Physicists

Curie, Marie Sklodowska

June 21, 2012, 11:05 am
Content Cover Image

Official Nobel Prize Photo

Introduction

Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867–1934) was the first person ever to receive two Nobel Prizes: the first in 1903 in physics, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for the discovery of the phenomenon of radioactivity; and the second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium.

The daughter of impoverished Polish schoolteachers, Marie worked as a governess in Poland to support her older sister in Paris, whom she eventually joined. Already entranced with chemistry, Marie took advanced scientific degrees at the Sorbonne, where she met and married Pierre Curie, a physicist who had achieved fame for his work on the piezoelectric effect. For her thesis she chose to work in a field just opened up by Wilhelm Roentgen's discovery of X-rays and Becquerel's observation of the mysterious power of samples of uranium salts to expose photographic film. She soon convinced her husband to join in the endeavor of isolating the "radioactive" substance—a word she coined.

In 1898, after laboriously isolating various substances by successive chemical reactions and crystallizations of the products, which they then tested for their ability to ionize air, the Curies announced the discovery of polonium, and then of radium salts weighing about 0.1 gram that had been derived from tons of uranium ore. After Pierre's death in 1906 in a streetcar accident, Marie achieved their objective of producing a pure specimen of radium.

Just before World War I, radium institutes were established for her in France and in Poland to pursue the scientific and medical uses of radioactivity. During the war Marie organized a field system of portable X-ray machines to help in treating wounded French soldiers.

In the midst of her busy scientific career Marie raised two daughters—in part, with the help of her father-in-law. Her elder daughter, Irène, became a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, also with her husband, Frédéric Joliot. Mother and daughter both eventually died of leukemia induced by their long exposure to radioactive materials.

Polish girlhood (1867-1891)

Nation and Family

A prisoner in chains. That is what Poland seemed like to Maria Sklodowska. Manya, as she was affectionately called, learned to be a Polish patriot from her parents, Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowski. At the time of Maria's birth in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, Poland had not been an independent country for most of a century. It had been divided up among Austria, Prussia, and czarist Russia.

Warsaw was in the part of Poland controlled by the czar, who hoped to stamp out Polish nationalism by keeping the people ignorant of their culture and language. But Polish patriots were determined to regain control of their nation. As educators, Maria's parents did their best to overcome restrictions placed on them by their Russian supervisors.

"Warsaw was then under Russian domination, and one of the worst aspects of this control was the oppression exerted on the school and the child. The private schools directed by Poles were closely watched by the police and overburdened with the necessity of teaching the Russian language even to children so young that they could scarcely speak their native Polish. Nevertheless, since the teachers were nearly all of Polish nationality, they endeavored in every possible way to mitigate the difficulties resulting from the national persecution. These schools, however, could not legally give diplomas, which were obtainable only in the schools of the government.

These schools, entirely Russian, were directly opposed to the Polish national spirit. All instruction was given in Russian, by Russian professors, who, being hostile to the Polish nation, treated their pupils as enemies. Men of moral and intellectual distinction could scarcely agree to teach in schools where an alien attitude was forced upon them. So what the pupils were taught was of questionable value, and the moral atmosphere was altogether unbearable. Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, the children knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm, not only themselves, but also their families. Amidst these hostilities, they lost all the joy of life, and precocious feelings of distrust and indignation weighed upon their childhood. On the other side, this abnormal situation resulted in exciting the patriotic feeling of Polish youths to the highest degree."

Marie Curie, from Marie Curie, Pierre Curie with Autobiographical Notes. Translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg (New York: Macmillan, 1923)

The birth of Manya, her fifth child, led her mother to resign her position as head of a school, where the family had resided until then. They moved to a boys' high school, where Vladislav taught math and physics and earned a good salary. Eventually, however, the Russian supervisor in charge of the school fired him for his pro-Polish sentiments.

“Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, the children knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm, not only themselves, but also their families.”

Marie Curie

As her father was forced into a series of progressively lower academic posts, the family's economic situation deteriorated. To help make ends meet they had to take in student boarders. Maria was only eight when her oldest sister caught typhus from a boarder and died. That death was followed less than three years later by the death of Madame Sklodowska, who lost a five-year battle with tuberculosis at the age of 42. The surviving family members--Professor Sklodowski; his son Joseph; and his daughters Bronya, Hela, and Maria--drew closer to one another.

Although Sklodowski would never forgive himself for losing the family savings in a bad investment, the children honored him for nurturing them emotionally and intellectually. On Saturday nights he read classics of literature to Maria and her siblings. He also exposed them to the scientific apparatus he had once used in teaching physics but now kept at home, since the Russian authorities had eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish curriculum.

“I easily learned mathematics and physics, as far as these sciences were taken in consideration in the school. I found in this ready help from my father, who loved science....Unhappily, he had no laboratory and could not perform experiments.”

Marie Curie

Manya was the star pupil in her class. Her personal losses did not impede her academic success, but the pleasure of being awarded a gold medal at her high school graduation in 1883 was blunted because it meant shaking the hand of the grandmaster of education in Russian Poland. After graduating at 15, Manya suffered a collapse that doctors thought was due to fatigue or "nervous" problems -- today it might be diagnosed as depression. At her father's urging Manya spent a year with cousins in the country. A merry round of dances and other festivities, it would be the only carefree year of her life.

The Floating University

Maria hoped, like her siblings, to get an advanced degree. Although Joseph was able to enroll in the medical school at the University of Warsaw, women were not welcome there. Maria and Bronya joined other friends in attending the Floating University. This illegal night school got its name from the fact that its classes met in changing locations, the better to evade the watchful eyes of the czarist authorities. Its students' lofty goal went beyond mere self-improvement. They hoped their grass-roots educational movement would raise the likelihood of eventual Polish liberation.

This fly-by-night education could not match the curriculum at any of the major European universities that admitted women. Although Maria understood this fact, at the Floating University she did get a taste of progressive thought and an introduction to new developments in the sciences.

“It was one of those groups of Polish youths who believed that the hope of their country lay in a great effort to develop the intellectual and moral strength of the nation....we agreed among ourselves to give evening courses, each one teaching what he knew best.”

Marie Curie

The Governess

Maria and Bronya made a pact: the younger sister, still not 17, would work as a private tutor, setting aside money to pay Bronya's tuition at medical school in Paris and her living expenses there. As soon as Bronya could, she would help subsidize Maria's education.

After two years of teaching various subjects to children from wealthy families, Maria realized she was not saving money efficiently enough. For the next three years she worked as a well-paid governess.

I was only fifteen when I finished my high-school studies, always having held first rank in my class. The fatigue of growth and study compelled me to take almost a year’s rest in the country. I then returned to my father in Warsaw, hoping to teach in the free schools. But family circumstances obliged me to change my decision. My father, now aged and tired, needed rest; his fortune was very modest. So I resolved to accept a position as governess for several children. Thus, when scarcely seventeen, I left my father’s house to begin an independent life.

That going away remains one of the most vivid memories of my youth. My heart was heavy as I climbed into the railway car. It was to carry me for several hours, away from those I loved. And after the railway journey I must drive for five hours longer. What experience was awaiting me? So I questioned as I sat close to the car window looking out across the wide plains.

Marie Curie, from Marie Curie, Pierre Curie with Autobiographical Notes. Translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg (New York: Macmillan, 1923)

Her charges were the children of an agriculturist who ran a beet-sugar factory in a village 150 kilometers north of Warsaw. Maria felt a kinship with her employer when he permitted her in her spare time to teach the illiterate children of his peasant laborers. He encouraged his older daughter to assist Maria, even though he knew the czarist authorities equated such activity with treason. “Even this innocent work presented danger,” Maria recalled, as all initiative of this kind was forbidden by the government and might bring imprisonment or deportation to Siberia.

When their governess fell in love with their oldest son, however, her employers were none too pleased. As fond as they were of Maria, they did not welcome the knowledge that their beloved Kazmierz, on vacation from his agricultural engineering course in Warsaw, wanted to marry the penniless girl. Although the couple bowed to his parents' wishes and broke off the engagement, their romantic involvement continued for several years more. As difficult as it was to stay under the same roof as a family that clearly did not welcome her as one of their own, Maria remained in their employ because she took her pact with Bronya seriously.

“If [men] don't want to marry impecunious young girls, let them go to the devil! Nobody is asking them anything. But why do they offend by troubling the peace of an innocent creature?”

—letter of Marie Curie to her cousin Henrietta Michalowska, April 4, 1887

To fill her lonely hours she began a course of self-study. Unsure at first where her academic interests lay, she read sociological studies and works of literature along with physics and chemistry textbooks. By mail she also took the equivalent of an advanced math course with her father. When it became clear that math and the physical sciences were her forte, she took chemistry lessons from a chemist in the beet-sugar factory.

After returning to Warsaw in 1889, Maria worked as a live-in governess for another year before resuming life with her father and work as a private tutor. During her absence Sklodowski had become director of a reform school, and the new position paid well enough for him to send a monthly subsidy to Bronya in Paris. By arrangement with Bronya, he began to set aside a portion of that subsidy to compensate Maria for the sums she had been sending her sister. Eventually it became clear that by fall 1891, Maria would have enough money to begin studies at the University of Paris--the famous Sorbonne.

I continued my efforts to educate myself. This was no easy task under the Russian government of Warsaw; yet I found more opportunities than in the country. To my great joy, I was able, for the first time in my life, to find access to a laboratory: a small municipal physical laboratory directed by one of my cousins. I found little time to work there, except in the evenings and on Sundays, and was generally left to myself. I tried out various experiments described in treatises on physics and chemistry, and the results were sometimes unexpected. At times I would be encouraged by a little unhoped-for success, at others I would be in the deepest despair because of accidents and failures resulting from my inexperience. But on the whole, though I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy, this first trial confirmed in me the taste for experimental research in the fields of physics and chemistry.

Other means of instruction came to me through my being one of an enthusiastic group of young men and women of Warsaw, who united in a common desire to study, and whose activities were at the same time social and patriotic. It was one of those groups of Polish youths who believed that the hope of their country lay in a great effort to develop the intellectual and moral strength of the nation, and that such an effort would lead to a better national situation. The nearest purpose was to work at one’s own instruction and to provide means of instruction for workmen and peasants. In accordance with this program we agreed among ourselves to give evening courses, each one teaching what he knew best. There is no need to say that this was a secret organization, which made everything extremely difficult. There were in our group very devoted young people who, as I still believe today, could do truly useful work.

I have a bright remembrance of the sympathetic intellectual and social companionship which I enjoyed at that time. Truly the means of action were poor and the results obtained could not be considerable; yet I still believe that the ideas which inspired us then are the only way to real social progress. You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.

Marie Curie, from Marie Curie, Pierre Curie with Autobiographical Notes. Translated by Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg (New York: Macmillan, 1923)

“During these years of isolated work, trying little by little to find my real preferences, I finally turned towards mathematics and physics, and resolutely undertook a serious preparation for future work.”

Marie Curie

Maria still lacked real laboratory experience, and she hoped to gain some before her departure. This was no easy task, given the czarist ban on such work. The ingenuity of her cousin Joseph Boguski helped her achieve her illicit goal. A former assistant of Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev , Boguski ran the so-called Museum of Industry and Agriculture, which was actually a laboratory aimed at training Polish scientists. One of Boguski's colleagues there gave Maria an intensive chemistry course on Sundays and evenings. More often than not, however, she struggled through experiments on her own, often failing to duplicate the expected results.

Finally, in autumn 1891, Maria Sklodowska set out for Paris. Traveling as economically as possible, she carried not only enough food and reading for the trip but also a folding chair and a blanket: fourth-class travelers through Germany were not provided with seating. “So it was in November, 1891,” she recalled, “at the age of 24, that I was able to realize the dream that had been constantly in my mind for several years.”

Further Reading

 
Glossary

Citation

Foundation, C. (2012). Curie, Marie Sklodowska. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbed5b7896bb431f691b3f

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