Happy Birthday, Mme Curie
“Nothing in life is to be feared; only understood.” -Marie Curie
I know I seem a little fixated on this today- but it’s important. Marie Curie is my hero. Well, my dead-and-I-never-met-you hero, anyway.
I wouldn’t be where I am without her. She is a fantastic example of pioneer female scientists who led the way for all of us women in the sciences today.
She grew up in Russian-controlled Poland and knew four or five languages by the time she skipped town with her older sister, when she worked as a governess to pay for her sister’s schooling. After her sister was married, she repaid the favor, and Marie went to La Sorbonne, the university in Paris, where she began to study physics and chemistry.
Professors bullied her- trying to drive her out of the class from sheer intellectual overload. And Marie would have none of it- she stayed awake late into the night, burning as little coal as possible to keep her miserable attic room heated just enough to avoid frostbite in the winter, completing whatever they threw at her and excelling. Her classmates mocked her, knowing no woman could possibly do science.
And then she met Pierre Curie, one of her physics professors, and had many conversations with him. He was struck by her passion for science and her enthusiasm in the face of adversity, and knew they must be married. But she was so focused on her schooling that the idea didn’t interest her in the least, and poor Pierre had to ask her three times before she agreed.
When she received her degree (she was a chemist, though she is highly respected in both chemistry and physics, as a mother of the modern era), the two of them began working in the brand-new field of radioactive physics and nuclear chemistry, in its infancy. She so loved her work that she used to carry samples of the first element they discovered, Polonium, around in her pockets and have it by the bedside as she slept. She worked through three pregnancies, and when Pierre died in an accident, she kept working then, too, taking over his teaching positions at the university. Her first class was packed to the brim, with men coming merely for the spectacle of a woman teaching, expecting for her to run crying from the room at any moment, or do some equally “female” thing. No luck- she taught as ably as her husband had, and eventually, her classes dwindled down to only those registered for the course.
Her work in radioactivity progressed beyond the laboratory bench, too- she was part of the group that worked on the mobile X-ray technology for ambulance use in the war.
She eventually died of leukemia, brought on (as we know now) by her near-constant exposure to high levels of radioactive materials.
This poor child of two teachers from Warsaw grew up to be the first woman to win two Nobel prizes, one each in chemistry and physics. She was also the first (and may still be the only, I’m not sure) Nobel laureate to also be the mother of a Nobel laureate when her daughter Irene won her own after following in her parents’ footsteps. She is the only woman entombed at the Pantheon (a place of burial for those who have made distinguished contributions to society/France) in Paris of her own accord. Marie fought suffocating occupation, the death of her mother, education in a tongue she had been taught second-hand and never quite taught to read, the disdain of her peers and the torment of her professors, survived child-rearing (and brought three of them up to be successful while working long hours, mind!), and continued on after the death of her soul-mate.
If that’s not strength, I don’t know what is.
There’s a reason I wanted for a very long time to grow up just like her.
Thank you, Marja. You have made so much possible for so many, and I can never be grateful enough.
(PS: All of that was off the top of my head. Wiki me and check it- there’s no dates ’cause I couldn’t remember them, haha, but the information, to the best of my knowledge, is sound. She’s such a fascinating woman…you should go read up on her anyway)
- Posted in: Miscellaneous