A Decision to Study Science
When Marie Sklodowska graduated from public school at the age of 15, she was awarded a gold medal as the Valedictorian of her class. Nevertheless, the five years of intense study had taken their toll. She must have been under enormous pressure to do as well as her older siblings, Bronia and Jozef. It's not usual for a person to experience a mild depression or let down after they have achieved some long-sought after goal. In any case, Marie was exhausted, and so her father decided that Marie and her other sister Helena would spend a year with her wealthy uncle and his wife at their country estate. There Marie relaxed with some horse-back riding, fishing, swinging "hard and high," and rowing on a lake. In the winter, they went on several "kuligs" or sleigh rides through the Polish countryside and danced sometimes all night at many parties. Famous polish artists and intellectuals would often drop by at the manor house for a visit. The experience gave Marie a view of life at the top, and it was a needed escape from all the pressure of exams, grades, and school.
Marie was pulled in several different directions as she tried to make important decisions about her future. She often felt guilty for leaving her father alone at home in Warsaw, but she and Bronia had come up with a plan that would take them both to Paris. First, Marie would work as a governess earning enough money to support Bronia in Paris where she would attend medical school. Once Bronia had graduated, she would in turn support Marie while she studied science at the Sorbonne. The question science historians ask is why Marie chose to study physics and chemistry rather than medicine? The answer may be: "the Flying University."
Organized in 1882 by Jadwiga Szczasinska-Dawidowa, the Flying University was a secret academy for young women wanting to take college-level courses but unable to travel abroad for study. Initially about 200 students were involved, but that number grew to 1000 in a few years. Marie and her family were involved from the very beginning. The classes were held in private residences around the city. They were taught by professional historians, philosophers, and scientists. Marie attended science classes at the Museum of Industry and Agriculture, and on Saturdays and Sundays, she was allowed to perform lab experiments in physics and chemistry on her own. The director of the museum was her cousin Jozef Boguski, and he may have encouraged her at this point in her career. Marie enjoyed the lab work even though the results were not always what she expected.
Falling in Love for the First Time
The years Marie spent working as a governess were frustrating. Sometimes she felt quite worthless as if her life was going nowhere. The situation became more difficult when Marie fell in love with the son of one her employers, Kazimierz Zorawski. They talked seriously of marriage, but ultimately his parents rejected her because of her family's impoverished financial situation. Marie had to stay on another year in this position. It was awkward to say the least. The hope of marriage to Kazimierz lingered on and then collapsed when Marie went back to Warsaw. The experience of rejection toughened Marie and strengthened her resolve to keep studying. Marie later wrote, "during those years of isolated work, trying little by little to find my real preferences, I finally turned towards mathematics and physics. . .
"First principle: never let one's self be beaten
down by persons or by events." - Marie Curie, 1888
Prior to this time, Marie and her sisters had had infatuations with boys boarding in their home. One young man, in particular, by the name of Withold caused Marie and Helena to become rivals. Withold stayed with the Sklodowskis for six years, practically becoming a member of the family. After Kazimierz, Marie had another romantic interest in Warsaw during her years at the Sorbonne. His name was Lamotte, but little is known about their relationship. Marie's main loyalty, however, was to her father who was quite alone and retired as a teacher. She imagined herself living with him and supporting herself as a teacher. That is, until she met Pierre Curie, a man as dedicated as she was and someone who shared her "positivist" vision of science improving the world.
Her Student Life in Paris
In 1891, Marie Sklodowska, aged 24, arrived in Paris after a two day journey on a train from Poland. She had come a long way geographically and intellectually. For six years she had been studying physics and mathematics on her own. After passing a qualifying entry test to the School of Sciences, she enrolled in a degree program equivalent to a Masters of Physics in the United States. Marie was one of 23 young women out of 1,825 students in the School of Science at the Sorbonne. Her plan was to complete the physics degree and then get a teaching credential so that she could teach science.
The Sorbonne University
Initially, Marie lived with her sister Bronia in a working class neighborhood one hour's bus ride from the University. Bronia had recently gotten married to another physician and Polish activist, Kazimierz Dulski who was anything but dull. Their apartment was the center for the Polish socialists there in Paris. Political friends of Kazimierz were always dropping by and available for a discussion about politics. Marie felt right at home in this atmosphere at least for awhile. Kazimierz and Bronia operated their medical practice from their apartment. In the afternoons, they saw patients and in the evenings, Kazimierz ran a free clinic for the working poor in the neighborhood. After a time, Marie realized she could not study in their busy apartment.
Drawing by a Student
At this point in her career, she adopted what might seem like a strange lifestyle, but it is one that is perfectly suited to physics majors. Her goal was total immersion in physics. To achieve this, she moved into a sixth floor apartment in the Latin Quarter on the left bank of Paris. In Parisian society at that time, people who occupied the cheaper top floor apartments were not considered quite respectable. This did not bother Marie. Being a foreign student who barely spoke French, she felt somehow liberated and more daring than she would have at home in Warsaw. She wasn't concerned about the spartan furnishings, or the lack of heat in the winter, or the simple meals made on her cheap stove. Like physics graduate students down through the ages, she would eat, sleep, and breathe physics for the next two years. And she was happy.
"All that I saw and learned that was new delighted me. It was like
a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was
at last permitted to know at all liberty." - Marie Curie
On most days, Marie would walk from her apartment to class unchaparoned. This was another practice that was questionable for a young lady in 1891. Unchaparoned women were something new and "American." The student quarter was populated by sex-workers who lived openly with male students. Marie must have braved cat calls and wolf whistles from obnoxious men and women on the streets near the University. More important to Marie, however, was the fact that her professors were part of a very distinguished science faculty. The University had recently invested a lot money in modernizing the laboratory rooms, and they also built a giant, new amphitheatre for demonstrations and public lectures. Marie's timing was impeccable. She was in the right place at the right time in the right subject. A revolution was about to take place in physics, and she would be on the cutting edge.
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Pursued by Pierre / Collaborators on Radioactivity / The Dangerous Beauty of Radium