Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310
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 sleep, due to both her miniscule budget and her lack of interest in anything other than her studies. She essentially lived on tea and bread for much of this time and rarely socialized with other students. In 1893, she earned a master’s degree in physics, upon which she was granted the Polish Alexandrovich scholarship, which allowed her to continue her studies while maintaining the same level of poverty and deprivation to which she had become accustomed. In 1894, she earned a second master’s degree, this time in mathematics.
Life with Pierre Curie
In 1894, Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie, a thirty-five-year-old physicist. After an extended period of resistance to Pierre’s repeated proposals of marriage, she consented, and the two were married in 1895. The couple formed an unusually strong bond, based on both their love for one another and their mutual passion for scientific research. In the second year of their marriage, their first child, Irene, was born. While also an attentive mother and conscientious homemaker, Marie Curie continued her long hours of laboratory research. Within three months of giving birth to Irene, Marie had completed the research and writing of her first scientific publication. After Pierre’s mother died, his father moved in with them and became a primary caretaker of Irene.
When Marie decided on a topic of research for her doctoral dissertation, Pierre found it so compelling that he immediately dropped his own research to assist her. Together, they isolated radioactive elements from pitchblende (a brownish-black mineral that is a principal ore of uranium), discovering two new elements, which they named polonium (after Marie’s native Poland) and radium. From this point, their scientific collaboration became so closely melded that it would be inaccurate to attempt to distinguish exactly which role each of them played in their brilliant work. From 1898 to 1902, the Curies worked in an abandoned shed, which was the only laboratory space they could afford, under misM erable conditions, to achieve their now-famous results. During this period the couple worked almost incessantly, earning a meager income from Pierre’s increased teaching load and Marie’s position teaching at the Higher Normal School for Girls. During this time, Marie’s beloved father, still in Poland, died.
By 1903, when Marie was awarded her doctoral degree, the initial discoveries of the Curies had led to a further discovery: that radiation could be used to reduce cancer and other malignant tumors. In 1903, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, along with Henri Becquerel. The prize money made it possible for Pierre to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to research. In 1904, however, when the Curies had already acquired worldwide recognition for the achievements, Pierre was finally granted a position as professor at the Sorbonne, which he had being trying for years to obtain. This provided the couple with an increased income and the possibility of funding for more accommodating laboratory space. The media attention that descended upon the Curies following the award of the Nobel Prize was utterly and equally hated by both Marie and Pierre, whose concerns lay with science, not celebrity.
In 1904, their second child, Eve, was born. Tragedy soon followed, though, when, in 1906, Pierre was accidentally run over by a horse-drawn wagon on a rainy day in Paris, his head crushed by the back wheels of the vehicle, killing him instantly. Marie, while emotionally devastated by this loss, accepted the offer of the professorship at the Sorbonne previously held by Pierre. In 1910, Pierre’s father, who had continued to live with Marie and care for the children, died.
Loneliness and Success
In 1911, Marie was again awarded a Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. During World War I (1914–1918), she was tireless in her determination to help the war effort by outfitting military hospitals with X-ray machines, which came to be called ‘‘Little Curies.’’ During the course of the war, she helped install two hundred radiology units, as well as outfitting twenty cars with transportable X-ray machines. In the years after the war, although she continued to avoid many opportunities for public appearances that came with her increased fame, she did consent, in 1921, to a tour of the United States. In exchange, she was given the gift of a valuable quantity of radium much needed for her continuing research.
In 1932, the Radium Institute was opened in Warsaw, the fulfillment of a dream Marie had long harbored of bringing expanded opportunities to her native Poland. In her later years, Marie’s incessant dedication to her work was exercised at the Radium Institute in Paris, which had been established in 1919 for her by now numerous students and research assistants.
Marie died of leukemia in 1934, the result of years spent handling radioactive materials.