Historic Homemaker: Marie Curie

Historic Homemaker: Marie Curie

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” -Marie Curie


The above quotation is one of my very favorites, for it inspires and uplifts me when I’m feeling especially low because I know it is coming from a woman who knew what it was to really suffer and yet also surpass her personal sufferings to achieve greatness.


Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie, or Madame Marie Curie as she became known, was born in Russian owned Warsaw, Poland in the year 1867. Her father was a brilliant professor of math and science.  However, the Skłodowska family was impoverished because the Russians only wanted Russian teachers in the schools in Poland.  Thus, her father struggled to provide for his family which included several children.


Marie was a very intelligent child who resented the Russian run schools she attended.  She had such a yearning for knowledge though that she learned all she could at the feet of her father from the time she was very young.


Marie’s mother died of tuberculosis when Marie was a child.  Perhaps, because of this, Marie was emotionally distant the rest of her life even when she herself was a mother.


Marie and one of her sisters both had aspirations of a university education but they knew that they were financially unable to attain this.  Thus, they decided to help each the other out.  Marie worked to put her sister through school and then her sister worked to put Marie through school.  Eventually Marie graduated with a degree in Physics and Chemistry.


Marie married the French Physicist, Pierre Curie (1859–1906) in 1895 and from this point forth, Marie’s story becomes one of the most extraordinary stories in modern scientific history.


The Curies worked in extremely poor conditions trying to isolate radium.  Pierre wanted to give up several times but it was Marie who doggedly pushed the couple on-wards until they were finally successful in identifying and isolating the element radium.  This discovery changed the world and vastly improved the treatment of cancer.


However, this extensive exposure to radium eventually killed both Marie and her husband Pierre.  Though Marie lived much longer than Pierre, her health was always on the decline.  In fact, the Curie clothing and papers are still to this day radioactive!


Marie was taught by her father from a young age to be a strong Polish patriot just as he was and this is evident in her naming of another new element which she discovered.  She named that element Polium after her beloved Poland.


Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and she won it twice!  First in 1903 in Physics with Pierre and then again in 1911 for Chemistry by herself.   Madame Curie was also the first woman professor at the University of Paris.


Marie and her husband had two daughters: Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) and Ève Curie (1904–2007).  Marie Curie was the first and only woman to receive the Nobel Prize until her daughter Irène did so Chemistry in 1935.  This legacy of scientific brilliance continues on with Irène’s daughter who is also a famous scientist!


Marie Curie was a most fascinating woman.  Not only was she a wife, mother, world renowned scientist, Nobel Prize winner, and professor, but also suffered from lifelong debilitating depression.


I believe that her greatest accomplishment was achieving all of these great intellectual and scientific feats as well as raising two daughters all whilst suffering constant debilitating depression. Marie Curie suffered from a few nervous breakdowns throughout her life and was constantly in frail health.


Madame Curie suffered greatly after her husband died and even blamed herself for his death.  One of the most poignant quotations from Marie about her depression is found in a letter that she wrote to one of her friends after her husband’s death: “I have completely lost the habit of conversations without a set goal.” After Pierre’s death, she began to withdraw from her friends and family even more so than she normally did when she was suffering from severe depression.


Marie’s story is a classic example of a person overcoming all odds to do great things.  She overcame the disadvantage of growing up in an occupied country. She overcame great poverty.  She also overcame being a woman in the field of science in the 19th and early 20th century when women were not valued for their scientific minds.  Most impressive of all, she struggled with relentless depression as she undertook such incredible endeavors.


Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” -Marie Curie


Madame Marie Curie died in 1934.



Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith

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I work in a library which suits me just fine, for I adore books and reading. I cherish my nieces and nephews. I admire beautiful clothing from bygone eras. I find comfort in a proper cup of tea. I delight in snowflakes, stardust and pressed flowers. In this beautiful fragmented world, I hold fast to hope.

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