Madame Curie

“Manya,” invited her mother, “go into the garden and play. Your sisters and your brother have been outdoors since daybreak and here you are with your nose still buried in that book.”

With a deep sigh, Manya Sklodowska obediently put down the book and went out to join her sisters and her brother. Soon tiring of playing in the garden, they went into the nearby forest to pick the berries that had just started to ripen. Of course, they ate more than they picked because none of them could resist the delicious sweetness of the fruit.

Although Manya, the youngest of the family, had been christened Marja, she immediately became Manya to her family and friends.

Manya’s childhood was a happy one. The Sklodowska family was poor in material things but they were wealthy with the richness that comes from love of God and their country Poland. Manya’s father had the post of Professor of Physics at the university in Warsaw and encouraged his children to read the books in his library.

Next to the bookshelves was a glass case containing what Professor Sklodowska called his specimens, which he had collected during his physics classes. It was here that Manya spent a great deal of her time. “Some day,” she told herself, “I will learn what each of these is.”

Although Manya was not old enough to attend regular school, her older sisters involved her when they studied. Because of this, Manya was soon able to read and write, even before she entered school.

One privilege she did not have was a place at the big desk where her sisters did their homework. But as soon as she became a student, she, too, was allowed to join them, and these occasions became some of the happiest moments of her life. Manya had the kind of memory that retained everything she read, a gift that lasted throughout her life.

Manya’s teachers found her to be an exceptional student, and her grades were always among the highest in her classes. Nothing seemed too difficult for her, and soon she found herself two years ahead of the rest of the students in her starting class. But often she thought of the glass shelf in her father’s study containing his specimens. She repeatedly told herself that one day they would no longer be a mystery to her.

After graduating from the Russian Lycee (high school), Manya was selected as a gold-medal winner. Although this was not the first time a member of her family had achieved that honor, this was a tremendous event in her life.

“I think I will take a holiday now,” she told her family and friends. “I need to relax.” And off she went to the countryside, far from the bustling city of Warsaw.

How she loved the country! All was peaceful and happy there with picnics, balls, and dances that lasted far into the night. Many handsome young Polish men came from the neighboring villages to join in the festivities.

Too soon the good times came to an end. Manya’s father had invested his money unwisely, and so the Sklodowska sisters had to find a way to earn a living for themselves. In those days there was little opportunity for well-brought up women to earn a livelihood. Manya decided that her way would be to become a teacher. This was the kind of work she loved. She was no longer called Manya but Mademoiselle Marja (Marie) instead, because she had become a young lady with the responsibility of teaching others.

For six years Marja did what she thought would be her life’s work—teaching others. However, all of this changed when, on a visit to her father, she immediately saw the changes that had taken place in her absence. He had been able to add a laboratory to his workroom. Although to many it seemed a strange place for a young lady to spend her time, Marja soon found herself very much at home among the test tubes and beakers. For the first time in her life, Marja knew what she was meant to do. First of all, though, she would have to continue with her studies.

All of her life Marja’s father had told her that there were many ways to solve a problem. Her funds were insufficient for her to spend additional time in school without help. She wrote to her married sister Bronia in Paris to see whether she could repay part of the money Marja had once loaned her to go to medical school. Bronia responded, and with that and what other money Marja managed to get together, she was able to return to school.

In Paris, Marja became completely involved with the study of physics. When she married a young scientist by the name of Pierre Curie, they worked as a team to discover two new elements, polonium and radium, now so important to the medical world.

The rest is history. Manya, Marja, or Marie (as the French people called her), together with her husband Pierre, made some of the most important discoveries in the annals of medicine. Countless lives have benefited because a young girl once told herself that one day she would know all about the minerals in her father’s workshop. Her dedicated research led her to find out things that even her father never dreamed of discovering.

In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie shared the coveted Nobel Prize for Physics with Henri Becquerel. In 1911, five years after the untimely death of Pierre, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch