BIOGRAPHY OF MARIA SKŁODOWSKA-CURIE
Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867–1934)
Childhood and adolescence years in Poland (1867–1891)
Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born in Warsaw at 16 Freta Street on 7 November 1867.
Her mother, Marianna Bronisława née Boguska (1835 –1878), came from a noble family of the Topór coat of arms. She was a teacher and the owner of a reputable boarding house for girls, housed at 16 Freta Street. Father, Władysław Skłodowski of the Dołęga coat of arms (1832–1902), was a physics and mathematics teacher in secondary schools.
In addition to Maria, the youngest one, the Skłodowski family had four other children: Zofia (1861–1876, who died in her teens), Józef (1863–1937, a doctor who was one of the heads of the Infant Jesus Hospital), Bronisława (1865–1939, who took the surname Dłuska after her husband, a doctor and co-creator of a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Zakopane) and Helena (1866–1961, who took the surname Szalay after her husband, a teacher, school inspector, one of the fighters for women’s voting rights).
After the death of Bronisława Skłodowska from tuberculosis (1878), the children were raised by their father. The family cultivated patriotic traditions – first romantic, then positivist. The young Skłodowski family members grew up with the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński in their backgroud. Later, ideas drawn from the works of Eliza Orzeszkowa, Bolesław Prus and Aleksander Świętochowski were close to Maria, including positivist slogans of organic work and grassroots work.
In 1877, Maniusia – her short name used by the family – began studying at Jadwiga Sikorska’s boarding school at 153 Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw. Six years later, awarded a gold medal, she graduated from the 3rd Women’s Government Gymnasium (1883). Afterwards, she began a year-long vacation, during which she visited family estates and recovered from hardships related to study and personal experiences.
The year 1884 witnessed Maria Skłodowska enrolling in the courses of an illegal university – the Flying University in Warsaw, whose curriculum mainly included natural and social sciences. She attended lectures again in 1890/1891.
Young Maria was a gifted and comprehensively educated person, knew foreign languages, were interested in sociology, psychology, exact sciences, and she drew well. However, she decided to go into exact sciences, dreaming of studying at the University of Paris.
Going to study abroad was the only option for the girls of that time because no university in Poland under partitions admitted women. Nevertheless, these studies were fee-paying, while Władysław Skłodowski did not have sufficient funds to finance his daughters’ education. So, Maria and Bronisława made an agreement that the older of them would first leave to study in Paris. The younger one, working as a governess, was supposed to support her financially until the latter, having completed her studies, would be able to reciprocate her help.
In accordance with the sisterly pact, from 1886 to 1889 Maria Skłodowska worked as a home teacher at the Szczuki estate, belonging to the Krasiński family, where she taught the children of the property owners – the Żórawski family. She also organised a school for rural children, who taught Polish language and history, implementing the ideas of positivism. At that time, however, pursuing this illegal activity was at risk of property being confiscated, and even deportation to Siberia. During her stay at the Szczuki estate, Maria experienced her first love, falling in reciprocated love with the son of the Żórawski family, Kazimierz Żorawski (1866–1953), a mathematics student. He intended to marry Maria, but his parents believed that it would be a misalliance, so the wedding never took place.
In 1889, Maria Skłodowska returned to Warsaw, where she continued to work as a governess for a year. A year later, she started studying in the Physical Workshop Studio of the Museum of Industry and Agriculture laboratory, headed by her cousin, Józef Jerzy Boguski. In the Chemical Workshop Studio, under the supervision of Professor Napoleon Milicer and his assistant, Włodzimierz Kossakowski, PhD, the student mastered chemical analysis.
Paris – studies, adult life (1891–1934)
In November 1891, Maria’s dreams came true. She left for Paris and enrolled in Sorbonne’s mathematics and natural science department, where she was one of the few women studying there.
Initially, she lived with her sister Bronisława, who had already completed her medical studies, and her husband, Kazimierz Dłuski (1855–1930). They had a close relationship with Poles living in Paris, they were friends, for instance, with the exceptional pianist, later Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland – Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Maria participated in his Paris concerts; she also took part in Polish patriotic performances.
From 1892, she lived alone in the Latin Quarter near the university, renting a room in a small hotel on Flatters Street. Afterwards, following the footsteps of many other students, she rented cheap rooms on the top floors of Parisian tenement houses, including Port-Royal Boulevard and des Feuillantines Street.
In 1893, she received a bachelor’s degree in physical sciences being ranked first, and a year later – a bachelor’s degree in mathematics being ranked second.
Even before her graduation, she started working for the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in France, testing the magnetic properties of steel.
In 1894 she met Pierre Curie (1859–1906), a French physicist who, after several months of acquaintance, proposed to Maria. Making this decision, however, entailed some moral dilemmas as it required Maria to abandon her family and permanently leave her homeland. Being unable to obtain employment in Poland that would match her qualifications, she decided to accept the proposal.
In July 1895 she became the wife of Pierre Curie. She put her signature many times in a French custom: Madame Pierre Curie, Madame Marie Curie, Madame Curie-Skłodowska. On her Nobel Prize diploma from 1903, when she won the Physics Prize along with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, she was listed as Marie Curie. In 1911, when she herself received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the diploma was awarded for the name of Marie Sklodowska-Curie.
Maintaining contacts with Poland, she came to her homeland many times. These were both work-related and private visits. For example, in 1899 Maria came to Poland with Pierre to show him Warsaw and Zakopane (back then, they climbed Rysy, the highest peak in the Polish Tatras), whereas in 1911 she was doing mountain hiking with her daughters. As far as Maria was concerned, the Tatra Mountains were synonymous with freedom. Surrounded by high peaks, she could breathe unfettered freedom – in the country that did not exist on any map at the time.
The first daughter of scientists, Irène, was born in 1897 (died 1956). Like her parents, she became a scientist. In 1935, she and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900–1958), received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the phenomenon of artificial radioactivity.
Seven years after Irène’s birth, the family tree expanded to include yet another daughter, Eve (1904–2007) – a future pianist, although she did not develop a career as a pianist. She was the author of the biography of her mother Madame Curie (New York, 1937), and a war correspondent.
During the early childhood of their daughters, the Curies worked together in a laboratory made up of an old dissecting room, lent to them by the authorities of the municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, where Pierre lectured. It was then that Maria chose the topic of her doctoral dissertation – it concerned uranium radiation, previously researched by H. Becquerel. In July 1898, the Curies announced the discovery of the first radioactive element – polonium, named after Maria’s homeland, while in December they informed the world about the discovery of radium.
A new era began, the world went mad, and radium was hailed as a miracle drug that, according to advertisements, prolonged youth, ensuring long life. Scientists who did not patent their discoveries continued to study the properties of the element, trying to obtain it in a metallic form. Both were moderately euphoric about this “radium madness”.
In 1903, Maria Skłodowska-Curie defended her doctoral dissertation, and in December, the Curies and H. Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize. Maria became the first woman to be honoured with this highest scientific award. To this day, she is the only one with two Nobel Prizes in two different scientific fields.
The common life and work, which was extremely satisfying for both scientists, was interrupted by the tragic death of Pierre. On 19 April 1906, he died in a street accident under the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage, orphaning his wife and two daughters.
After a period of breakdown, Maria gradually regained her balance. Although she remained silent and thoughtful, she continued to work in the laboratory and cared for the children. In the same year, she took over the chair after her late husband, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne (1906). Two years later, she was the first woman to be nominated as a professor at this venerable university (1908). In 1910 she ran for a place at the French Academy of Sciences, but her candidacy was rejected in January of the following year.
In 1911, she visited Poland again, coming to Zakopane. In December this year, she received her second, this time individual, Nobel Prize in Stockholm. The triumph was preceded by a press campaign that broke out in Paris after her relationship with Paul Langevin was revealed.
Two years later, she opened Poland’s first radiology laboratory, of which she became its director; the facility was run sequentially by her students Jan Kazimierz Danysz and Ludwik Wertenstein.
In 1914, after five years of efforts, under the auspices of the Pasteur Institute and the University of Paris, Maria Skłodowska-Curie opened the Radium Institute in Paris, namely a modern medical and research facility with a well-equipped laboratory.
Due to the outbreak of World War I, carrying out works was postponed to the future. After the mobilisation was announced, the Nobel Prize Winner safeguarded the radium, personally transporting it to Bordeaux. Not wanting to remain passive, she undertook a number of steps in order to organise the military radiological service. Owing to her persistence, she acquired cars, equipping them with X-ray machines and training staff to operate them, including but not limited to in field hospitals. It was her merits that thousands of soldiers underwent surgery to remove the shrapnels without losing their arms or legs. It is believed that this work left her body with indelible lesions.
After the war, Maria Skłodowska-Curie returned to Paris, where the Radium Institute began operating under her management. In the laboratory housed there, scholarship holders from all over the world, in particular from Central and Eastern Europe, were educated, whom the scientist took care of – thus supporting, for instance, Polish science in the period after regaining independence.
She also represented the Polish question in the League of Nations, where from 1922 she was a member of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation, acting as its vice-president (from 1923).
Maria Skłodowska-Curie took numerous trips abroad, two of them to the United States in 1921 and 1929. They rendered it possible to equip the Radium Institute in Paris with radium and laboratory equipment, as well as to collect some funds for the construction and equipment of a twin facility in Warsaw.
The scientist dreamed that the Poles would have a modern facility like the one where she worked in Paris. As early as 1925, her dream began to come true.
In June, Maria Skłodowska-Curie came to Warsaw, where the cornerstone for the construction of the Radium Institute at Wawelska Street was laid.
Seven years later, the Nobel Prize winner participated in the ceremonial opening of the institute (1932). It was her last stay in Poland.
Sick and tired, she remained active until the last months of her life working at the Radium Institute and the League of Nations, and preparing her next, after the Traité de radioactivité [Discourse on Radioactivity] (1910), monumental work: Radioactivité [Radioactivity], compiled and published posthumously by Irène Joliot-Curie (Paris 1935). In June 1934, with the suspicion of lung disease, Maria Skłodowska-Curie went with her younger daughter, Eve, to the Alpine sanatorium Sancellemoz, where she died of leukaemia on 4 July. She was buried in Sceaux near Paris, in the tomb of the Curie family. Only the closest ones participated in the modest ceremony. On 20 April 1995, the ashes of Maria and Pierre Curie were transferred to the Paris Pantheon. Not only was Maria the first woman to be honoured in this way for her own merits but also the first foreigner.
ed. Dominika Korzeniowska
In her fruitful, fascinating and at times tragic life, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was friends with the greatest scientists of that era.
For a number of years she was the only woman who participated, including but not limited to, in prestigious Solvay Conferences, gathering physicists like Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. After her death, it was A. Einstein, with whom she had happened to wander the Alps, who wrote that she had been the only person not spoiled by fame, among those whom he met.