Life and Work
MARIE CURIE was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the youngest of five children. Her father was a schoolteacher, specializing in physics and math. Her mother was headmistress of the best private girls' school in Warsaw, and the family lived in the apartment behind the school on Freta Street.
These were difficult times in Poland, which was under Russian rule. Following the widespread but unsuccessful uprising of 1863, over 100,000 Poles had left the country. Many had gone into exile in such places as Paris and North America, while others had been forcibly shipped to Siberia. After this, Russian rule had become increasingly oppressive: public hangings were still being conducted at the citadel in central Warsaw at the time of Maria's birth.
Around 1870 Maria's mother contracted tuberculosis. At the same time her father was demoted at school--largely because he was a Pole, but also because he was (correctly) suspected of sharing his nationalist principles with his pupils. Money was now short in the family, but worse was to come. In 1878, when Maria was ten, her mother died of tuberculosis and her father was dismissed. The family was forced to take in boarders simply to make ends meet. Maria slept in the living room--doing her homework after the others had gone to bed, and rising early to lay the table for the boarders' breakfast.
Photos of the period show Maria as a plain intense girl. She had the chubby cheeks of her mother, restrained fluffy curls, and thick, slightly pursed lips. But her appearance was almost the only ordinary thing about her. At school, where she was forced to study in a foreign language (Russian), she demonstrated exceptional ability. She graduated a year early, at fifteen, carrying off the gold medal. And that was it. There was no further education for girls in Poland.
Maria was looking a little wan after all her exertions, so she was sent to stay with her uncles. They were remnant members of the landed gentry, with small estates way out in the middle of nowhere close to the Ukrainian border. Here Maria found herself in "oases of civilization in a land of rustics." For the first time in her life (and the last) she lived a happy, utterly carefree life. Aunt Maria was a liberated woman, and expected her daughters to be strong and independent. Young Maria and her cousins visited the neighboring houses of the surprisingly cultured local gentry. Here they played music and read French and Polish literature to one another--a heady brew containing the likes of Chopin and Victor Hugo, as well as the great Polish Romantic poet Mickiewicz and Slowacki, the Polish Byron (both of whom had recently died in exile). On holidays Maria and her cousins would attend country gatherings in local costume, often dancing long into the early hours. This continued for almost a year.
When Maria finally returned to Warsaw, she found that her father had lost what little money he had through unsound investments. The family was living in near poverty and Maria took work as a teacher, contributing her wages to the depleted family coffers. But she also made contact with the illegal Polish "free university," which was a "wandering" institution (i.e., it moved from place to place to evade detection by the Russian authorities). As was the practice at the free university, she gave as well as received education. In return for books to read, and occasional lectures, she read to women workers, instilling in them their Polish heritage. At the free university, socialism, science, and skepticism were the order of the day, and Maria soon lost any remnant of religious belief. She began reading widely, in a variety of languages: Karl Marx in German, Dostoevsky in Russian, and poetry in French, German, Russian, and Polish. She even tried writing her own poetry, and worked for the underground magazine Prawda (meaning "truth"; not to be confused with the later Russian version, which peddled the opposite).
Fortunately Prawda was devoted to the new religion of science, and Maria soon saw the light. The cryptic algebra and banal formulas of poetry gradually gave way to the soaring poetry of pure mathematics and the romanticism of scientific discovery. Maria had found her subject. But what was she going to do about it? Where could she study it to some purpose?
Maria entered into a pact with her older sister Bronia, who wanted to study medicine. She would work in Poland to finance Bronia's studies in Paris, and then in return Bronia would help her to study science in Paris.
Excerpted from Curie and Radioactivity by Paul Strathern. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.