Madame Curie – Part I

One of the most famous pictures of Marie Curie is the photograph taken at the 1911 Solvay Conference. In it she is the only woman surrounded by some of the most well known scientists and mathematicians of her day: Perrin, Poincare, Einstein, Rutherford, and Langevin to name a few. It is easy to assume that genius is always recognized whether it is in a man or a woman, but Marie Curie’s fame was hard won. She also didn’t get there due exclusively to her own efforts, but in part due to the fact that there were those in her field who weren’t willing to let her be denied simply because she was a woman. There were scientists who worked against her, but also those who defended her, her discoveries, and her genius.

Marya Salomee Sklodowska, nicknamed Manya, was born in Warsaw in 1867. Her parents, Wladyslaw Sklodowski and Bronislava Boguski were intelligent members of the lower aristocracy. Their families no longer had wealth but they valued education and had a fierce loyalty to their native Poland. From the time of Manya’s birth until after World War I, the area of Poland where she was born and grew up was occupied by Russia. After several uprisings, the Russian government worked to suppress Polish nationalism.

Because of the suppression of the Polish people, although educated in St. Petersburg, Wladyslaw was a physicist who was not allowed to perform experiments or practice his science. He was reduced to taking low paying teaching positions in schools administered by Russians. Bronislava worked hard to get an education and worked her way up to becoming headmistress of the Freta Street School, a private school for girls in Warsaw. During this time, women were not expected to work outside their homes and were not eligible for higher education.

When Wladyslaw and Bronislava married in 1860, they moved into the apartment provided for Bronislava as the headmistress of the Freta Street School. Five children followed in six years: Zofia in 1862, Jozef in 1863, Bronislava (Bronya) in 1865, Helena in 1866, and Manya in 1867. The year Manya was born Wladyslaw received a position as assistant director of a Russian school on the western side of Warsaw which came with an apartment. The family moved and for a while Bronislava tried to continue in her position as headmistress. Eventually, the strain of caring for her family combined with travel to the Freta school and maintaining her job there took its toll and Bronislava resigned her position.

It seems that their family life was happy for a time. Both parents valued education and loved their children. At first Bronislava educated the older children at home, but her health began to decline. In 1871, when Manya was four, her mother began to show the classic symptoms of tuberculosis. Over the following years, she would go away several times for a “cure” taking Zofia with her as a nurse. When Manya was 10 her sister Zofia died from typhus. Two years later her mother succumbed to tuberculosis. These deaths hit Manya very hard. For most of her life she would suffer from periodic bouts of severe depression. At times she was able to hide it, retreating into a book, her studies, or later her work, but other times she would take to her bed refusing to eat or see anyone.

Manya continued her studies, graduating first in her class in 1883. This continued perseverance in the face of great loss took its toll. After she graduated she withdrew into despair. As a remedy, she was sent to spend the next year with relatives living in the country. She would later describe this year as one of the happiest of her life. Manya came back to Warsaw determined to work to help her family. She made a deal with her sister Bronya. She would work to help Bronya get her medical degree, then Bronya would in turn help her. To do this she took a series of jobs as a governess. One of these jobs was for the Żorawski family. During this time she fell in love with their son Kazimierz Żorawski. The feeling was mutual and they wanted to marry, but his parents were adamantly opposed to their son marrying a penniless governess.

In 1890, Bronya, who had finished her medical training and married another doctor, wrote to her sister to come to Paris. Manya still had hope that Kazimierz would be able to go against his parents and marry her. She decided not to go to Paris and began her scientific training in what was called the “Floating University.” The Floating University, or Flying University, was an underground, illegal, series of courses taught in private homes. The goal was to keep alive the Polish culture under the repressive rule of the Russians. This also provided a means for girls to get a higher education.

Eventually, Manya received a letter from Kazimierz which ended any thoughts of marriage in Manya’s mind and she decided to accept Bronya’s offer and go to Paris. In the fall of 1891, she arrived in Paris and taking the French form of her name, Marie, she entered the Sorbonne to study physics and mathematics. Initially staying with her sister, Marie found the constant activity in the home distracting and eventually rented a small garret room where she would spend her evenings studying, often without heat and neglecting her own health. She worked hard and received her degree in physics in 1893, and her degree in mathematics in 1894.

Sklodowski Family: Wladyslaw Skłodowski and his daughters Maria, Bronisława and Helena c. 1890

One of Marie’s professors, Gabriel Lippman, was able to get a small research opportunity for her to study magnetism. While attending the Floating University, Marie had begun work investigating magnetism in a laboratory run by a cousin, so it was an area of interest to her, but she had little laboratory space and poor equipment. Friends suggested that she consult a young scientist named Pierre Curie. Pierre had also done work in the area of magnetism which Marie was familiar with, but more importantly he and his brother Jacques had invented several pieces of equipment that would make Marie’s work much easier.

Pierre was a quiet man who had an unconventional upbringing. As a child he struggled learning some basic things such as reading and writing, but his genius in mathematics was recognized early. For this reason, his parents chose to educate him at home. Whether because of temperament or because of his early lack of experience with others outside the home, Pierre would always shy away from the public spotlight. This affected his ability to promote himself and achieve recognition in the form of lucrative positions in universities.

Before Marie met Pierre, he and Jacques had discovered piezoelectricity, a concept that explained the relationship between volume changes in crystal quartz and electricity. This discovery would become the foundation of many inventions in the future, such as sonar, ultrasound, and quartz wristwatches. It also brought Pierre and Jacques international acclaim in the scientific community. In spite of this, when Marie met Pierre, he was teaching at an industrial school for engineers with a small salary. It certainly wasn’t a position commensurate with his abilities or fame.

In many ways they were made for each other. Pierre never thought he would meet a woman who didn’t distract him from his science. Marie also had a need to be free from distraction, and in Pierre, she had met a man who not only understood her, but wasn’t threatened in any way by her genius. It took some persuading along with help from Marie’s sister Bronya and Pierre’s mother, but Marie finally agreed to marry Pierre in 1895. Although she needed persuading, they were very much in love, and after the wedding they settled down to work together.

Next Post – The discovery that made Madame Curie famous and how she and Pierre were able to balance science with family life.

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Six Great Scientists by J. G. Crowther

About Susan Ozmore

I'm a blogger, freelance writer, and former teacher. After 12 years in the telecommunications industry, I taught math and science. I have, however, always loved history! So now I am indulging by reading many great books and sharing what I learn. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new is the history you don't know." Please comment, I would love to receive your feedback. Thanks for reading.
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2 Responses to Madame Curie – Part I

  1. tamistout says:

    Susan-When I was a kid, one of the first biographies I can ever remember reading was that of Madame Curie. I was so impressed as a child about her successes especially during the time when women were relegated to the kitchen. As an adult I’m even more impressed.

    I LOVE that you are writing this blog. I’ve never heard of some of these women and without you, probably never would have. Well done you!

  2. sozmore says:

    Tami – There was a series of biographies in the library when I was a kid that I loved. I remember reading all of the ones about women – Molly Pitcher, Betsy Ross, Dolley Madison, etc. (I don’t remember if they were all American or not.) But it’s fun revisiting some of them now as an adult. Thanks for reading!

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