She was born in the 19th century in a Poland which didn't exist, as at that time it was entirely occupied by its three neighbours. Despite her craving for knowledge and education her chances for even enrolling at university were meagre – not only were women not allowed to attend higher education institutions in Russian Empire-occupied Poland but also her family assets were scant and the Polish gentry (even if impoverished) was not the most privileged group, to say the least…
Despite all those obstacles she managed to emigrate to Paris, graduate from the Sorbonne, and meet, marry, work and win a Nobel Prize with Pierre Curie for discovering the new elements of radium and polonium. In addition, she proved to the world that women could be great scientists as much as men, which was far from obvious at that time.
Later in life, she overcame her husband’s tragic death and went on to single-handedly raise two children, win another Nobel Prize, become a superstar/celebrity, contribute to the foundation of the most important radium institutes in Europe, and become a war hero and the first woman ever to be buried at the Panthéon.
Lesson 1: Let no obstacle, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, discourage you from doing what you want
Maria Skłodowska-Curie didn’t become the most respected person in the world of science ‒ completely dominated by men at the time ‒ without a plan and a strong will to succeed.
In order to enrol at the Sorbonne, one of a few prestigious universities in Europe that allowed women to study science, Maria Skłodowska-Curie had to work for years as a governess. Not only was she eking out a living this way but also helping her sister Bronia, who had left for Paris a few years before her, in order for Skłodowska-Curie to join her once she settled in there. After a few laborious years full of stagnation and frustration, she got the letter she’d been waiting for. Bronia finally wrote:
However, the biggest difficulty was yet to emerge. When she and her husband Pierre Curie (whom she'd met at the Sorbonne) were on the verge of proving that radium was a new, undiscovered element, other scientists were reluctant to believe in their revelations. The only way to convince doubters was to separate a small quantity of pure radium from uranium ore. Here comes the challenge: the ore contained only negligible traces of pure radium, thus acquiring the desired 0.1 gram of pure element required not only tons of ore but also a well equipped, perfectly ventilated and clean laboratory. The reality, however, was just the opposite. Even if the Skłodowska-Curie couple managed to miraculously get a few tons of ore for free, the lab they were offered was nothing more than a shed… with no heating, no ventilation and a leaking roof, freezing cold in winter, suffocatingly hot during summer. In this facility, they spent 4 years doing the heavy physical work of fractionating the ore, being exposed to radiation and harmful fumes. Marie Skłodowska-Curie wrote of it in her husband’s biography:
Carrying those heavy containers was an exhausting task. I was also very tired with boiling the ore for long hours while keeping it in constant motion with an iron stirrer.
They worked for free for 4 years, doing things a lab assistant would normally do, risking their health and careers, and turning down comfortable offers from a few universities (such as from Geneva) just because they believed in a greater cause.
It paid off – she received the Nobel Prize in Physics, the first in history awarded to a women.
Lesson 2: Share your ideas
Discovering new elements is enough of an accomplishment for one’s entire career but Maria did much than this. For example, from the present day’s point of view the Skłodowska-Curie spouses could be named one of the first propagators of the Creative Commons principles. According to Maria Skłodowska-Curie:
None of us ever intended to make any profit out of our discovery. Thus, we didn’t apply for patents and we always publicly announced the results of our studies as well as methods of extraction of the pure radium from the ore. Moreover, we always shared all our knowledge with other scientists whenever they asked us to. We found it very beneficial for the fabrication of radium (…) giving scientists and doctors the materials they needed.
This altruistic stance contributed vastly to the development of medicine (radiologic examinations and cancer treatments) and industry (industrial radiography) and science. Eventually, the properties of radium attracted the richest investors and Maria Skłodowska-Curie could have made billions on it but instead she chose to use almost all the income it generated for further research into radioactivity and the founding of radium institutes.
Lesson 3: Don’t let discrimination hold you back
Again, let’s look at the photo below; it was taken during one of the most important scientific congresses – the 5th Solvay Congress. It speaks for itself.
The world of science and politics was absolutely dominated by men and even after she got her first Nobel Prize (jointly with her husband and Henri Becquerel – the discoverer of the first evidence of radioactivity) she was still regarded as Miss Curie – her husband’s assistant. Once again, she had to prove her qualities by extremely hard work and by standing on the front line of the debates on radioactivity. That wasn’t easy – several scientists were working on the same subject at that time and often didn’t spare misogynistic comments in the course of discussions. Never intimidated, she won eventually, and in the most triumphant way possible – she was awarded her second and, this time individual, Noble Prize for further investigations into the properties of radium, polonium and their compounds.
Lesson 4: Make the best out of unwanted attention
Contrarily to Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s lifetime dream of being left alone to work in her laboratory, she had to deal with a status comparable only to present-day celebrities. One of her biographers wrote of it:
(…) the Curies’ discovery was a sensation, not only among scientists but also among public at large. Radium was rare, radium was expensive, and radium was a panacea!
The popularity of radium went as far as bringing on some sort of radium-mania. Entrepreneurs started releasing all kind of products containing radium (mind that its harmful properties were not yet discovered at that time): cosmetics, toothpastes, bracelets, drinks, medicines and even fodders! Radium became a magical object authors wrote books about, such as Paul d’Ivoia’s La course au radium (The Chase For Radium) or Raoule Marquis’ Radium Cave.
The Skłodowska-Curie couple became overwhelmingly popular. Vanity Fair devoted a long article to their life and work and published a famous caricature with Pierre looking like the Statue of Liberty. Maria’s account of the months following the announcement and acknowledgement of their discovery speaks a lot about her ‘craving’ for popularity:
Photographers and journalists from all corners of the world tormented us all day long. They went as far as quoting our daughter’s conversation with our cat – Bona. We received numerous requests for money and autograph hunters, snobs, worldlings and even scientists will pay us unexpected visits at our ‘wonderful’ facility at Rue Lhomond.
Things got even worse after Pierre’s tragic death in 1906. First, newspapers invented many conspiracy theories surrounding his death (in fact, he was just jaywalking and got hit by a passing coach) and in 1911 a real tabloid horror story started when the romantic relationship between Maria Skłodowska-Curie and renowned scientist Pierre Langevin was revealed. He was formally married but was estranged from his wife, which didn’t discourage all sort of scandal sheets and gossip rags from accusing Maria of all the wrongdoing of the world. It’s not hard to imagine what being the star of a moral scandal meant to a studious introvert. She managed to get through it thanks to her friends and family, but always referred to it as one of the heaviest blows she received.
But eventually, Maria Skłodowska-Curie managed to turn her unwanted popularity into things she actually wanted. In the beginning of the 1920s the continuation of her studies required at least 1 gram of pure radium, worth approximately $100,000 and there was no way Maria or the Radium Institute she ran in Paris could afford it. Looking for sponsors, she teamed up with Mary Matt Meloney, an influential American journalist. She organised a fundraising campaign amongst America’s rich but also took care of curating Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s public image in the US. Her efforts brought results. In 1921, Maria toured the United States giving lectures and interviews, and everywhere she went she was greeted as a saviour and a star, with masses of people cheering and photographers wrestling for the best shots in the press areas. As exhausting as this journey was for her, it earned enough money to buy 2 grams of pure radium and continue her research.
Albert Einstein summed up Skłodowska-Curie’s struggles with popularity best:
Marie Curie is of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.
Lesson 5: Immigrants can be heroes in both their native and adoptive country
Maria Skłodowska-Curie (or Marie Curie, as she is known to the world) was born in Poland as Maria Salomea Skłodowska and throughout her lifetime she was also very much devoted to her fatherland, standing for its regaining independence and after it did, fostering its reconstruction, by founding the Radium Institute in Warsaw, amongst other things.
On the other hand, she earned a place in the Panthéon and according to a 21st century poll conducted by the magazine l’Histoire, she was the most celebrated French national hero (she occupies the podium together with Jean Moulin and Joanne d’Arc) because even though she was an idealistic pacifist she didn’t stay idle during World War I. In the beginning of 1914 she presented to the French government a precise plan for creating mobile radiological laboratories and training technicians and doctors. Her idea was accepted, and she personally started training personnel and devoting all her time and assets to the development of field medicine. By the end of war she had 300 mobile radiological laboratories up and running, with every one of them having conducted a few thousand examinations. Thus, after the Treaty of Versailles, she became a French national hero.
Believe it or not, but French people laugh out loud when someone says she was Polish and vice versa. The debate on her nationality is a friendly but never-ending struggle between the two nations.
Maria Skłodowska-Curie’s indomitable spirit, her courage and her vital contribution to the development of science and struggle for gender equality in every sphere of life can never be overstated. Let her inspire us, in her words, to:
Endlessly push back the limits of knowledge, to track down the secrets of matter and life without any preconceived idea of the eventual consequences (…) to be among those who, just like Pasteur, irresistibly believe that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 12 August 2016
Sources: 'Maria Skłodowska-Curie' by Francoise Giroud, 'Marie Curie' by Laurent Lemire, Autobiografia. Wspomnienia o Piotrze Curie by Maria Skłodowska-Curie.