worked toward her doctorate. Marie built on the research of Henri Becquerel, a French physicist who had discovered uranium and radiation. Using an electrometer, an invention of Pierre’s that measured small currents of electricity, Marie began measuring uranium’s ability to emit radiation. In 1898, the Curies discovered radium, a substance 900 times more radioactive than pure uranium. After testing for radiation on every element on Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table, she discovered thorium also emitted radiation. Within months, the couple discovered polonium, named after Marie’s homeland, a substance over 400 times as radioactive as uranium.
The following year, Pierre discovered that long-term contact from radium could burn flesh and possibly kill cancer cells. In 1903, Marie received her doctorate in science from the Sorbonne, the first woman in France to do so, and the Nobel Committee awarded Henri Becquerel and the Curies the Nobel Prize in Physics.
“First principle: never let oneself be beaten down by persons or by events.”
Pierre died in 1906, leaving Marie in a state of depression. To combat her grief, she devoted herself to her scientific studies. She assumed Pierre’s post as professor of physics and was the first woman to hold this position at the Sorbonne. During the following years, she produced the purest form of radium yet, and the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute funded the creation of the Radium Institute, a laboratory for the study of radioactivity and its applications in physics, chemistry, biology and medicine. Marie supervised the institute’s chemical and radioactive laboratory. Today, the renamed Curie Institute is one of the world’s greatest research centers, dedicated primarily to the advancement of cancer treatment.
After receiving a second Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911 for isolating pure radium, and then weathering the publicity of a scandalous love affair with a married man, Marie became ill with depression and kidney complications, which sidelined her career for a couple of years. But as she began to gain strength, a new tragedy unfolded: World War I.
“It is hard to think that after so many centuries of development, the human race still doesn’t know how to resolve difficulties in any way except by violence.”
Marie wanted to aid her adopted country of France. Working on her belief that knowledge was a person’s strongest weapon, she invented a portable X-ray, allowing French doctors on the battlefields to locate bullets and broken bones in the bodies of wounded soldiers. She also obtained a license to drive an ambulance and collected vehicles for mobile X-ray units operated by 150 female technicians. After the war, she trained American military doctors to operate X-rays, wrote Radiology in War and continued development of the Radium Institute.
“In spite of everything, I came through it all honestly with my head high.”
Unfortunately, Marie didn’t fully realize the harmful effects of radiation exposure. Her work with radioactive substances caused numbness in her fingers, constant ringing in her ears, cataracts, fatigue and other side effects. After 15 American female factory workers, known as “The Radium Girls,” died from radiation exposure while painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials, Marie installed safety rules at the institute, requiring workers to wear lead shields and not handle radium with bare hands.
Radiation exposure eventually took its toll on Marie; she passed away on July 4, 1934, at the age of 66. Many scientists wonder how she survived as long as she did; seeing that radiation contaminated everything she touched, including her research notebooks. But Marie believed her duty as a scientist was to progress with her research to create a better world, despite the cost.