A Family of Teachers
Marie Curie took on many roles during her lifetime: wife, mother, research scientist, college student, polish patriot, institute director, fundraiser, x-ray technician, mentor and teacher. The role of teacher is, perhaps, the least sursprising because Marie was born, on November 7, 1867, into a family of teachers. Her father, Wladyshaw Sklodowski ran several schools including a boys' reformatory during his career as a teacher. He studied biology at the University of Warsaw, and with his own children, he never missed a "pedagogical (learning) opportunity." He was a man with a vast store of knowledge, and his children thought of him as a walking encyclopedia. Marie's grandfather, Jozef Sklodowski, was also a teacher and a school principal with strong "republican views." He put his career on the line by encouraging children of peasant families to study and allowing them in the same classes with the children of the nobility.
Marie's mother, Bronislawa, had an enormous influence on all of her children's lives, but especially Marie or Manya as she was called at home. Bronislawa was a working parent: the headmistress of one of Warsaw's better girls' schools. For a few years, the family lived in an apartment in the rear of the school, in a stately town house on Freta Street. Marie was born in this apartment; she was the youngest of five children. Madam Sklodowska often found herself overloaded with all the work of running a big household and a school. Sometimes she wished she were a still a single woman. Nevertheless, she found time to make all the children's shoes by hand. Bronislawa was a republican in her own way, and little Marie learned never to look down on manual labor.
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To make matters worse, Wladyshaw's brother came to live with them in 1871. They didn't know it, but he had a terminal case of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis or TB is a highly infectious pathogen or germ which is carried through the air. In the 19th century, TB was a dreaded, incurable disease very much like HIV is today. It affected almost every household, infecting both rich and poor families alike. Crowded living conditions found in tenements in big cities helped to spread the disease. Today, TB can be cured with drugs although there are a few strains which are now drug-resistant.
It is very likely that Marie's mother became infected with TB from her brother-in-law or perhaps from one of her students. When Marie was a toddler, her mother was often away taking a "cure" in a region with a warmer climate like the south of France. She was accompanied by Marie's oldest sister, Zosia. When Bronislawa was at home, she was isolated in a separate room away from the children. This was the first and most profound tradegy of Marie Curie's life. The expensive rest cures did not stop the disease, and Bronislawa died in 1878 when Marie was nine years old. The little girl could not stop crying over her mother's death. She was deeply depressed for some time. Afterwards, Marie and her sisters would often play a make-believe game about a genius doctor who finds a miracle cure. Marie's dream of science and medicine used for humanitarian purposes would last her entire lifetime.
The Polish Resistance Movement
Another important part of Marie Curie's childhood was the Polish resistance movement. In the 1790's, Russia, Prussia, and Austria invaded Poland and divided up the country between them. Russia occupied the northern section which included the capitol city of Warsaw. There were two major uprisings against Russian rule: one in 1864, three years before Marie was born, and an earlier attempt in 1830. Marie's grandfather fought in the 1830 revolt, but he was allowed to return home after the rebels' defeat. Most of the Polish nobility, what was left of it, like Marie's ancestors were moved off of their estates, and they slowly succombed to gentile poverty. Russians held most of the government positions, and they controlled the public schools. After the defeat of the 1864 uprising, hundreds of thousands of Polish intellectuals and professionals went into exile to European cities like Paris. Thousands more of the Polish rebels were sent to Siberia to perish on chain gangs. Bronislawa's brother, Henryk, for example was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison.
Marie's father made a conscious decision not to participate in armed revolt, but to employ, what is called today, passive resistance. He believed, along with other Polish intellectuals, that education was a powerful weapon in creating a social revolution. This philosophy was called Polish positivism. Positivists emphasized science education as one way of changing the world for the better. Marie's whole family was very involved in this educational resistance movement. Even though the schools were closely watched by the Russian authorities, Polish teachers found ways to continue teaching the Polish language and Polish history. This could be risky. Marie's father, for example, was demoted as principal of his school and a Russian was brought in to replace him.- Marie Curie
"You cannot hope to build a better world
without improving individuals."
At the private grammar school that Marie attended, they had a "double curriculum." The students and teachers would pretend to study Russian-approved subjects whenever the inspector would visit. This was stressful for Marie because she was usually called on to recite some passage in Russian for the inspector since she was a top student. When she was around 10 years old, her father transferred her to the Russian-controlled public schools. The students there spoke only Russian in class, and every subject was taught in the politically correct way. Despite this, Marie enjoyed school, and her father had very high expectations for all his children. Bronia, Jozef, and Helena, Marie's older sisters and brother, had all graduated first in their class. Marie was expected to do the same.
Career prospects for educated young men like Maria's brother, Jozef, were limited in Russian-controlled Poland. For educated women, however, careers were non-existant, and women's education was even more restricted than the men's. For example, women were not allowed to enroll in any Polish universities like the University of Warsaw. The most that Marie could hope for was to follow in her mother's footsteps as a teacher in a girls' school. Both Bronia and Marie wished to study abroard, perhaps in Paris where there were many Polish ex-patriots. They knew their father could not afford it. In fact, the family was forced to take in student boarders and to run a school there in the apartment when Marie's father lost his job in the public schools. However, the girls were persistant; they never gave up on their dream. Eventually, they would find an ingenious solution to the financial obstacle.
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Her Decision to Study Physics / Falling in Love for the First Time / Her Student Life in Paris