Marie Curie's Polish National Identity

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In the 1790s, Poland was divided among the three invading nations of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. This period of Partitioned Poland, during which Poland as a sovereign nation no longer existed, lasted some one hundred and twenty-three years. Polish national identity, however, remained strong over more than a century of political and cultural oppression. Repeated Polish uprisings culminated in the reunification of Poland as an independent nation in the years following World War I. Marie’s childhood, growing up in an educated Polish family in Warsaw, was characterized by a strong awareness of her Polish identity under the force of an oppressive Russian empire. Eve Curie’s biography of Marie Curie emphasizes the centrality of this awareness throughout Marie’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, as well as during the subsequent forty years of her life spent in Paris.

Marie Curie was born just three years after an uprising by Poles against Russian rule in 1863–64 was violently crushed. The events leading up to the uprising, known as the January Insurrection, included the formation of two separate Polish nationalist movements. The Whites were a Polish patriotic organization of landowners and bourgeoisie developing out of the Agricultural Society. The Reds, a more radical, militant group of students, low-ranking army officers, and artists, held demonstrations to promote Polish culture which resulted in violent confrontations in 1861. In 1863, the Reds, now organized into an underground National Committee, instituted a massive uprising of Poles, which was later joined by the Whites. The fighting lasted from January 1863 through fall 1864, but the rebellion was ultimately crushed, and many of the leaders executed by public hanging, while others were sent off to Siberia. In retaliation, the Russian government instituted much harsher policies against the Poles in Warsaw, attacking Polish nationalism at the cultural level through such means as repression of religious expression, martial law, and reducing Congress Poland to the status of a Russian province, renaming it Vistula Land.

Marie’s elementary school education included clandestine efforts on the part of her Polish teachers to counteract the strictly enforced Russian curriculum. Eve relates an incident in which Marie’s schoolteacher was leading a lesson in Polish history just as the Russian official inspector entered the school. A prearranged signal was rung throughout the school to warn of his arrival. At hearing this, the teacher and students quickly hid their Polish textbooks and began what appeared to be the middle of a lesson in Russian history. In high school, Marie attended a more Russian oriented school, because it was more highly respected by Russian authorities. In this context, Marie frequently clashed with some of her teachers over her expressions of Polish identity. Polish identity also played a significant role in Marie’s family’s financial status, when her father, a teacher, was given a demotion and severe salary reduction because he had clashed with the school authorities in failing to behave toward them with sufficient servility. The local educational director was regarded by Marie’s family with both fear and hatred, representing to them the power of the Russian tsar over the Polish people.

Eve Curie describes the widespread efforts of the Russian empire ‘‘to kill the soul’’ of the Polish people. Chief among these tactics was the banning of the Polish language from educational institutions. Compounded by this denigration of Polish culture was the insistence of the Russian authorities on Polish children reciting their Catholic prayers in Russian. Eve Curie describes this policy as ‘‘one of the subtlest humiliations’’ inflicted by the tsar upon the Polish people. She explains, ‘‘while pretending to respect their faith’’ the tsar thereby ‘‘was able to profane...

(This entire section contains 2031 words.)

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what they reverenced.’’ The degree of restriction was so great that, while discussing matters of political significance, Poles often spoke quietly, for fear of being overheard by an informer to the Russian authorities.

Acts of rebellion against oppression, both large and small, took a variety of forms among the Polish youth of Warsaw. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, leaving Russia in official mourning. Marie, however, was reprimanded by a teacher when she and a friend were caught dancing for joy at the death of their oppressor. Eve Curie comments of this incident:

One of the most melancholy results of political constraint is the spontaneous ferocity it develops among the oppressed. Manya and Kazia felt such rancors as free human beings never know. Even though they were by nature tender and generous, they lived in accordance with a particular morality—the slave morality—which turns hatred into a virtue and obedience to cowardice.

In addition to the clandestine promotion of Polish language and education, Eve Curie describes symbolic forms of resistance Marie and her friends practiced against their Russian oppressors. For instance, they made a solemn ritual of spitting whenever they walked past a particular monument in Warsaw that had been erected in honor of Poles who had been loyal to the tsar. To the Polish nationalists, such figures represented a betrayal and deserved only their disdain. More perilous forms of rebellion are alluded to when Marie learns that the brother of a friend of hers is to be hanged for participation in the plotting of a Polish rebellion against the tsar.

In the 1870s, Polish nationalism, concentrated in Warsaw, took the form of a growing intelligentsia which, giving up on violent revolt, favored economic and educational ‘‘progress’’ among Poles. This growing body of Poles, among whom Marie’s parents numbered, are described by Eve Curie as ‘‘the new heroes’’ of Russian nationalism. After graduating from high school, Marie became increasingly involved in this milieu. In particular, she and her sister Bronya, along with many Polish intellectuals during this time, became interested in a school of thought known as ‘‘positivism.’’ The positivists rejected both the romanticism of literature and the arts, and the violent path of socialist revolutionary thought, turning to the study of math and science as a road to national independence. They had organized a ‘‘Floating University,’’ by which they secretly studied math and science, meeting secretly in private homes to evade the Russian authorities, by whom such intellectual pursuits had been banned.

The real dangers of such an endeavor are described by Eve Curie in noting that the atmosphere in these small study groups of eight to ten was tense with fear: ‘‘at the slightest noise they trembled, for if they had been discovered by the police it would have meant prison for all of them.’’ The Polish positivists thus promoted the empowerment of the Polish people through education. Eve Curie explains, ‘‘For them only one thing counted: to work, to build up a magnificent intellectual capital for Poland, and to develop the education of the poor, whom the authorities deliberately maintained in darkness.’’ Marie, dedicated to this pursuit, undertook to teach reading and writing to poor Polish women in Warsaw.

Marie Curie’s ongoing concern for her oppressed homeland was most publicly expressed when she chose to name polonium after Poland. She hoped that the results of her research with Pierre Curie would reach Russian, Austrian, and German scientists, thus reminding them of the survival of Polish national identity. Eve Curie comments, ‘‘The choice of this name proves that in becoming a French-woman and a physicist Marie had not disowned her former enthusiasms.’’ Thus, she was disappointed when it turned out that radium (which she and Pierre had also discovered and named) became world famous, eclipsing polonium in the public eye.

As a Polish-born mother raising two children in France, Marie Curie instilled a strong sense of Polish national identity in her daughters, seeing that they learned the Polish language while also providing them with a thoroughly French upbringing. Eve Curie describes her mother’s feelings on these matters: ‘‘Ah, let them never feel torn between two countries, or suffer in vain for a persecuted race!’’ Yet, even in Paris, Marie Curie’s Polish identity was cause for public castigation. Having achieved world renown as a scientist, she was regarded by a segment of the French public as ‘‘‘the foreign woman’ who had come to Paris like a usurper to conquer a high position improperly.’’

Between the year Marie left Warsaw, in 1891, and World War I, Polish efforts to regain independence continued. The Polish League, which had been organized in Switzerland, formed the National Democratic movement, both of which became the National League in 1893, an underground organization in Warsaw. In the 1890s, socialism gained popularity among Poles, giving rise to the Polish Socialist Party, based in Paris, and the Polish Social Democratic Party, based in Galicia (Austrian Poland). The Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland, led by Rosa Luxemburg, held differing views from the other socialist organizations of Polish nationalists. Further efforts toward Polish independence were inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Just as Marie Curie never forgot her native Poland, Polish Warsaw never forgot Marie Curie. In 1911, a society of Polish scientists in Warsaw named Marie Curie an honorary member, and in 1912, a delegation of Polish professors traveled to Paris to offer her a research post in Warsaw. They presented to her a plea written by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846–1916), the writer Eve Curie refers to as ‘‘the most celebrated and the most popular man in Poland’’ at the time. Sienkiewicz, a supporter of Polish independence, had gained celebrity among Poles for his articles influenced by positivism, as well as historical novels set in seventeenth-century Poland. He had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. Despite the honor and appeal of being so addressed by Sienkiewicz, Marie Curie chose to stay in Paris. She did, however, agree to the creation of a building for radiation research to be erected in Warsaw in her name.

In 1913, she traveled to Warsaw for the inauguration of this building. As a renowned Polish scientist living outside of Poland, Marie Curie’s presence in Warsaw was a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities—who duly ignored the ceremonial arrival of one of the greatest scientists of the century. Among the Poles, however, her homecoming was triumphant. She was given the opportunity, for the first time in her life, to make a public presentation of her research in her native Polish language.

The events of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 led up to the recognition of Polish independence. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, President Wilson publicly announced his support of Polish independence, as did the Russian Provisional Government in the aftermath of their revolution. The thirteenth point of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, presented in 1918, further pressed for Polish independence. The Inter-Allied Conference, six months later, supported this view. By the end of 1918, with World War I over, the newly established independent Polish government encompassed Congress Poland and parts of Galicia. The new boundaries of the Polish nation, wrought from parts of the original Poland which had been divided between Austria, Germany, and Russia, were disputed through violent struggles between 1919 and 1923. For Marie Curie, having lived in France some thirty years, the achievement of Polish independence was no less significant than when she had lived there as a child and young adult. Eve Curie explains that, when Poland ‘‘was born again from the ashes,’’ Marie Curie’s ‘‘‘patriotic dream’’’ had come true.

With the achievement of Polish independence, Marie Curie was soon to realize her dream of creating a Radium Institute in Warsaw. After years of fundraising and planning, much of it by Marie’s sister Bronya, Marie traveled to the newly formed republic for the laying of the cornerstone of the Warsaw Radium Institute in 1925. Her visit was welcomed by Polish authorities and heads of state, including Stanislaw Wojciechowski (1869–1953), the second president of the Polish republic (1922–1926), whom she had met in Paris in 1892, when he was a leader in the fight for Polish independence. She was dubbed ‘‘‘The first lady-in-waiting of our gracious sovereign the Polish Republic.’’’

In 1932, Marie Curie made her last trip to Poland for the inauguration of the Warsaw Radium Institute. Polish identity, and the dream of Polish national independence, had remained a constant force throughout the life of this world-renowned scientist.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Views of Womanhood

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‘‘The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend,’’ her daughter Eve writes in her introduction to her biography, Madame Curie. ‘‘She was a woman; she belonged to an oppressed nation; she was poor; she was beautiful. . . . It would have been a crime to add the slightest ornament to this story, so like a myth.’’

The story is like a myth in many ways, and in some ways Eve Curie commits the crime she deplores; instead of clarifying the myth, she adds to it. Throughout the book, she presents an idealized image of Marie Curie as a heroic, self-sacrificing, and saintly figure. This image is augmented by the language she uses. She writes in a flowery, poetic, and rather theatrical style, which presents a legendary, larger-than-life image of Marie Curie. For example, of the years when Marie lived in extreme poverty in Paris, Eve Curie writes, ‘‘Yes, these four years were, not the happiest of Marie Curie’s life, but the most perfect in her eyes, the nearest to those summits of the human mission toward which her eyes had been trained.’’

Eve Curie is careful not to mention anything that might tarnish the perception of her mother as ‘‘a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity,’’ instead of as a human being with an ordinary mortal’s shortcomings. Indeed, she bristles at any attempt to reveal her mother as a richly talented person who nevertheless shared the struggles common to all humanity. Despite the fact that she’s writing about her mother, Eve Curie writes, ‘‘Great men [sic] have always been subjected to the attacks of those who long to discover imperfect human creatures beneath the armor of genius.’’ In her assumption that great men—or in this case, women—should not be seen as imperfect human beings, Eve Curie sells her mother’s story short, leaving out some incidents, only alluding to others, and interpreting still others in ways that accentuate the idea of Marie Curie as a longsuffering, self-sacrificing, and saintly figure.

For example, one issue that is not addressed by the book is the scandal of the love triangle involving Marie Curie, the French physicist Paul Langevin, and Langevin’s wife. This affair was known in Marie Curie’s time; it became public shortly after Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1911. Once the committee became aware of the affair, a member of the committee told Marie Curie not to bother to come to Stockholm to accept the award. Marie Curie courageously told him that on the contrary, she would come and accept it, because the award was for her scientific work and did not have anything to do with her private life.

This incident, and the affair that caused it, so interesting and so revelatory of Marie Curie’s character, is denied in Eve Curie’s biography, despite the fact that when Marie Curie’s correspondence was made public many years later, her letters revealed it to be true. Eve Curie writes angrily of the accusations, ‘‘A scientist, devoted to her work, whose life was dignified, reserved, and in recent years especially pitiable, was accused of breaking up homes and of dishonoring the name she bore with too much brilliance.’’ She also comments righteously, ‘‘Some among these men [who made the accusations] came to ask her pardon later on, with words of repentance and with tears.’’ This is all she says about the affair and its aftermath; then, she deflects the reader’s attention away from it by insisting that the real reason for the attacks on Marie Curie was her ethnic origin as a Pole.

According to Susan Quinn, who wrote Marie Curie (1996), a more recent and perhaps more open biography of the scientist, Eve Curie told Quinn that she had published her own biography of her mother as quickly as possible after her mother’s death, so that ‘‘no one else would write it first and not ‘get it right.’’’ Quinn saw this swift action as a sort of a ‘‘preemptive strike’’ to create an acceptable story of Marie Curie’s life, which would, Eve Curie hoped, prevent others from writing a more true-to-life biography that might contain the story of the affair and other more human realities of Marie Curie’s life.

In a talk she gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on October 8, 1998, Susan Quinn also remarked that she deplored the use of the title ‘‘Madame’’ for Marie Curie, a usage that began with Eve Curie’s book, ‘‘because it makes Marie Curie a ‘Mrs.’—and not a person in her own right— or an icon.’’

As Quinn notes, the book presents Marie Curie as an icon of idealized womanhood but doesn’t discuss the prejudice Marie Curie faced as a woman scientist in a man’s realm. Quinn also remarked on the fact that, just as Marie Curie herself didn’t discuss the gender discrimination she experienced, her daughter didn’t discuss it either—even though, as Quinn commented, ‘‘Perhaps no gender discrimination was more severe than her rejection by the French Academy.’’

‘‘Women cannot be part of the Institute of France,’’ a member said, summing up their arguments against her. On January 23, 1911, the day of the election that would decide whether or not she would be accepted into the Academy, the doors of the Academy were opened and the president said loudly, ‘‘Let everybody come in, women excepted.’’ Her membership was denied by a margin of one vote, largely because she was a woman.

In December of that same year, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. This was the second time she had won it; previously, in 1903, she, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel had been jointly awarded the prize. In 1911, Eve Curie notes, the news of her second award—an honor no man, and certainly no woman, had ever had before— stirred up a great tide of jealousy and spite among other scientists, because she ‘‘exercised a man’s profession.’’ Presenting Marie as noble, defenseless, and self-sacrificing, she writes, ‘‘A perfidious campaign was set going in Paris against this woman of forty-four, fragile, worn out by crushing toil, alone and without defense.’’

However, Eve Curie doesn’t pursue this line of thinking, because Marie’s identity as a woman is connected to the accusation against her—that she was having an affair with married physicist Paul Langevin, who had tutored her two daughters, and that Langevin’s wife was angry about it. Instead, Eve Curie attacks the accusers, then weakly argues that the real reason they attacked Marie is because of her Polish heritage.

In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun explores the unspoken rules that for many years have defined the scope of biographies of women. For centuries, she asserts, male-dominated culture has labeled certain aspects of women’s lives taboo and decreed that women be presented in certain socially acceptable ways.

According to Heilbrun, in traditional biographies of ambitious, successful women, their ambition and desire to succeed have typically been downplayed because these qualities have not been considered appropriate for a woman. Instead, she writes, ‘‘One must be called by God or Christ to service in spiritual causes higher than one’s own poor self might envision, and authorized by that spiritual call to an achievement and accomplishment in no other way excusable in a female self.’’

Madame Curie fits this pattern. Although Marie Curie was not religious, her daughter does see her life as a highly spiritual vocation. Eve Curie doesn’t explore the driving ambition her mother must have had, her relentless scientific curiosity, and the con- flicts between her scientific work and her need to do the work more typical of a wife and mother of her time. Instead, Marie Curie is idealized; for example, Eve Curie writes of Marie’s life after the death of her husband, Pierre, ‘‘The rest of her life resolves itself into a kind of perpetual giving.’’ Marie gave her ‘‘devotion and her health’’ to the wounded during World War I, when she used X-rays to help in their treatment, and she gave ‘‘advice, wisdom, and all the hours of her time’’ to her students, future scientists from all over the world. Eve Curie rarely alludes to the pleasure her mother must surely have gotten purely from achievement, from receiving scientific honors and awards, and from seeing her discoveries expanded on and used by many other scientists. Perhaps this is because admitting her mother had these qualities would make her mother appear immodest and grandiose, qualities deemed unsuitable for a woman. As Heilbrun commented,

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical [or biographical] narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or the generosity of others.

Heilbrun also noted that biographies of women are unlike those of men because in women’s lives, their personal and public lives are assumed to be in conflict. A woman is always assumed to have trouble combining marriage, family, and work, whereas in stories of men’s lives, the need to do housework, to clean, to cook, and to take care of children is almost never mentioned, presumably because most men have had women in their lives who did these chores and left them free to pursue their work full-time. This was the case with Pierre and Marie Curie.

Eve Curie describes Marie’s struggles in the kitchen; as a scientist, she had never bothered to learn how to cook, but after she married Pierre Curie, she felt she would have to learn. Eve Curie writes, ‘‘Pierre’s clothes had to be kept in good condition and his meals had to be suitable. With no maid.’’ And, she notes, Marie Curie was stimulated in this by the fear of what her new in-laws would say if they discovered Marie didn’t know how to cook or keep house. In the evenings, after a full day of work and housework, Marie did the household bookkeeping, while Pierre concentrated on his own scientific career. Only after the bookkeeping was done could Marie return to her scientific thoughts.

This double burden of work and home responsibility is simply taken for granted by Eve Curie, whose prose carries an undercurrent of praise for Marie Curie’s efforts: ‘‘Little by little she improved in housekeeping wisdom.’’ What Curie could have accomplished if she had not been occupied with housekeeping, as Pierre was not, is never explored.

Eve Curie writes admiringly, ‘‘The idea of choosing between family life and the scientific career did not even cross Marie’s mind. She was resolved to face love, maternity, and science, all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, she was to succeed.’’ This success is, of course, admirable, but Eve Curie never questions the assumption that it was Marie, and Marie alone, who had to juggle all these roles. The one-sidedness of this assumption is shown by the fact that such a line would seem ludicrous in the biography of a man, for example: ‘‘He was resolved to face love, paternity, and science, all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, he was to succeed.’’

Eve Curie also praises a trait of Marie Curie’s that is typical of the old-fashioned woman: she suffers in silence. Often, when faced with insurmountable grief or trouble, Marie simply refused to speak about it, to an extent that at times seems pathological. For example, Marie Curie never spoke about their dead father to her two daughters, never told them about her early poverty, never spoke about the hardships she endured while working with the wounded in World War I, and never spoke of ‘‘the cruel effect of X-rays and radium upon her damaged organism’’—an effect that would eventually lead to incurable, fatal anemia. For the rest of her life, after her husband’s death in an accident, she avoided saying ‘‘Pierre,’’ ‘‘Pierre Curie,’’ ‘‘my husband,’’ or ‘‘your father,’’ to her children, using ‘‘incredible stratagems’’ in her conversation to avoid referring to her dead spouse. The depths of such grief, so moving and tragic, and which would have lasting effects on her two daughters, are not explored at all by Eve Curie, who presents this silence as noble and admirable.

Marie Curie made discoveries that would forever change the course of human history, and she died as a result of these discoveries. Her life was a study in contrasts: the quiet, shy Polish girl who became a world-renowned scientist and won two Nobel Prizes; the devoted wife and mother who shocked people when, after her husband’s death, she had an affair with a married man; the impassioned scientist who found beauty in the scientific aspects of radiation but who worried about the quality of her cooking; the famed genius who lived a simple life. These contrasts illuminate her fascinating life, but they are only hinted at in her daughter’s account of it.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Marie Curie's Conflicts

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Marie Curie was a student for the entire length of her life, states her daughter Eve in the biography, Madame Curie, a book Eve wrote to honor her mother. And although Marie eventually found both fame and fortune because of her unquenchable desire to learn, she never found a way to remain in that special state of mind that she referred to as ‘‘the ardor / That makes her heart immense.’’ Even as a young girl, when she wrote this line in a poem, she was well aware of the distractions that would be her constant companions in her attempts to forever return to ‘‘the blessed time,’’ a term she used to describe the solitary hours she spent studying. She knew that she would have to leave the ‘‘land of Science’’ and struggle ‘‘on the grey roads of life.’’ Although Marie was able to find some color along that road, her poem reads almost like a prophecy, as the details of her personal life seemed, at times, to be almost as determined to pull her away from her ‘‘land of Science’’ as she was determined to remain there.

The first distraction that the young Marie encountered was while she was still living in Poland and still maintained her Polish name, Manya Sklodovska. Her mother, having died when Marie was eleven years old, left Marie’s father alone to raise four children. Marie, although the youngest of the children, considerate of her father’s financial and personal struggles, took it upon herself to sacrifice her own education to assure her siblings what she thought was their rightful position—to earn an education before she did. So when she turned eighteen, Marie took on a job as a governess, giving up, or at least postponing, her studies. What little money she made, she sent to her father and her eldest sister, who had left Poland for Paris to study to become a doctor.

One of her governess jobs sent Marie deep into the countryside. There she was consumed with the care and education of a large family. At first she made the most of it, even to the point of ‘‘hardly ever speak[ing] of higher education for women,’’ even though this was her constant dream. At twenty, still living in the country, still sending her money home, Marie wrote to her brother to encourage him to follow his dream. But for her, she said, ‘‘I have lost the hope of ever becoming anybody, all my ambition has been transferred to Bronya [her sister] and you.’’ Marie believed that her family had been bestowed with the gift of intelligence, and she was afraid that these gifts would be wasted if one of her sisters or her brother did not follow through on her or his dreams of a solid education. Since she had all but given up hope that she would ever attain her dream, she pushed her siblings all the harder to not give up theirs. ‘‘The more regret I have for myself the more hope I have for you.’’

But the world would not have been the same had Marie permanently given up her hope for an education. Upon finally leaving the countryside, Marie, referring to the three years she had worked as a governess, wrote to a friend, ‘‘There have been moments which I shall certainly count among the most cruel of my life.’’ Although she wrote these somewhat dark thoughts, her mind was already rebounding from the those past years that she felt she had wasted taking care of someone else’s children, putting all her time into teaching them when all she really wanted was to have someone teach her. She continued in that same letter that ‘‘it seems to me that I am coming out of a nightmare.’’ And so the nightmare of the countryside was over, but Marie’s struggle was not. She was back in Warsaw, working yet again as a governess for another family, but this time she was self-educating herself behind the closed doors of a so-called museum, ‘‘a front to present to the Russian authorities’’ so the ‘‘teaching of science to young Poles’’ could continue during occupation of their country.

‘‘I have been stupid, I am stupid and I shall remain stupid all the days of my life,’’ Marie wrote to her sister ‘‘and I shall never be lucky.’’ This was part of a letter that Marie sent to her sister after Bronya invited Marie to come to Paris. ‘‘I bore you . . . with my own wrecked future,’’ she continued. ‘‘My heart is so black, so sad, that I feel how wrong I am to speak of all this to you and to poison your happiness.’’ Marie’s depressive thoughts had gained on her again. She knew that the education she was receiving in Warsaw was not good enough for her to ever complete her dreams, and she’d given in to despair. Despite her sister’s invitation, Marie could not see how she could raise enough money to support the trip to Paris, even though it loomed over her like a fairytale dream. She also could not face leaving her father behind in Poland. She insisted that Bronya put her efforts, rather than into helping her, into helping their brother. With her help, Marie wrote, he could ‘‘become useful to society.’’ Once again, Marie was passing her dream on to another sibling.

Marie was twenty-four years old by the time she finally decided to take up her sister’s insistent request to move to Paris. Encouraged by her sister, she finally made the decision that if she didn’t take this aggressive step toward her education, she would never attain it. After all those years of waiting, she finally would be able to begin a real education. She walked into the Sorbonne, where ‘‘she had her place in the experimental laboratories, where, guided and advised, she could . . . succeed in some simple experiments.’’ Did this mean that her troubles were over? Unfortunately not. In some ways the challenges only grew more intense. For one thing, Marie’s French was not up to par. She struggled to understand the complex discussions in class. And ‘‘in mathematics and physics Marie discovered enormous holes’’ left there by her haphazard education in Poland. To make up for this lack, Marie became obsessed with study, to the detriment of her health. But if she was ill-nourished, she did not notice, and for ‘‘three solid years she was to lead a life devoted to study alone—a life finally in conformity with her dreams.’’

Just at this time of her life when she was enjoying, if not a completely healthy schedule, at least her ideal of the ‘‘blessed time’’ in her ‘‘land of Science,’’ Marie met Pierre Curie. At first, just like having to earn a living, having to find food to eat, Pierre was but another distraction from Marie’s craving for pure study. While she’d been a governess in the countryside of Poland, she’d fallen in love with another young man. The situation had been torturous for her, as the young man succumbed to the pressures of his family not to marry beneath his class. Since Marie was a mere governess, she was not considered worthy of the well-to-do family. After that experience, Marie had sworn off men, deciding that they were not worth the effort. And so when she first met Pierre, although she was inspired by his intelligence, she was reluctant to become romantically involved. Pierre pursued. Eventually Marie gave in, and, in the end, their relationship, contrary to Marie’s initial contentions that Pierre might be yet another challenge that took energy away from her studies, nurtured Marie’s commitment to science.

Pierre matched both Marie’s intelligence (he earned his master’s at the age of eighteen) and her intensive drive to work. And although they had a beautiful relationship in which each respected and admired the other, their challenges were far from over. Money and time were constantly in short supply during the major part of their marriage. Philosophically they both believed in the purity of science and research and would not accept financial support unless it was specifically for research. And research money rarely came their way. Marie was to write in her journal, after being given a small, damp, and cold lab in which to work, a lab that had some of the oldest apparatus that the university owned, that ‘‘life is not easy for any of us. . . . We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.’’ Marie kept her focus despite the poor conditions and lack of support, and as the world knows, she and Pierre eventually discovered the element radium.

Even this discovery, which would change science forever, did not stop the challenges in Marie’s life. The discovery of radium was, in the beginning, an abstract discovery. No one had seen it, ‘‘touched it, weighed and examined it.’’ Before a chemist could accept its existence, it would have to have its atomic weight assessed. This huge task took Marie and Pierre four years to accomplish. Describing the conditions under which they worked, Marie wrote the following: ‘‘We had no money, no laboratory and no help in the conduct of this important and difficult task . . . this period was . . . the heroic period of our common existence.’’ And yet, as if she thrived most under the worst conditions, Marie adds that these years were some of ‘‘the best and happiest years of our life . . . entirely consecrated to work.’’ As an anecdote to this time of their lives, Eve Curie writes about a housekeeper that the Curies employed, who one night out of total frustration, because her employers never seemed to notice her, demanded that the Curies tell her what they thought of the meal she had just prepared for them. She asked specifically if Pierre enjoyed the beefsteak. He was to look up at her, then down at his plate, now empty, and reply: ‘‘Did I eat a beefsteak?’’ For the Curies, research was their main course in life.

The news of the findings of the Curies’ research spread throughout the world, especially after they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their scientific work. With the prize came money, which the Curies did accept this time because it was not ‘‘‘contrary to the scientific spirit.’’’ And for the first time in their married life, Pierre could leave his teaching post so as to devote his full energies to further research. Unfortunately, because of the notoriety caused by the winning of the prize, the Curies were inundated with visits from reporters, the famous, and the curious. Once again, their work was interrupted.

Radium was eventually extracted from the ore samples that lined the small research shack in which the Curies worked. It would appear at this point that Marie’s trials would be over. But in fact, one of the worst trials of her life remained. On April 16, 1906, only twelve years after they first met, Pierre walked absent-mindedly along a roadside on his way to a meeting. It was raining and the roads were slick. In a confused state, he walked out into traffic at the same time that a cart pulled by horses was passing. Pierre walked right into one of the horses and tried to regain his balance by hanging on to the chest of the horse. His feet slipped. The horse reared. Pierre fell down. The horse and the front wheels of the wagon missed him, but the rear wheels of the cart were not so forgiving. They crushed Pierre’s head.

Marie again found herself lost after this great tragedy. In her journal, she hints at thoughts of suicide. But Marie was a mother now, and if at first she found it difficult to return to her research, she could not forget her daughters. Then, in a gesture of respect and confidence in Marie’s abilities, the council of the Faculty of Science, where Pierre had held a chair, confided the honor of the chair to Pierre’s widow. She would teach a course in physics and be the chief of research work at the university. This would provide her with a very decent annual salary. Her response to this honor was: ‘‘Whatever happens, even if one has to go on like a body without a soul, one must work just the same.’’

In December 1933 ‘‘a short illness impressed Mme. Curie more deeply’’ than some of her earlier illnesses that she usually attributed to fatigue. ‘‘The fever became more insistent and the chills more violent.’’ Doctors took X-rays and some of them declared that she either had the grippe or bronchitis. Other specialists left her bedside perplexed by her symptoms. They did not understand her condition or her inability to regain her health. In a last, desperate move, the doctors suggested that she be taken to the mountains, a common cure at the time for tuberculosis. The trip, Eve Curie writes, would prove fatal.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie died. In his report upon her death a Dr. Tobe wrote: ‘‘‘The disease was an aplastic pernicious anaemia of rapid, feverish development. The bone marrow did not react, probably because it had been injured by a long accumulation of radiations.’’’ In other words, Marie Curie died from her own hard work, from her long hours living most blissfully in her research lab, from her discovery and handling of radium.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Introduction to Madame Curie

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The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend.

She was a woman; she belonged to an oppressed nation; she was poor; she was beautiful. A powerful vocation summoned her from her motherland, Poland, to study in Paris, where she lived through years of poverty and solitude. There she met a man whose genius was akin to hers. She married him; their happiness was unique. By the most desperate and arid effort they discovered a magic element, radium. This discovery not only gave birth to a new science and a new philosophy: it provided mankind with the means of treating a dreadful disease.

At the moment when the fame of the two scientists and benefactors was spreading through the world, grief overtook Marie: her husband, her wonderful companion, was taken from her by death in an instant. But in spite of distress and physical illness, she continued alone the work that had been begun with him and brilliantly developed the science they had created together.

The rest of her life resolves itself into a kind of perpetual giving. To the war wounded she gave her devotion and her health. Later on she gave her advice, her wisdom and all the hours of her time to her pupils, to future scientists who came to her from all parts of the world.

When her mission was accomplished she died exhausted, having refused wealth and endured her honors with indifference.

It would have been a crime to add the slightest ornament to this story, so like a myth. I have not related a single anecdote of which I am not sure. I have not deformed a single essential phrase or so much as invented the color of a dress. The facts are as stated; the quoted words were actually pronounced.

I am indebted to my Polish family, charming and cultivated, and above all to my mother’s eldest sister, Mme. Dluska, who was her dearest friend, for precious letters and direct evidence on the youth of the scientist. From the personal papers and short biographical notes left by Marie Curie, from innumerable official documents, the narratives and letters of French and Polish friends whom I cannot thank enough, and from the recollections of my sister Irene Joliot Curie, of my brother-in-law, Frederic Joliot, and my own, I have been able to evoke her more recent years.

I hope that the reader may constantly feel, across the ephemeral movement of one existence, what in Marie Curie was even more rare than her work or her life: the immovable structure of a character; the stubborn effort of an intelligence; the free immolation of a being that could give all and take nothing, could even receive nothing; and above all the quality of a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity.

Because she had that soul, without the slightest sacrifice Marie Curie rejected money, comfort and the thousand advantages that genuinely great men may obtain from immense fame. She suffered from the part the world wished her to play; her nature was so susceptible and exacting that among all the attitudes suggested by fame she could choose none: neither familiarity nor mechanical friendliness, deliberate austerity nor showy modesty.

She did not know how to be famous.

My mother was thirty-seven years old when I was born. When I was big enough to know her well, she was already an aging woman who had passed the summit of renown. And yet it is the celebrated scientist who is strangest to me—probably because the idea that she was a ‘‘celebrated scientist’’ did not occupy the mind of Marie Curie. It seems to me, rather, that I have always lived near the poor student, haunted by dreams, who was Marya Sklodovska long before I came into the world.

And to this young girl Marie Curie still bore a resemblance on the day of her death. A hard and long and dazzling career had not succeeded in making her greater or less, in sanctifying or debasing her. She was on that last day just as gentle, stubborn, timid and curious about all things as in the days of her obscure beginnings.

It was impossible to inflict on her, without sacrilege, the pompous obsequies which governments give their great men. In a country graveyard, among summer flowers, she had the simplest and quietest burial, as if the life just ended had been like that of a thousand others.

I should have liked the gifts of a writer to tell of this eternal student—of whom Einstein said: ‘‘Marie Curiè is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted’’—passing like a stranger across her own life, intact, natural and very nearly unaware of her astonishing destiny.

Source: Eve Curie, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Madame Curie, translated by Vincent Sheean, 1940, pp. ix–xi.


Critical Overview