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."
The marriage of Marie and Pierre was a partnership of love, work and vocation. Long years of research, study and toil were carried out with no real laboratory. They worked on their most important research in a drafty, sodden shed. Madame Curie herself boiled down tons of pitchblende, handling the material by hand, to isolate a radioactive material. Knowing that they were on the brink of discovering a remarkable new element, Pierre told his wife: "I should like it to have a very beautiful color." Imagine their wonder when they first saw the spontaneously luminous element in their tiny glass receivers: they had discovered radium.
She wrote at one time about her work in the laboratory: "In spite of the difficulties of our working conditions, we felt very happy. In our poor shed there reigned a great tranquillity... that atmosphere of peace and meditation which is the true atmosphere of a laboratory." Years later, when looking back on her years of hard work, Madame Curie was to say that they were her happiest-to do what one was born to do, to learn about the great mysteries of nature. Yet all those years she suffered from a terrible, unshakable fatigue that was to plague her most of her life-brought on by her dedication to work and the neglect of her personal needs and health.
Marie Curie worked with an attitude of service and renouncement to personal gain. The discovery of radium led to important medical applications: it soon was found to be useful as radiation treatment for cancerous cells. Business-minded technicians wanted to market radium, and it could have meant a fortune for the Curies. It was, after all, their discovery. Should they sell their discovery? Marie said: "It is impossible. It would be contrary to the scientific spirit. Physicists always publish their researches openly. If our discovery has a commercial future, that is an accident. Radium is going to be used in treating disease.... It seems to me impossible to profit by that." They made their research public, to the benefit of countless individuals.
Neither Marie nor her husband knew how to be famous. Their new discovery and the Nobel Prize in Physics which followed in 1903, brought them much publicity which they regretted. The newspaper reporters, photographers and writers disturbed the peace and rhythm of their work and research. They received money-70,000 gold francs-but they never thought of spending it on themselves. The money became presents for the family, subscriptions to scientific societies, gifts to Polish students, and one gift of special tenderness. Remembering a poor Frenchwoman who had taught her French in Warsaw, whose dream it was to see her native land again, Madame Curie invited her to France, paid for her journey, and received her in her home. The good lady was to speak of this unexpected joy with tears.
Pierre and Marie Curie's thought was always directed to service-to be available, to help others, to do research to further understanding of the sciences.
Then a terrible thing happened-while crossing the street, most likely preoccupied with a scientific question, Pierre Curie was run over by a horse and carriage. The tragic accident caused Pierre's death, and the loss was nearly unbearable for Marie. To lose her husband, companion and colleague so suddenly and unpredictably filled her with a terrible grief. Until the end of her days, she could not speak of him without a tremor in her voice. But she remembered his words, spoken shortly before his death: "If one of us should die, the other must live for science, even if it means going on like a body without a soul."
Marie Curie was awarded Pierre's position at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman ever to teach there. She continued their work bravely, with great dignity, in spite of a haunting loneliness.
Continued research in radium led Madame Curie to be awarded once again the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911. No one else, man or woman, had ever been worthy of receiving this honor twice.
The Institute of Radium opened in 1914. At long last Marie Curie had a real laboratory. But 1914 was the year the Great War broke out.
Instead of concerning herself with the personal suffering the war was to bring to her and her two young daughters, Madame Curie immediately set up and directed services with X-ray equipment. It was a new technology, and she understood how much it could help in the treatment of the wounded. She personally made rounds of all university laboratories and collected usable X-ray equipment. She set up radiological rooms and even radiological cars to go to the front, which she drove herself. The wounded who were examined in her radiological labs throughout the duration of the war totaled more than one million. She attended the wounded herself. Her daughter, Eve, was to say of her, "She had a pleasing tone of voice, light hands, a great deal of patience, and an immense religious respect for human life."
War had an unexpected effect on her. In spite of the terrible suffering she witnessed, she learned how important it is to remain cheerful, realizing that good humor is the hallmark of genuine courage.
After the war, Poland was a free country again. Madame Curie put all her money from the Nobel Prize into war loans. Despite her fame and reputation, she had only her modest salary as a professor to support herself and her family.
As she grew older, Marie Curie became ever more peaceful, serene and wise. Her counsel and direction were sought by students and researchers from around the world. When visiting the United States at the age of 54, she received the warmest of welcomes, as people recognized in her "the scorn for gain, devotion to an intellectual passion, and the desire to serve."
Marie's daughter Eve rendered tribute to her mother's virtues when she said (referring to herself and her sister): "They had received one gift from their mother that they will never be able to appreciate enough: the incomparable benefit of living near an exceptional being-exceptional not only in her genius but in her humanity, her innate refusal of all vulgarity and pettiness. Marie Curie avoided even that most forgivable vanity: she never let herself be cited as an example." And Einstein was to add: "Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted."
Madame Curie's last years of hard work were plagued by an increasing blindness, but she made sure the press never heard about it. Four difficult operations, thick glasses, and great determination allowed her to continue her research, write, drive and work.
A humble, simple soul, devoted to service and the welfare of her fellow human beings, Marie Curie died quietly in her sleep on July 4, 1934. Her sacrifice was complete. Her bone marrow revealed the cause of her death: exposure to radium.
All quotations from Eve Curie, Madame Curie.
References and Recommended Reading
Curie, Eve. Madame Curie. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1938.
Reid, Robert. Marie Curie. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1993.
Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation