Marie Sklodowska Curie

"Scientist Ahead of Her Time"

The Life and Work of Marie Curie-Sklodowska (timeline)

In September 1884, Marie started her first job as a tutor. At the same time, with her sisters Bronislawa and Helena and her teacher Bronislawa Piasecka, she continued her graduate studies (mainly in the areas of Ecology and Sociology) in secret at an underground school- the Flying University. Classes were held in private homes throughout Warsaw with groups comprised of 8-10 people. Participation in these classes was extremely dangerous. If found by the police, students faced prison, or exile in Siberia. Marie became close with a group of positivists. At the time, the study of Ecology was common to youths throughout Europe. These courses of study, along with mathematics had their own family traditions. Marie’s grandfather, Joseph Sklodowski- a participant in the November 1830 uprising, was a physics and chemistry teacher but also the sponsor and principal of the Middle School in Lublin on Namiestowska St. (currently Narutowicz St.). He had lived in Lublin with his family for eight years. Her father Wladyslaw Sklodowski was a physics and mathematics teacher and her mother Bronislawa from Bogucki was a teacher.

Forty years later, Marie Sklodowska Curie would write: “I have very clear memories of the secret meetings. I can remember the pleasant atmosphere of camaraderie and intellectual collaboration. Our means were very modest, the results of our work could not be meaningful, yet to this day I believe that the beliefs which guided us are the sole foundation on which meaningful social progress can arise. However, one cannot hope to turn the world in the right direction without starting with individuals. With this goal in mind, every one of us should strive to better themselves, all the while remembering our personal responsibility for the world in its entirety, and that each one of us has the duty to help those who are most in need.”

Pierre and Marie made these discoveries between 1898 and 1902 in very simple facilities; a shed with no ventilation, often leaking during rain. Previously it had been used by the Medical School as a mortuary, where medical students dissected cadavers. Marie wrote: “We had no money, no laboratory and no help, while we worked on this difficult and important task. It was as if we were creating something out of nothing-and if my years as a student were as Kazimierz Dluski put it ‘a heroic period’ of my life, then I can state without exaggerating that for my husband and me these years were a heroic time of our lives. In spite of this, the memories from that shed are the best ones of our lives, solely devoted to work. I often made dinner in the shed, so we would not have to interrupt any particularly important work. Occasionally a whole day passed with me mixing some broth with a ladle nearly as large as myself. In the evening I would collapse from exhaustion.” In recognition of their research on the magnetism of steel and radioactivity the Academy of Sciences awarded her the Gegner prize and 3800 francs, she received word of this through her husband, because the members of the Academy did not think it proper to inform a female laureate directly.

From 1899 to 1904 the Curies submitted 32 scientific papers, some alone, others with friends. Among the published works are; M. and P. Curie, On the chemical effects of radium radiation (1899), M. Curie, On the atomic weight of barium containing radium (1900), M. and P. Curie, New radioactive bodies and the rays they emit (1900), P. Curie and A. Debierne, On induced radioactivity from radium (1901), P. Curie and H. Becquerel, The physiological effects of radium (1901), M. and P. Curie, On radioactive bodies (1901), M. Curie, On the atomic mass of radium (1902).

“This is the question that has taken over nearly all of Paris, academic circles, and feminists along with future female Academy candidates. The female candidates are of course the most interested, and their numbers were small. For the general public, Mrs Sklodowska-Curie is a ram, which with its perfection will break the gate into a keep never before breached by a woman. The calling of a Polish scientist to the Academy would not have been met with such opposition, if not for the fact that she is to become a precedent and that right behind her are other women who wish to join the Academy. These women included: Gerard d’Houville, the Countess of Noailles, Collette Willy, Marcelle Tinayre, Jeanne Catulle Mendes and many others. The Academy without a doubt acknowledges the merits of Mrs. Sklodowska- Curie’s work; they undoubtedly consider her deserving of a palm above the palms of others decorated with it. It cannot be any other way, because the Academy must appreciate accomplishments of the candidate. The matter at hand is a matter of principle; therefore she does not wish to decide the issue herself. A committee of delegates from all five Academies was called and it was decided that a woman could not be prevented from receiving this highest honor; however in practice it would have been better to stick to tradition, which did not allow women to join the Academy.

Communities of learned people, feminists and above all, the candidate herself, are not satisfied with this kind of ‘Solomon’ solution; a press battle ensued, into which many people have been dragged; scientists, academicians and politicians. Everyone agrees on one thing: Mrs. Sklodowska is deserving of a chair in the Academy, however they are divided on the issue of whether a woman can join the Academy. The storming of the keep that is the academy by women, with wide public support continues. The question: ‘Will Mrs. Sklodowska-Curie join the Academy?’ is still relevant.

At the same time a second question has arisen for the future. Academicians have their traditional robes, what will the robe of a female academician look like? This was the new subject of discussion by the press, projects and mockery. Should female Academicians be uniformed the same? What will the uniform look like? Will every woman have an individual costume? The Parisian ‘Femme’ devoted a poll to this question, accompanying it with projects for a general uniform and individual ones for future women. The Parisian fashion community is displaying a very lively interest in the issue. They even forgot about what Marcelina Tinayre said in response to the poll; ‘one should not auction the skin off of a still living bear.”

The Curie Family

Family scientific traditions did not die with Marie. They were continued by Frederick and Irena Joliot-Curie, Nobel laureates in 1935 in chemistry for the synthesis of new radioactive elements. It is worth noting that Irena briefly accepted a post as undersecretary of state in the government of socialist Leon Blum, the first Jewish prime minister. He formed the department of scientific research for her. It was the first time in France that a woman had attained such a highly placed position. Helene is one of the top specialists in low energy nuclear physics. Since 1957 she works at the Nuclear Physics Institute in Orsay (founded by her parents). Their children Helene and Pierre also became researchers. Helene’s son Yves is an astrophysicist, mainly interested in planets and asteroids. Pierre Joliot is a biophysicist, a respected authority in the field of photosynthesis, professor at the College de France and dean in the Department of Cellular Biology. He is also a member of the French Academy of Science and the American Academy of Science.

Ewa Curie-Labouisse is famous as the biographer of her mother. She was a tireless activist in peacekeeping missions and a staunch opponent of communism. In 1944 she opposed naming a University after Marie Sklodowska-Curie, because it was commissioned by the pro Soviet Polish National Liberty Commission. She wrote music reviews and translated American musicals to French. Occasionally she performed herself. In the U.S. she received the National Book Award in the category of nonfiction literature. During the war she joined the army of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. After the war she took a position as director of the Department of Women’s Affairs in the Ministry of Information. She was an advisor to NATO Secretary General H.L. Ismay. At the age of 50 she met the American diplomat Henry Labouisse, U.S. ambassador to France, whom she married in 1954. Labouisse as Director General of UNICEF received the Nobel Peace Prize awarded the organization. In peacekeeping missions to help children, Ewa visited 19 countries. In December 2005, she was 102 years old. In 1938, Polish president Ignacy Moscicki had awarded her the Officer’s Cross “Polonia Restituta”. In July 2005, President Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded her the Commander’s Order of Gratitude of the Republic of Poland (it was handed to her by current president Lech Kaczynski).

Prepared by: Prof. Edward Olszewski (UMCS)

Prepared on the basis of:

Translated by Lukasz Sewera,
Educational & Communication Consulting, Inc.