Post Eagle Newspaper


Apr 17, 2024

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“The Professor”
Marie Sklodowska-Curie

“Marya Sklodowska.”
“Tell us about Stanislas Augustus.”

“Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski was elected King of Poland in 1764. He was intelligent and very cultivated, the friend of artists and writers. He understood the defects that were weakening the kingdom and tried to remedy the disorders of the State. Unfortunately, he was a man without courage.”

The schoolgirl who stood up in her place in the third row of a private schoolroom looked much the same as her classmates as she recited her lesson. However, this ten year old student, known to her friends as Marya, was to achieve during her life successes that have changed the world. For that reason, Our Polonia has chosen Marie Sklodowska-Curie as one of the great Polish women.

She was the youngest of five children of Wladyslaw and Bronislawa, born in a modest house in the old quarter of Warsaw on November 7, 1867. Her parents were Roman Catholics of pure Polish stock and in a class noted for its intellectual interests rather than large landholdings. Her father was really an impoverished and patriotic professor of physics in a Poland still in the iron clutch of Russia.

During her childhood days, Poland was a sad, depressed and partitioned country — schools and institutions were Russified. It was forbidden to speak the Polish language or to possess Polish books — everything that could keep the national spirit alive became a crime. But, young Marya was taught the history and language of her country in the secret places of her home. She was gifted from the start for, at seventeen, she knew, read and spoke Polish, Russian, German, Italian, French, and English with perfect precision.

Marya’s mother had died early in life leaving the five children in the Sklodowski household (Zosia, Bronia, Hela and Josef) under the care of their incapable professor-father. Zosia had taken over the responsibility but had died at an early age of typhus. As time passed, Josef became a doctor, Hela a singer, and Bronia and Marya, very close sisters, decided that they wanted to go to Paris; Bronia to study to be a doctor and Marya to learn about the test tubes and all the complicated things that went on in her father’s laboratory.

Since lack of money became the problem, Bronia went to Paris first to study while Marya went to teach as a governess in a rich family in Warsaw.

After seven years of sterile toil and endeavor, on one cold day in the cold Polish winter, Marya, at the age of twenty-four, left Germany in a wooden box car with food and clothing for the four-day journey.

After a year at her sister’s home, Marya moved to her own stone garret home working practically in exile for years, often starving and on the verge of collapse but with an indomitable will to succeed.

Through long hours of study and longer hours of teaching, honors and scholarships began to fall on her. Then, at last, she met Pierre Curie, a young bearded professor who worked with her in the laboratory. She married him and went on to her first achievements in science, still largely ignored by the world.

It was a radiant and happy marriage and when they could afford a laboratory of their own, Marie Curie’s joy knew no bounds. They worked day and night — in the summer heat and the cold winter laboratory that was kept at below freezing temperatures so as not to develop air impurities. Finally, Marie discovered two elements in pitchblende while going for her doctorate. The first she named ‘Polonium’ in honor of her native country. The second, isolated a year later, provided mankind with a treatment for a deadly disease. They called this magic element — ‘Radium.’

Suddenly, Marie Curie was famous throughout the world, a winner of the Nobel Prize and a pride to her native Poland. But she did not want fame. She rejected money, comfort and the advantages that come with fame to give devotion, health, advice and wisdom to her pupils, to the future scientists who came seeking her aid and to her work.

Again, very suddenly, her career was cut by grief when her husband, at the height of his career, died in a street accident. She carried on their work alone, taking over her husband’s chair at the Sorbonne and becoming the first female professor in history. Simultaneously, she built up an Institute of Radium in Paris to the memory of her husband and continued her research.

As time passed by, however, her own body was paying for the priceless gift which she had given to the world as she slowly succumbed to the influence of long accumulated radiation and an unknown anemia.

She continued working arduously at her task until the doctors recommended that she be sent to the Sanatorium of Sancellemoz in northern France. It was here on July 4, 1934, that Marie Curie took her place in the world of the deceased.

To her death it was science and mankind she cared for, not fame. Aside from the fact that the Curies received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and Marie Sklodowska-Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, it was Albert Einstein whose words will be most remembered….. “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”