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The Time Travel Interviews with Famous Scientists: Madame Curie

About this Daily Classroom Special
The Time Travel Interviews with Famous Scientists is written by Judy Jones, teacher at East Chapel Hill High School (NC) and Teachers Network web mentor.  Judy is also responsible for the popular Critter Corner Daily Classroom Special. E-mail Judy.


Hello everyone, Jurna List here. My grades are finally turned in, next quarter's lessons are somewhat planned and I have found the time to enter my laboratory and set my secret time travel machine for the 19th century. I have landed near the ancient center of Warsaw where Maria Salomea Sklodowska was born on November 7, 1867.


Jurna List: Madame Curie, how exciting to meet you. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by me. Can you begin by telling us a little about what Poland was like when you were born?

Madame Curie: I was born in a turbulent time. Just before I was born, Poland failed in yet another attempt to overthrow the Russian Tsars. As I was growing up, my parents had to work very hard to teach me about Poland because the Tsars were determined that Poland would just become another part of Russia in every way.

JL: What did your parents do?

MC: For a while my mother was a headmistress of a very prestigious school for girls in Warsaw. We lived behind the school until my father (a teacher) got a promotion and the whole family moved to another part of Warsaw.

JL: Did you have brothers and sisters?

MC: I had three older sisters and one older brother. As well as raising five children, serving as headmistress and being a wife to my father, my mother also took care of my father¹s youngest brother who had tuberculosis. She was always having to defend her school against the Russians who were suspicious of any enterprise that might be keeping Polish culture alive. I think my mother found it a very difficult life and was happier when we moved and she could devote her time to her family. Still, she worked so hard. She even made our shoes in order to save money. Both my parents taught me the importance of hard work.

JL: Tell us more about your father.

MC: My father was a man who believed that education (particularly science) and work were the weapons that would serve society best. He did not agree with his brother that military resistance was the answer. In 1868, he was made an assistant director of a gymnasium (school) but five years later, due to his political beliefs, he was demoted by his Russian superior. This was a terrible blow to my father and to our family. But my father continued to teach biology, physics, and mathematics for most of his life and he turned our new family home into a boarding school.

JL: What was your life like as a child?

MC: My father was very organized. Every evening we had to do physical exercises and on Saturday, our father would read to us from forbidden Polish books. He had a beautiful voice and we children loved to hear him read poetry. We also had a big children's room where we played noisy games with blocks. We were very happy until my mother died in 1878 (I was only 10 years old) of tuberculosis. She was often away trying various cures. I remember her with great love. She was the "soul of the house." I cried and cried after she died. I have been plagued with depression and fatigue my whole life perhaps because of losing my mother at such a young age.

JL: It sounds like your childhood was very difficult.

MC: It was very difficult to lose our mother and it happened only two years after my oldest sister died of typhus. She was our mother's pride and joy. She was a wonderful student and she followed my mother everywhere taking care of her while she tried to get well from tuberculosis.


JL: What was school like for you?

MC: I went to first grade at the school where my mother had been headmistress, but then after that I went to a school that was closer to home. Our math and history teacher moved in with us and helped with some of the tasks that our mother would have done. Our school was very good but I had to enroll in the government gymnasium when I was in fourth grade because only these schools could give us the diplomas we needed to get along in the world.

JL: Did you enjoy school?

MC: I loved to learn and I was best in my class at many things. The director of the private school was giving us a wonderful education but she had to tell the Russian authorities that she was teaching what they wanted. Because I was very good at speaking Russian, the director often called on me to recite to the Russians. Our lessons were in Polish, but if the government officials showed up, a bell would be rung and we would have to change to speaking Russian immediately. It was very stressful!

JL: What about the gymnasium? Did you like it?

MC: Not at all! The teaching was very political; there were a few good teachers in math and science but they were slowly replaced. I was very independent and defiant at times. But in 1883, I graduated first in my class and was awarded a gold medal.

JL: What did you do then?

MC: It was difficult. Warsaw University, where my brother went, did not take women. I was only 15 when I graduated, so my father sent me off to the country to take a rest and to socialize - hopefully to meet someone to marry! I traveled all around, I danced, I met people, and I had a wonderful time. It was my one crazy summer!

JL: What did you do when you returned to Warsaw?

MC: I gave lessons and continued reading and writing. And I never gave up the dream of continuing my education. I worked for eight years tutoring and serving as a governess, until I had saved enough money to attend the Sorbonne in Paris.

The Paris Years

JL: What was it like in Paris?

MC: It was very difficult at first! I lacked food and sleep and yet I graduated first in my class in the spring of 1893. One year later, I got a master's degree in mathematics. After that I stayed to do some experiments for an industrial society. When I went to look for adequate laboratory facilities, I found the School of Physics. It was there that I met a very noted professor, Pierre Curie. Many years later, I wrote of that meeting,

    He seemed to me very young, though he was at that time thirty-five years old. I was struck by the open expression of his face and by the slight suggestion of detachment in his whole attitude. His speech, rather slow and deliberate; his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and youthful, inspired confidence.

JL: It sounds like you two found many things in common.

MC: Yes. I had a been involved in a difficult relationship that had ended three year before I met Pierre and he had gone through the death of a young woman that he cared very much about. But when we first met, it was for scientific purposes!

JL: But eventually, you married?

MC: We were married on July 26, 1895 and we worked together side by side in our laboratory during the day and studied together at night.

JL: When were your daughters born?

MC: Irene was born in 1897 and Eve in 1904. But I continued to work. After the birth of Irene, I was working on my doctorate in physics.

Work - Research

JL: What was the subject of your research.

MC: I was very interested in the source of the mysterious rays given off by uranium. A Frenchman, named Henri Becquerel, had first observed these rays and written of them in 1896. My laboratory, merely a glass-walled shed, had a dirt floor and was very drafty and damp.

JL: Physicists in 1999 would be shocked by your conditions!

MC: And yet, within two months, I had discovered two very important things. First, the intensity of the rays depended directly on the amount of uranium in my sample. No matter what I did to the uranium, the intensity of the rays stayed the same. I tried reacting the uranium with other chemicals; I exposed it to light and to heat and cold, and still the rays depended on the amount of uranium. I decided that the rays must be a result of something actually happening to the atoms of uranium; I called this property RADIOACTIVITY.

JL: So, was all of your work done on uranium?

MC: No. Later I did some test on other minerals, such as pitchblende, and I found higher levels of radioactivity. These results made me suspect that a new and even more powerful element must be responsible.

JL: What did you find out?

MC: In 1898, I began to work on this problem. Pierre even stopped his own work to help me. We processed tons of pitchblende in order to get just a tiny bit of radioactive material. We named this new element Polonium to honor my homeland, Poland. Then we found an even more powerful radioactive element that we named Radium. I wrote that,

    one of our pleasures was to enter our workshop at night; then, all around us, we would see the luminous silhouettes of the beakers and capsules that contained our products.
We announced our discovery in December of 1898 but we had to work until 1902 to get enough of it to prove its existence. After that, I was awarded my doctorate degree. I was the first woman in Europe to get a doctorate!!

JL: How did you isolate the radium?

MC: We used electrolysis of a solution of pure radium chloride, using a mercury cathode. The radium ions collected at the mercury cathode. Upon distillation in hydrogen gas, the mercury-radium mix yielded the pure metal.

JL: That must have been very fulfilling for you. Your work at accumulating large quantities of radioactive materials for research was invaluable.

MC: It certainly was fulfilling. And in 1903, one year later, Pierre and I received the Nobel Prize in physics for our discovery. After Eve was born, Pierre and I continued working in our laboratory. Then we learned that the French government wanted to build me a new laboratory and create a new professorship in physics at the Sorbonne for Pierre. We were happy, indeed. But before the plans were final, Pierre was killed!


JL: How awful for you. How did it happen?

MC: He just stepped off into the street, right into the path of a horse-drawn wagon. I think he must have been thinking of something else and just didn't pay attention to the road. It was raining and he had his umbrella pulled down over his head and he probably didn't see the wagon. The wheel of the wagon actually crushed Pierre's skull, in spite of heroic efforts of the driver to control the horses. I wrote in my journal:

    I enter the room. Someone says: "He is dead." Can one comprehend such words? Pierre is dead, he who I had seen leave looking fine this morning, he who I expected to press in my arms this evening, I will only see him dead and it's over forever. I repeat your name again and again and always "Pierre, Pierre, Pierre, my Pierre," alas that doesn't make him come back, he is gone forever, leaving me nothing but desolation and despair.

JL: How did you go on?

MC: I wrote later in my journal, as I sat by the coffin: "I put my head against the coffin....................and it seemed to me that from this cold contact of my forehead with the casket something came to me, something like a calm and an intuition that I would yet find the courage to live."

Work & Illness

JL: Did you continue working in your laboratory?

MC: I was invited to be the first physics professor at the Sorbonne, assuming my late husband's position. I continued his teaching and I also spent long hours in my laboratory, isolating pure polonium and pure radium to remove any doubt at to their existence.

JL: Were you successful.

MC: Yes. I was awarded another Nobel Prize in 1911 in Chemistry for determining the atomic weight of radium.

JL: How about your little daughters? How did they handle their father's death?

MC: My father-in-law became a very important and fun-loving presence in our home and he helped Irene and Eve regain their joy and pleasure in life. Unfortunately, he, too, died in 1910. But he left the girls with a legacy of great love and playfulness.

JL: It has been said that you had an affair with another scientist. I know that your family has tried to cover this up (or perhaps they did not know of it). Eve wrote a very famous biography of you and never mentioned the affair. Is it true or not?

MC: Yes, it is true that in about 1910, I fell in love with Paul Langevin who was a young physicist and wrote one of the most moving tributes to Pierre when he died. Paul was not very happy in his marriage and we grew close as we worked on physics research and on planning a cooperative school for young children. I wrote a long letter to Paul encouraging him to separate from his wife who was a violent and haranguing woman who had threatened to kill me. This was a difficult time in my life. I was turned down for admission to the Academy of Sciences because of being female. And for the next five years, the threat of a court battle because of my affair brought much negative publicity and unhappiness. In about 1915, the affair was over. I was very ill with a kidney infection and Paul returned to his wife.

JL: How about your profession life during this time and afterwards?

MC: By 1914, I was head of two laboratories, one in Warsaw and one at the Sorbonne (the Radium Institute). After World War I broke out, I could not continue my experiments, so I got approval to operate X-ray equipment on the battlefield to help the wounded get early treatment. Within two years, I was able to get 200 X-ray units throughout France and Belgium. And then after the war, with Irene at my side, I went back to work in my institute. I helped to raise the funds to build a hospital and laboratory that use radiology to diagnose and treat people. I was even invited to visit America in 1921 and I came back with radium and money to outfit my lab.

JL: What other things were you involved with?

MC: I became quite a public speaker! I spoke at conferences and meetings all over the world. And I even served on the council of the League of Nations, adding my name to causes for world peace. But by the end of 1920, I began to be continually sick with dizziness, fever, and fatigue. I was losing my eyesight and had humming in my ears. Many of my colleagues who had worked with radioactive elements were suffering the same symptoms, but I was very reluctant to admit that my illness was due to my research. Finally, I did admit the danger of radioactive elements but I continued to work with them anyway.

JL: What was your diagnosis?

MC: In the early 1930's I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia caused by radiation exposure over a long time and on July 4, 1934, I died at a mountain sanatorium where I had gone to try and get well. I was exhausted, almost blinded and my fingers were burnt from exposure to radium.

Irene Curie

JL: Did Irene continue your work?

MC: Irene eventually discovered artificial radioactivity and she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

JL: Madame Curie, you will be interested to know that in 1995 your ashes were enshrined in the Pantheon in Paris; you were the first woman to receive this honor for your achievements. I want to thank you very much for sharing your eventful and productive life with me. I will end with one of my favorite quotes from you:

    A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician; he is also a child, confronting natural phenomena that impress him like fairy tales.


Quinn, Susan, Marie Curie: A Life, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts, 1995.

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