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From the Vistula to the Seine

November 7, 2011

Google tells me today is Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s 144th birthday.

And the year 2011 has been designated as the Year of Marie Curie by France and the Year of Maria Sklodowska-Curie by Poland. It marks one hundred years from the time the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences bestowed on her the Nobel Prize for the second time, and this time singly, for Chemistry. Her 1903 Nobel in Physics was shared with husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel.
The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sanghatan is celebrating the International Year of Chemistry, 2011, with quizzes on the life and work of Madame Curie.

The authors of the resolution in the Polish Parliament emphasised that Skłodowska-Curie came from a family that cultivated patriotic traditions. “She was versatile and talented: she knew five languages, was interested in sociology, psychology and science. At the end of the 1880’s she organized activities for children in rural areas, in which she taught Polish language, history, algebra, embodying the ideals of positivism. For this illegal activity she could face exile.”

Poland was, sadly, the playground of big bad boys Austria, Russia and Prussia/Germany, and it was illegal to teach Polish and their culture!

I first read about Marie Curie as a child in a biography in Malayalam, and somehow, the image that etched in my mind was of a woman stirring a bubbling cauldron, trying to extract Radium or Polonium. Mortar and pestle and cauldrons.

Her parents were school teachers. Her family had lost its wealth and possessions because of their patriotism, and they had to struggle.

She financed her sister Bronislaw’s medical education in Paris by working as a governess with the rich, with an agreement that Bronislaw would finance her education in Paris after she qualified. Some of the time she spent teaching at the “Flying”, or “Floating” University that represented Polish Positivism, which was illegal; as brought out in the resolution of the Polish Parliament.

In the meantime, she had also fallen in love with Kazimierz Zorawski, a well-off relative of her father’s, but his family forbade a marriage with the penniless Sklodowska. Kazimierz though was true in his love, and in his evening years, is reputed to have moped in front of her statue at the Warsaw Radium Institute.

Finally she travelled to Paris after Bronislaw became a doctor, but soon struck out on her own in a parlous existence in a non-descript garret. She studied during the day and tutored in the evenings, to pay for her upkeep and tuition fees. In time, she earned a degree each in Physics and Mathematics from the Sorbonne.

After her Sorbonne degrees, she travelled back to Poland and tried for a position at the University of Krakow. It was denied her on the grounds that she was a woman.

She shrugged off Krakow and came back to Paris to work. She forced herself to forget Kazimierz and married Pierre Curie. The marriage lasted but 11 years. Pierre died in a traffic accident in 1906, falling under the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage.

After their Nobel in 1903, the Sorbonne had given Pierre his own independent laboratory and she became Director of Research. She inherited the chair on Pierre’s death.

She created institutions: Radium Institute  in Paris, Warsaw Radium Institute in Warsaw.

Take a look:

  • She was denied a position at Krakow University because she was a woman.
  • She could not get elected to the French Academy of Sciences, reputedly because she was a woman. Though the Swedish Academy had already honoured her two times with the Nobel.
  • She was the first woman to be awarded a Doctorate in France.
  • She is the first woman to have received a Nobel Prize.
  • She is the only woman, and one of just two persons to have received a Nobel each in two different fields, the other being Linus Pauling.
  • She must be one of the first persons to be afflicted with radiation sickness.

A remarkable life…

Tailpiece: In these days of TRIPS, IPRs, DRM and rampant biopiracy by first-world corporations (and universities, yes), it must seem strange that she did not patent the radium isolation process, so that it would be freely available to other researchers – to benefit society.
The other example I can think of is Jonas Salk, who refused to patent his polio vaccine, and famously asked, “Can you patent the sun?”

I am not aware that their acts (deliberate “sins” of omission) discouraged innovation or “new art” in scientific research or development of vaccines – the raison d’etre for patents.

Interestingly, the US patent establishment believes that “everything under the sun” can be patented.


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One Comment
  1. Aaro Oruvan permalink

    I likes!!! Esp the tailpiece.

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