Family Life

How Marie Curie Combined her Own Family Life while Mothering Modern Physics

“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.

Family Life
Pierre and Marie Curie at Work

August 24,2015  |

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi, Parent, Green Activist and First Mother to a Young India

Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, didn’t consider herself a feminist, but spoke eloquently for equal rights for women, as well as the elevation of their social status. In a speech she gave at a Women’s Conference in New Delhi in 1980 titled “True Liberation of Women”, she said

“I have often said that I am not a feminist. Yet, in my concern for the underprivileged, how can I ignore women who, since the beginning of history, have been dominated over and discriminated against in social customs and in laws… “

Indira Gandhi was the only child of Kamala Kaul and Jawarharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister after achieving independence from Britain in 1947 and protégée of Mahatma Ghandi. After the untimely death of her mother, Indira Gandhi served as her father’s hostess and companion at many political events all over the world. In 1942, Indira Gandhi married Feroze Jehangir Gandhi, a dedicated member of the Indian independence movement who was jailed several times for the cause. Together, they had two sons, Rajiv in 1944 and Sanjay in 1946. She suffered the loss of Sanjay in a fatal plane crash in 1980.

Indira Gandhi’s Political Achievements

Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India herself not once, but twice. She served from 1966 to 1977 and again from 1980 until her death in 1984. While she achieved any political and social successes during her service as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi also proved to be a very controversial figure. One of her political successes was the creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh that resulted from her diplomatic work with Pakistani President Shimla in 1971. This agreement ended the violence that had caused almost 10 million people to flee to India.

Indira Gandhi was also one of the first global environmental activists and led a movement known as the Green Revolution. This movement consisted of diversifying crops and increasing the number of food exports. These policies helped reduce food shortages while creating much needed jobs and reducing poverty.

The administration of Indira Gandhi oversaw the nationalization of banks. This accomplished the goals of increasing household savings as well as providing money for investments in small and medium-sized businesses. It also made more investment in agriculture possible, which contributed to the nation’s development.

Indira Gandhli on Losing and Winning

However, from 1975 to 1977, in response to a call for her resignation as the result of an infraction of election rules, she declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties for Indian citizens. As a result, Indira Gandhi lost the next election and was briefly imprisoned, but won again in 1980 by a landslide.

According to her biography, a Sikh separatist movement began in India during the 1980’s. Ghandi, to repress the movement and a potential civil war, ordered an attack by 70,000 soldiers on the Golden Temple in which 450 Sikhs were killed. On October 31, 1984, she was assassinated by two of her most trusted bodyguards and died en route to the hospital. Indira Gandhi once said

“Even if I died in the service of the nation, I would be proud of it. Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation and to make it strong and dynamic.”

She died as she’d wanted, in service to India.

Indira and family matters

Her son, Rajiv, a professional airline pilot with little interest in politics before the death of his brother, became Prime Minister in 1984 amidst riots after her assassination. Over a decade later, he too was assassinated. His son, Indira Gandhi’s grandson, Rahul Gandhi continues the family legacy and was a prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

Being a parent, even in a politically stable environment, is perhaps the most challenging, and most important, occupation someone can undertake. Parenting a young country, newly liberated and composed of many opposing factions capable of contributing to civil unrest is even more so. Indira Gandhi made many valuable contributions to the survival and development of her country as well as her children and family.

If you are fascinated (like me) how famous women dealt with motherhood, head over to the article on Toni Morrison, here.

Indira Gandhi
Indira Gandhi in 1977

August 7,2015  |