By Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
Unless they happen to be stained white lab coats, or retired space suits, garments aren't that common in science museums, so the presence of a simple floor-length black dress prominently displayed on a mannequin instantly told me that this small museum located in Warsaw, Poland, was a bit different. It was dedicated to Maria Sklodowska (1867-1934), better known as Marie Curie, who was born and educated in Warsaw, and houses memorabilia and scientific instruments that once belonged to her (the museum is now located just across the street from her former house-photos one and two show her house with the elements radium and polonium painted outside; second photograph of her outside museum).
The recipient of not one, but two Nobel Prizes, and the only person to win them in two scientific categories, first in physics and then in chemistry, Maria Sklodowska-Curie is the only woman included in the traditional pantheon of towering figures in the history of science that includes Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Pasteur and Einstein. An iconic figure, the mere mention of her name, or the appearance of her visage, conjures up images of stellar qualities associated with great scientists-patience, persistence, single-mindedness, curiosity, and a fondness for exactitude. So disciplined in her work habits that she did not attend the first of two Nobel ceremonies in her honor (it would have interfered with her experiments) she wasted little time in frivolities like fancy attire; she famously wore that simple black dress for nearly every day of her life — that is why it was an essential exhibition item in the museum dedicated to her.
Like other girls and women of her generation in Poland (then under Russian domination), Maria Sklodowska faced enormous obstacles in pursuit of an education. She was youngest of five, born to a family of educators, and though her family supported her early passion for science, she was nonetheless barred from enrollment at the University of Warsaw which was not open to women at the time. Instead, she relied on her father who taught her introductory science, and then used an underground educational infrastructure known as "the floating university" that supported young women seeking instruction. Not one for traditions when they restricted her mobility, young Maria fell in with a revolutionary crowd, eventually necessitating her departure from Warsaw to Cracow, then under Austrian rule. With the aid of her sister Bronya (she and Maria famously took turns funding each other) she eventually left for Paris, and the Sorbonne in 1891 in her pursuit of natural science. Times were tough, and Maria famously suffered, accustoming herself to austerity and eating little to save costs; but it was there that she met and married Pierre Curie who was Professor in the School of Physics. She subsequently changed her name to Marie, and took his surname giving her the mellifluous name that eventually became a household word. Their relationship was harmonious and unusually productive. While following the discoveries of Wilhelm Roentgen, and Henri Becquerel, both of whom laid the groundwork for understanding radioactivity, they discovered the elements radium and polonium (the latter named after Marie's place of origin), and in the process confirmed the utility of Mendeleev's periodic table of elements, as well as assisting in the new atomic theory that was then emerging.
Despite her success in science, personal tragedy continued to follow her, culminating with the sudden death of Pierre who was killed by a horse-drawn cart in 1906. Though devastated by the sudden loss of her collaborator and soulmate, she continued her scientific work, and became the first female professor at the Sorbonne when she took over Pierre's professorship in the School of Physics. In 1911, she was awarded the second Nobel Prize, but it was bittersweet and met with peculiar controversy; not only had she lost Pierre, whose contributions she acknowledged poignantly in accepting the prize, but she also fell under public scrutiny and ridicule when the press broke the story of her subsequent love affair with Pierre's former student, Paul Langevin. So unpardonable was the sin of having an affair for a widow at the time, that interventions with the Nobel Committee nearly blocked the efforts to recognize her for what had been truly groundbreaking work. She persisted, nonetheless, eventually making it into the front ranks of the new physics that was emerging, and became an active member of the first Solvay Conference in Belgium along with prominent physicists like Albert Einstein starting in 1911. A famous photograph of the male luminaries surrounding her, remains as proof of her prominence as well as her ability to overcome obstacles and challenges.
Beyond understanding the phenomenon of radioactivity, Marie Curie's work had immediate value in medical practice. It made possible the immediate imaging of the body by the use of X-rays, a technique we now take for granted. Revolutionary in its time, the imaging of the body through X-rays, and the tool's ability to detect fractures, or foreign objects such as bullets and shrapnel, made it indispensable and life-saving in the context of the Great War of 1914. Marie Curie herself, designed and drove small vehicles called "Little Curies" to the battlefront where they were used to rapidly diagnose the extent of injuries incurred in war; she also helped train no less than 150 women in these new X-ray technologies.
Marie continued her scientific work, and increasingly played an active and visible role in promoting radiation for medical therapies, visiting the United States twice, and playing leading roles in the promotion of science, but eventually succumbed to aplastic anemia, an illness that likely resulted from prolonged exposure to radioactive elements. Belatedly, some 61 years after her death, and only after a vigorous campaign by women's rights advocates, she was enshrined with Pierre in the Pantheon of Paris, the burial site of the "great men" of honor in France. The ceremony was accompanied by the sound of violins and featured speeches by Presidents Francois Mitterand of France, and Lech Walesa of Poland. She was the only woman so honored in the entire history of France.
Her legacy continues, largely through her scientific contributions but also through her two daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, who, with her husband Frédéric also received a Nobel Prize in 1935 and her daughter Ève Curie, who wrote a popular biography of her mother titled Madame Curie. Famous and inspirational for surmounting the many challenges she faced, Marie Curie has drawn the attention of not just historians of science, but also film directors and dramatists, who have produced feature films and plays, and writers and journalists, some of whom have produced abundant books and articles aimed at young girls and women.
I happened to be one of them, and was introduced to her life and work by my father, a former teacher of science and a physicist himself, by the popular science magazines and books that featured her, and especially by Greer Garson's heroic portrayal of her in the 1943 Hollywood film titled Madame Curie. Maria Sklodowska-Curie is likely one of the reasons that I became a historian of science, but definitely the reason that I made a bee-line to that dress when I visited the museum devoted to her in Warsaw. I could not help but pose next to it, in celebration of all that Maria Sklodowska-Curie has come come represent.
– Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
Professor, History of Science
Department of Biology and History, University of Florida, and
Kosciuszko Foundation Visiting Professor 2017
Kolegium Artes Liberales
University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland