Madame Curie is the biography of Marie Sklodovska Curie, a Polish girl with a passion for knowledge who becomes a scientific genius. With her husband, Pierre, Marie studies radioactivity, discovers the element radium, and thus provides a means for treating cancer. Marie Curie values her country, family, work, and students. Her story shows how determination enables a timid person to overcome the hardships of poverty and oppression, and how gentle stubbornness and an indifference to honors and fame can lead to great achievements. Her life exemplifies scientific dedication and personal courage.
Early Life in Poland
Marie Curie, the subject of Madame Curie, was born Marie Sklodovska (or Sklodowska) on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland, the fifth and youngest child in her family. As a child, her nickname was Manya. Curie’s family were Polish nationalists during the long period in which Poland was a part of the Russian empire. Her father, Vladislav Sklodovski, was a professor of mathematics and physics, while her mother was a director and teacher at a school for girls.
Curie experienced tragedy early in life, when her sister Zosia died of typhus and her mother died of tuberculosis. Not long before these losses, Curie’s father’s salary had been drastically reduced due to political tensions with the Russian authorities. Upon graduating from high school in 1883, Curie enjoyed a year of freedom, during which she spent time staying with relatives and family friends in the country. Returning to Warsaw, she and her siblings began tutoring in order to supplement her father’s now meager income, which had been made worse when he lost all of his savings in a poor stock investment.
Curie became involved with the Polish nationalist intelligentsia in Warsaw, which formed a ‘‘Floating University’’ to study and teach subjects forbidden by the Russian authorities. Curie thus became interested in the school of thought known as ‘‘positivism.’’ Part of the philosophy of her intellectual environment was that Polish resistance to Russian imperial authority should be exercised through the education of poor Poles, rather than through violent revolutionary activities. At eighteen, she began working as a governess. Her first position, with a wealthy Polish family, was unbearable to her, and she described it as a ‘‘prison’’ and a ‘‘hell.’’ But she and her sister Bronya had agreed that she would work to support Bronya’s attendance at medical school in Paris, an arrangement Marie had suggested. Her next position was as a governess in a wealthy family living in the country outside of Warsaw. There, she was treated with respect and kindness and even found time to tutor the impoverished children of the local rural community. However, when she fell in love with the eldest son of the family, they disapproved of his proposal of marriage because of Curie’s poverty. Although she stayed on with the family, her heart was broken when her first love gave in to his family’s wishes and broke off the relationship. After three years with this family, she took a position working for a wealthy woman in Warsaw while also learning and teaching for the first time in a science lab set up by the ‘‘Floating University.’’
Education in Paris
Marie Curie’s sister Bronya had by this time completed school and married Casimir Dluski, a doctor. In 1891, Curie left Poland to live with Bronya and her husband in Paris while attending classes in the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne. She eventually moved into her own room in the Latin Quarter of Paris, closer to the university. While living on her own, Curie studied long into the night in small, unfurnished rooms with no heat and little light, more often than not neglecting to eat or...