It is not often I read a book and get inspired, or brought to tears, or both. But the little paperback I bought at the Friends of the Library, titled Madame Curie by Eve Curie was a hidden gem in my $5 bag of bargain books. For those of you in suspense, Madame Curie’s real name at birth was Maria Sklodovska. She was born to a poor family in Poland, and reached the heights of the scientific world in many ways throughout her lifetime. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was only ten.
Born to relatively poor Polish parents in the middle of the Russian occupation, she was able to persevere through many arduous and painful times. She became the FIRST woman to win the Nobel Prize, and the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Her family won a total of FIVE Nobel Prizes!!! She also became the first female professor at the University of Paris (Sorbonne).
Madame Curie was born in Warsaw, then part of the ugly Russian Empire, forced to learn Russian, but studied at Warsaw’s secret Flying University, where she became fluent in Polish. Not until the age of 24, was she able to follow her older sister, Bronya to Paris to study physics and mathematics. Prior to this, she made a deal with her sister to work as a governess for almost five years to support her sister’s medical studies in Paris. She later joined her sister in Paris and began her own studies.
In 1891, she was able to enroll at the Sorbonne, despite her poverty. She suffered from poor health and extreme fatigue due to long hours, cold weather, and poor nutrition. Despite this, she completed her Master’s degree in two years, then another Master’s in Mathematics the following year. Around this time, she met and married Pierre Curie, the love of her life, and a fellow physicist. While earning her Doctorate, she completed the discovery of both polonium and radium in a shack of a laboratory.
She was rewarded in 1903, becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (Physics), along with her husband, Dr. Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel. They used their prize money to continue their research ultimately building better research facilities. In 1911, she won her second Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium.
During this period of time, she and Pierre had two daughters, Irene and Eve. They were avid cyclists, who often vacationed on their bicycles throughout the French countryside. Pierre was accidently killed in a horse and wagon accident in 1906. Marie Curie was soon to become the first female professor at the University of Paris, and head of its research laboratory. During the war, she tirelessly brought portable x-ray machines into the battlefield and mobile hospitals.
Her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie followed her career path and became a physicist, along with her husband. Frederic Joliot. She won her own Nobel, in chemistry in 1935. Her older brother and a sister became physicians.
Madame Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia, contracted from her prolonged exposure to radiation. She died in a sanitorium in southern France, surrounded by the most respected physicians of the time. Her many sacrifices over the years caught up to her, both in her physical and mental health. She loved the warm weather in southern France and love gardening as much as her research. She was a simple lady with grand ideas.
Though she received many honors throughout her lifetime, she remained humble, avoiding fame and fortune along the way. She stayed true to her family, and her science. The one gram of radium she isolated was worth well over one million dollars at the time of its discovery and research possibilities. She felt the radium should be available to science for research and treatment of cancer.
Do you see why I was so moved by reading this little paperback? I intend to visit the Marie Curie Museum in Warsaw. It is devoted to the life and work of the two time Polish Nobel laureate. Can you see the glow of her brilliance?