“I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.”
Called the mother of modern physics , Marie Curie’s biography is an impressive one. She not only invented the term “radioactivity” but discovered two chemical elements, radium and polonium. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics and the first person to ever receive the honor twice, also being awarded the honor in the field of Chemistry. However, she valued knowledge for it’s own sake and was never motivated by the desire for fame and recognition. Albert Einstein said of her
“Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”
Marie Curie’s Poverty, Exlusion and Humble Beginnings
As a child, the family life of Marie Curie was clouded by poverty so severe that she lost one of her sisters to typhus and her mother to tuberculosis. Because women weren’t allowed to attend Russian Universities, she became a private tutor, learning everything her wealthy students studied at their universities. She sent part of the money she earned as a governess to help support family life back home and particularly one other sister in Paris, until she could become well established enough to send for her. In 1891, she was finally able to move to Paris to live with her sister and enrolled at the prestigious Sorbonne.
Close Family Life as a Success Factor
Family life -of the extended family rather than the nuclear family- continued to be an important source of support which enabled Marie Curie to continue her research after her marriage to Pierre Curie and the birth of her two daughters, Irene and Eva.
“It became a serious problem how to take care of our little Irène and of our home without giving up my scientific work. Such a renunciation would have been very painful to me, and my husband would not even think of it…So the close union of our family enabled me to meet my obligations.”
After the premature loss of her mother-in-law to cancer, her father-in-law moved in with the family and served as both grandfather and caretaker for the children and helped in the couple’s family life.
Her husband Pierre used their joint Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1905 to issue a warning about the potential of the destructive power of science with these words
“mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries.”
Tragically, in 1906, just one year after the birth of their youngest daughter Eva, Pierre was struck by a carriage and killed, leaving Marie Curie a widow. Those words of the acceptance speech would prove to be prophetic, as the very scientific discoveries that they were being lauded for would lead to Marie Curie’s untimely death from radiation poisoning.
Despite being a widow with two small children, she took on the task of editing her late husband’s collected works, which she completed in 1908. In 1910, she published her own research in a volume titled “Traité de radioactivité” for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Discrimination against women was still such that even after having been awarded two Nobel Prizes, the Academy of Sciences refused to admit her as a member in the organization. She was, however, the first woman to hold a chair at the Sorbonne.
Marie Curie as Mother
Now as a mother, she is reported to have kept records of family life and specifically every stage of her daughters’ development as faithfully as she recorded the results of her scientific experiments.
Her daughters were home-schooled, often by some of the most brilliant scientists in the world. She was able to shape family life as she saw fit and most conducive.
Her eldest daughter Irene became a scientist and during World War I, worked side by side with her mother using x-ray machines to locate shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers. In 1926, Irene was married to Frédéric Joliot, an assistant at the Radium Institute and together, they continued Marie Curie’s research after her death in 1934. Irene won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for her work in using radioactivity to transmute chemical elements.
Eva, her younger daughter, became a writer and wrote the first of many biographies of her mother, Marie Curie. During the war, using her mother’s name to get access, she courageously visited Africa, Asia and Russia, interviewing soldiers and leaders such She published her interviews in a volume called “Journey Among Warriors” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 1954, she married Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr. a diplomat who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF as its director in 1965.
The mother of modern physics proved to have created a innovative, and inventive family life catalyzing a rather large scientific family.
If you are intrigued by women like Marie Curie you can read more here another exceptional role model and mother, Emma Willard.