It’s not an understatement to say she was the hero of my childhood after I read a children’s biography and then the biography her daughter wrote. I decided my life—as another science-focused daughter of school-teachers—should imitate hers.
And then I forgot about her until a recent visit to the museum run by the Polish Chemical Society. The Maria Skłodowska -Curie Museum is at ulica Freta, 16, where she was born. Her life story floods back, seeing one of her dresses by her desk. She chose this style for her wedding dress because it was heavy and dark and she could also use it for a lab coat. A woman scientist. A woman scientist whose husband worked for her. A woman scientist who even had a husband, and children. The first woman to win a Nobel prize. The only woman to win two Nobels in two different fields. The first woman professor at the Sorbonne. The first and only woman interred in the Paris Pantheon. The mother and mother-in-law of Nobel Prize winners.
It is not an understatement to say Skłodowska-Curie had a difficult life. Her mother died when Maria was eleven. She worked as a governess to afford her school fees. Her personal life was filled with erotic complications. Her husband and collaborator, Pierre, died young. Crossing the street on a rainy afternoon, he was crushed by a horse-drawn wagon. After Maria recovered from the loss, she had a brief affair with Pierre’s former student, a younger married man. The Nobel committee asked her not to attend the ceremony for her second prize after the press published what they said were the adulterous couple’s private letters. The ensuing scandal included a duel and a sharp rebuttal to the Nobel committee which all working women should keep handy in their briefcase: “there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life.”
She nursed her grudges and turned them into accomplishments, even as she suffered from what looks to contemporary biographers as depression. She was also good at self-mythology, highlighting her professional passions and shaping her narrative as one of hard-won triumph against all odds. She always called her lab, a pretty decent set-up for its time, her “shed.” She likely would have appreciated the Walter Pigeon/Greer Garson bio-pic, because its distortions romanticize her marriage.
Only now do I assemble details I gleaned at different moments in my life. In a summer program for high school physics students, studying relativity and quantum mechanics at Cornell, I learned about the the first great Solvay Conference (Topic: La théorie du rayonnement et les quanta). But I didn’t learn that Skłodowska-Curie was there among the founding fathers of modern physics. Rutherford and Bohr needed her work to figure out the nature of the atom. Her lover, Paul Langevin, was there with her but he hadn’t yet won his Nobel Prize. She also attended the famous fifth conference (1927: Electrons et photons). That’s the one at which Einstein supposedly said, in response to Werner Heisenberg, “God does not play dice.”
In childhood, I focused on her impressive dedication. The hours and hours she spent extracting small samples of uranium from tons of pitchblende–and extracting polonium and radium from the remaining slag–were a martyrdom to the highest purpose. If I’d been asked, I would have said Madame Curie was French, but I felt she was a citizen of science, the first and eternal Prime Minister of the nation of women scientists.
It’s clear to me in this museum on the edge of Old Town that she was also a citizen of Poland-of-the-imagination. Her heart belonged to the Poland of Mickiewicz and Chopin. She was nationalistic enough and sentimental enough to name the first element she discovered Polonium. And she had enough political sharpness to enjoy how the name called attention to a motherland then under control of the Russian empire.
I can’t resist a strange contemporary tidbit. Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s element is the poison used in the 2007 killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko . It also killed her daughter, Nobel laureate Irena Joliot-Curie, after a lab accident.
In an ABC radio presentation by Robyn Williams, science writer Marcus Chown announced his Silly Science Awards for 2009. Marie Curie receives one for Easiest Notebooks to Read at Midnight During a Powercut. Chown explains: “You may or may not know that her notebooks are classed as intermediate nuclear waste, and kept in lead lined boxes in Paris [in the Bibliothèque nationale de France]. It seems her fingers were so impregnated with radium and polonium that everything she touched was too. In fact, if you were to put a photographic plate against one of her notebook pages and develop it, you would see her fingerprints gradually swimming into view.”
Yes. She loved the warm feel of the elements as they irradiated her hand. She loved the blue glow of a bedside test tube. She understood at least some of the power of these elements she isolated. She inferred from their characteristics that radiation has a medical use. She developed safety protocols and outfitted vans–little Curies–which she drove to battle sites of World War I. Do not scoff at a woman who suffered so badly that she lost the tips of her fingers, was nearly blind with cataracts and crippled with spinal problems, yet continued to work barehanded with this source of energy and healing. I bet you love someone who has consciously chosen this primitive technique to stay the course of cancer because we still don’t have anything better.
After she became famous, she refused requests to return to Poland permanently. It was still the country she left because, as a young woman, and a Polish speaker, the only way she could gain an advanced education was through the illegal Uniwersytet Latający— the “Flying” or “Floating” University. Fellow Polish Nobel laureate, novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz [Quo Vadis], made a personal request and she declined.
This birthplace museum promulgates a biography focused on her love for Poland. It moves quickly from her orphan-hood in Warsaw to 1925 when she fulfills parental hopes by establishing the Warsaw Radiophysical Laboratory. It seems a national tendency to understand being Polish as a biological condition, rather than a nationality. The mournful connection to soil trumps everything. We learn that when times got tough, and times were frequently tough, Maria would return to Zakopane and the exhilarating peak of Mt. Rysy. In 1911, after the Nobel committee scandal, she brought her daughters to a retreat in the Tatra Mountains which, the museum tells us, “were the embodiment of freedom in the country which did not exist on any map.”