As her daughter, Eve, described so well, there was something in the existence of Marie Sklodowska Curie that was even more rare than her work or her life: "the immovable structure of a character; the stubborn effort of an intelligence; the free immolation of a being that could give all and take nothing, could even receive nothing; and above all the quality of a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity." A woman, a scientist, a wife and mother, a war-time volunteer for the wounded, a great teacher, an extraordinary human being, Madame Curie reminds us with her life that now and then, great souls spend time with us here on earth and leave behind changes that benefit all human beings.
Born in November of 1867 in Poland, a country that knew repression under the foreign government of Russia, Marja Sklodowska was the youngest daughter of two professors. Her father was not submissive enough to the Russian director at the boys' school where he taught, and he lost his position and his property. The family worked hard to support themselves in their poverty. The mother, sick with tuberculosis since Marja's birth, died when the children were still very young. The oldest sister died from typhus, having been infected by one of the boarders the family had been forced to take in to help meet expenses. Early in life, Marja knew the sorrow of illness, death, repression and harsh material circumstances.
Sorrow awakened fortitude and determination in the young girl. Gifted with a prodigious intellect, she earned gold medals at school and graduated three years early from high school. Thanks to her father, Marja lived in an intellectual atmosphere known to few girls of her time. She studied mathematics and physics, French and Russian. As a teenager, she worried about the future of her older sisters and brother. Would they ever be able to study and pursue the careers they hoped for? At seventeen Marja devised a plan-she would hire herself out as a governess, save her salary, and send it to her sister Bronya for her to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her sister accepted, only on the promise to support Marja's future education when she completed her own work. It was to be eight years before Marie (the name Marja adopted on her arrival in Paris) was to begin attending the Sorbonne at the age of twenty four.
In Paris, Marie's devotion to her studies was so absolute that she often forgot to eat and sleep, studying into the late hours of the night in her bare, unheated attic room. But she had discovered her vocation-when she first held a glass vial in the chemistry laboratory, she knew what her work would be. She completed her studies with the highest scores in her class.
When Marie met Pierre Curie, a scientist whose rare intelligence matched her own, she found in him a companion who shared her ideals and love for science. Because of his sincere devotion to her, he eventually convinced her to marry him. She had, at first, hesitated-she had always planned to return to her native Poland, and it was a great sorrow to her that she would seldom see her beloved father. He told Pierre's father at the wedding: "You will have a daughter worthy of affection in Marie. Since she came into the world she has never caused me pain."