Polonium, Radioactivity & Elephants: How Poland Shaped Maria Skłodowska-Curie (& How She Shaped Poland)
Maria Skłodowska-Curie emigrated from Poland when she was only 24 – at a time when the country wasn’t even on the map of Europe. When it reappeared she was a double Nobel Prize laureate. We take a closer look at the relationship with her homeland.
Although she never returned to her home country for good, Poland proved to be a constant presence in the heart and mind of the great scientist. In promoting the idea of an independent Polish state, Maria Skłodowska-Curie (better known to the world as Marie Curie) resorted to some subversive tactics: look no further than polonium! So why did she eventually regret naming the new element after Poland? Was Poland the reason she almost refused to marry Pierre Curie? What was her favourite Polish song? And what does an elephant have to do with Poland? Find out all you need to know about Marie Curie’s idiosyncratic relationship with Poland below.
Educating a genius in an occupied country
Maria Skłodowska-Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867, at a time when the city was the capital of the Polish province of the Russian Empire. In fact, the very year Maria was born, the word Polish was taken off the official name of the province (from now on it was to be known as Privislinsky krai). This was part of a larger set of repercussions which arrived in the wake of the January Uprising – a war waged by Poles against Russian rule in 1863-1864; among them was a heavy crackdown on education in the Polish language, especially in elementary schools – a situation which particularly affected Skłodowska-Curie’s formative years – and which she recalled in her autobiography:
All classes were taught in Russian, usually by Russians whose attitude toward Poles was hostile, as was their attitude towards their pupils. Hence, the value of such learning was questionable at most, and the atmosphere in school – hardly bearable.
As she remembered, schoolchildren were constantly spied on and teachers were suspicious of their every move. They were also aware that any Polish conversation or even inadvertently uttered Polish word could bring harm not only to them but also to their families. In such a hostile environment, she noted, children lost all their joy of life, while ‘their premature sense of distrust and indignation hung heavily over their childhood, like a nightmare’. These highly ‘abnormal conditions of development’ had perhaps one unexpected positive side-effect: ‘to a great extent they incited strong patriotic feelings in Polish youth’, wrote Skłodowska.
Fortunately, Maria’s father Władysław Skłodowski, a teacher and a member of the new emerging class of Polish intelligentsia, knew how to foster an interest in science in his four children. In fact, he took every chance he got to try to explain aspects of the world around them to his children. He taught maths and physics to Maria, who found both very easy. Later she would say that the only thing she regretted was that he didn’t have a lab where they could perform experiments.
Skłodowski was also very interested in literature and had a superb knowledge of both Polish and foreign poetry, which he translated into Polish. He even occasionally wrote verse, and these poems made a big impression on the young Maria. She remembered, in particular, Saturday evenings spent around the table with their father reciting and reading Polish poetry and prose. She later recalled that ‘These evenings were a great pleasure and they further developed our feelings of patriotism’. Marie loved poetry and often learned it by heart, her favourite poets being Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki.
Teaching in secret
At 17, after graduating from gymnasium (where she ranked first despite being a year younger than her classmates) and a year spent away from the city, Maria took the job of a teacher at the home of a Polish family living in the countryside. She spent her days homeschooling the children of the proprietors, while at night she would study in hope of being able to study abroad (at the time women were not allowed to study at the Imperial Warsaw University). She also found time to teach other children from the village, who under Russian rule were not receiving a proper education. She recalled:
We taught the smaller children as well as older girls, who wanted to learn to read and write. We also shared Polish books, which the parents appreciated as well. Even this innocent bit of education was dangerous, because all such initiatives were banned by the government and could mean jail time or deportation to Siberia.
By the end of the century, this ‘teaching in secret’ performed by the Polish intelligentsia became a massive movement contributing to the reduction of illiteracy, but also instilling patriotic sentiments in children from peasant families. Maria went on to spend three and a half years working in the countryside, all the time simultaneously teaching in secret. She was also saving money for her sister who in the meantime had gone to Paris to study. Maria would soon follow in her footsteps.
...and learning in secret
Upon returning to the city, she earned a living giving private lessons and continued her studies on her own. During this time, she finally had access to a laboratory (run by her uncle) where she conducted her first experiments. She had also decided that she wanted to study maths and physics in Paris.
New possibilities of education – which she later described as formative – came from a group of young people, which ‘gathered with the goal of learning together, while at the same time focussing on social and national issues’.
This was one of those groups of Polish youth that believed that all hope for their fatherland lies in the great effort of developing the nation’s intellectual and moral power – and that such effort would eventually lead to improving its fate.
She knew that the immediate goal was educating one's self and cumulating means to propagate education among workers and peasants.
In accordance with this programme, we decided to arrange evening courses, where everyone would teach the subject which they knew best. It goes without saying that it was a secret organisation which made its activity difficult.
Even after many decades, recalling those days in her autobiography, Curie saw a direct link between this form of Polish social life and her life credo:
I still believe that the ideas which guided us during that time, point to the only way leading to substantial social development. One cannot think of building a better world without improving the lives of individual people; hence every one of us should strive to improve their condition while at the same time sharing responsibility for all of mankind. As it is our special obligation to help those to whom we can be most useful.
Pierre Curie vs Poland
In 1891, when Marie was 24, she left Warsaw for Paris where she began her studies. Despite spending most of her time studying, she retained contact with Poles in Paris, with whom she would meet to discuss ‘national issues’ and ‘forget about [their] solitude’. She stopped attending meetings at the end of her first year, after realising ‘that all of [her] energy needs to be focussed on studies, so that they can be finished in the shortest time possible’. That is precisely what she did, graduating with maths and physics degrees the very next year, ranking first and second, respectively, in her year.
Not long after that she met her future husband Pierre Curie. And yet there was a big chance that she wouldn’t have married him. Why? The reason was Poland.
He soon asked me to share his life, but at first I couldn’t make up my mind. I hesitated to take that step, which would mean separation from my family and homeland.
In the memoirs of her daughter Ève, she put it in an even more dramatic light: ‘We Poles don’t have the right to leave our country at a time when it’s being oppressed’ – that was allegedly Marie’s reaction to Pierre’s proposal.
In the summer of that same year she was not sure if she would be staying in Paris – she went for a holiday to Poland and didn’t know if she would return. Fortunately, in the autumn she was able to secure a job at one of the laboratories at the Sorbonne and so she returned to start experimental research on her doctoral thesis. In July 1895, she married Pierre, which ultimately set the path of her life.
Polonium is for Poland
In July 1896, Maria and Pierre announced the discovery of the new substance which, ‘in honour of Maria’s homeland’, they called Polonium. The name of the element was derived from the Latin name of Poland, Polonia; as such it was a highly subversive move considering that the name Poland itself was not even on the map of Europe in the late 19th century. Russia was a powerful and threatening empire, while in France – usually sympathetic with the Polish national cause – debate about the question Polonaise (as it was called there) was on the wane ever since the defeat in the Prusso-French war of 1871.
By naming the new element the way she did, Maria Skłodowska-Curie was in a way anticipating the great commotion that came after her winning the Nobel Prize in 1903. In doing so, she was deliberately aiming to use the publicity coming from the scientific discovery to bring the world’s attention to a purely political fact: Poland’s lack of independence as a sovereign state. As such, polonium may have been the first chemical element named to highlight a political situation.
So why did she eventually regret naming polonium the way she had? It’s all about radium. Radium, which the couple discovered soon after polonium, turned out to be much easier to extract and identify, it also became much more important in the history of scientific research – thus deservedly becoming the symbol of radioactivity, a fate which eluded polonium...
And yet, polonium and Poland had more in common than one would suppose. For one, they were both seemingly invisible. At the time of its discovery one couldn’t see or weigh polonium, just as one couldn’t find Poland on the map of Europe – and yet it existed in the hearts of Poles, including Maria Skłodowska-Curie.
Radium Institute in Paris (and Warsaw)
Later, Skłodowska-Curie devoted her life to the creation of the Radium Institute in Paris. During this time she had to reject numerous invitations from Poland, coming from the most elite Polish scientific circles (in 1912 this included a delegation of Poles led by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz).
As her daughter Ève would later recall, her mother felt ‘torn between her two obligations, which were mutually exclusive. She hesitates and homesickness strikes with double the strength’.
Instead of returning, she sent two of her most talented assistants to Poland. Meanwhile, she saw to it that the Radium Institute in Paris also had Polish employees – this way she was educating the future staff of the Polish Radium Institute. When it finally opened in 1932, it was one of the most advanced facilities specialising in cancer treatment in the world.
When World War I broke out Maria decided to act. In her autobiography she would write: ‘During this time it was the most important obligation of every citizen to help the country’. By the ‘country’ she primarily meant France. Soon after the war began, she took to setting up special vehicles which would act as mobile X-ray machines and x-rayed the fractured bones of French soldiers right on the front. She would even drive them herself (Marie was one of the first women to have a driver’s licence!).
During this time she was also concerned with her family in Poland where the war raged, and where the future of the country was being made. All this time her political sympathies were with the democratic side of the Polish political spectrum, opposed to the more nationalist movements. As the Polish émigré community in France became polarised, Maria was among those who decided to support Józef Piłsudski, her coeval and a leader of the Polish socialist party, and his military formation, the Polish Legions.
Elephants & the Polish question
The independence of Poland in 1918 brought an end not only to over a century of Polish national struggle but also to a period when Poles were primarily concerned with Poland. But the time when Polish patriotism was a civic obligation, a sort of religion, and to some degree, an obsession, was coming to an end. Would it be surprising then that one of the most poignant encapsulations of this problem came from Maria Skłodowska-Curie? And that it was a joke?
An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole were asked to take part in a literary competition and write on the subject of the elephant. The Englishman presented a paper entitled ‘My Experience in Hunting Elephants in Southern Africa.’ The Frenchman wrote an essay about the sexual and erotic lives of elephants, while the Pole entitled his monograph: ‘The Elephant – and the Polish Question.’
According to a rather apocryphal story, the famous speech took place at a League of Nations conference (International Committee of Intellectual Cooperation), perhaps in 1921. The phrase about the elephant and the Polish question, later found in Stefan Żeromski’s Polish classic The Coming Spring (Przedwiośnie), would soon enter the bloodstream of Polish culture becoming an almost proverbial and self-explanatory punchline, used by speakers as a comment on the practice of searching for links with the Polish national cause in seemingly unrelated topics.
There’s this song about the Wisła River...
In May 1932, Maria Skłodowska-Curie visited Poland for the last time, on the occasion of the grand opening of the Radium Institute. She found time to take a walk along the embankment of the Wisła river – something of a sentimental journey, as this was where she would have taken walks as a young girl, some fifty years earlier. The experience made her think of the lyrics of a song -– a popular 19th-century krakowiak Płynie Wisła Płynie – a song she must have known as a child (you can listen to it here). In a letter, written only two years before her death, Maria recalled lines from the song. They remind us of her undying love for her homeland.
There’s a song from Kraków about the Wisła: ‘And who has fallen in love with you, will never forget you, not even in the grave’. I believe it’s true. At least as far as I’m concerned.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 7 November 2017