Monday 17 Oct, 2016

Nobel Journeys: Marie Curie

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

By the age of 31, Marie Curie had already discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. She also helped to give a brand new scientific field its name – radioactivity. In 1903, she was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize for her contributions to physics. In 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize for chemistry – the first person ever to be honored with two. These achievements are all the more remarkable given the fact that, as a woman, Curie wasn’t even allowed to attend Warsaw University. She could only take science classes at the “Flying University,” a clandestine and illegal school that often changed locations to stay a step ahead of the police. Curie decided her best hope of one day becoming a scientist was to study abroad in Paris. And she devised a clever strategy with her sister Bronia to make that happen.

Maria Sklodowska was conducting a chemistry experiment with her sister Bronislawa when their headmistress entered their science class to make an announcement. She did not have good news. The Russians were growing suspicious about why so many young girls were entering and leaving the supposedly empty building they were using as their school. Classes would need to be suspended until a safer location was found.


Maria and Bronia were studying at Warsaw’s clandestine “Flying University.” It offered courses in higher education to young Polish women, taught on a volunteer basis by the city’s greatest scientists and writers. Though illegal, it was the Sklodowska sisters’ only option. They were not allowed to attend Warsaw University unless they agreed to follow a strict Russian curriculum. Still, the situation was less than ideal. The school was constantly changing locations, so the facilities were always makeshift. There were very few books in the library, and even less equipment in the science lab.

Maria was in despair.

She was only 17, yet she had already lost so much – first her sister Zosia to typhus, then her mother to tuberculosis. Caring for them had brought her so close to a nervous breakdown that her grammar school teacher had strongly recommended she take a year off before starting high school. But Maria had persevered. She had instead enrolled in Warsaw’s toughest girls’ Gymnasium, and graduated first in her class – winning the gold medal for best student. She was one of the Flying University’s most promising science students. She spoke no less than five languages. Yet at this rate, she would never get to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist like her father.

The Sklodowska sisters discussed what to do on their walk home. They knew the Sorbonne in Paris accepted women as students. Their academic records were impeccable. They could both speak French well enough to study in it. The problem was money. Though tuition at the Sorbonne was free, Paris was Europe’s most expensive city. There was no way their father could afford to send them both abroad to live. He was barely making ends meet by running a grammar school for boys out of their family home.

They struck upon a clever plan: they would take turns! Bronia would study first at the Sorbonne – since she was the elder sister – and Maria would work as a governess in Poland to pay for Bronia’s living expenses. As soon as Bronia graduated, Maria would travel to Paris to study, and Bronia would then support her financially.

That is exactly what they did.

Maria became the governess of the Zorawski family, distant relatives of her father. During the day she tutored the Zorawski children, and at night she taught herself by reading books and exchanging math puzzles with her father via letter. Maria’s plan nearly derailed when she fell in love with the Zorawskis’ son, Kazimierz. Kaz asked her to marry him. But his parents wouldn’t allow him to wed an employee. Maria ended up leaving the Zorawskis’ home more determined than ever to pursue her career.

Meanwhile, Bronia graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in medicine. She married a fellow Polish doctor, Kazimierz Dluski – another Kaz! – and the newlyweds settled in Paris to start a medical practice together. Bronia wrote to Maria, as promised, and invited her to join them in France as soon as she could. It would take Maria another year and a half of working as a governess, though, to save up the necessary funds.

In late 1891, Maria finally made the three-day journey by train to Paris. She couldn’t afford a seat in a heated compartment, so she brought her own stool, wrapped herself in a blanket, and ate simple picnic meals of cold food. She didn’t care. Finally, she would get her chance at a proper university education. She first lived with Bronia and Kaz, just long enough to enroll in the Science Department of the Sorbonne and get her bearings. She also changed her name to Marie to fit in, and focused on becoming completely fluent in French.

After six months, Marie decided to rent an unheated sixth-floor garret on the Left Bank, so that she could be closer to the school. She wanted to spend more time studying and less time commuting. It didn’t matter that she had no kitchen and was unable to cook. She didn’t have the money for more than bread, eggs, cheese, and chocolate anyway. In fact, she once fainted from hunger while studying in the library. But she would later say, “I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”

All her hard work eventually paid off. Three years later, she graduated from the Sorbonne’s Science Department first in her class – one of only two women even to finish. She won a coveted Mathematics scholarship to continue studying for another year, and graduated second in her class at the end of it.

It was time to return to Warsaw, and resume her life as Maria.

She was desperate to stay in Paris. She wanted to continue studying toward a PhD in Science. Unfortunately, she was out of funds and needed to work. One of her professors, Gabriel Lippmann, found her a job in a laboratory of the Sorbonne, studying magnetism. Unfortunately, the lab was too ill-equipped for Marie to make accurate measurements. She refused to be thwarted by this setback – she was so close to reaching her goal! Friends from Poland introduced her to a brilliant young French scientist named Pierre Curie who, along with his older brother Jacques, had invented just the tool she needed – the electrometer.

Pierre would later say he knew instantly upon meeting Marie that he had just encountered a genius. Marie was no less impressed with Pierre. He saw her as a scientist, an intellectual equal. Pierre loaned her his electrometer and helped her find better laboratory space. They spent many long hours discussing science over tea in her garret.

Eventually Pierre admitted he had also fallen in love with Marie, and proposed marriage. Confused, Marie returned to Warsaw. After her affair with Kaz, she trusted in the scientific method far more than her own heart. But Pierre made it clear in letters that he was seeking more than a wife; he wanted Marie to become his partner and collaborator in the lab. He even offered to move to Poland.

Marie finally said yes to Pierre – her future husband, colleague, fellow Nobel Laureate, and friend – and returned to Paris. There, she would pursue a brilliant scientific career with the same persistence as she pursued a university education.

Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom.