Ethereal Blue Light (opened in 1967)
“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie
The Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum
16 Freta Street, Warsaw, Poland
One is as likely to witness a blue moon, find a hen’s tooth, or catch a glimpse of Big Foot, as it is to encounter a Nobel Prize recipient. Miraculously, one family garnered five of the coveted awards. Two memorial museums are dedicated to Marie Curie: in Warsaw and Paris.
The crown princess of science bequeathed the world a treatment for cancer, two new elements on the periodical table, and the Atomic Age. Marya, (her family called her Manya history remembers her as Marie), born in 1867, the fifth and last child of Wladyslaw Sklodowska, a teacher, and his wife, Bronislawa, a headmistress of a girls’ school. The national sorrow was the loss of Polish freedom under Czarist Russia. Their private pain was the deaths of oldest daughter, Zofia, from typhus and Bronislawa, from tuberculosis.
Marya Sklodowska became Marie Curie due to Warsaw University’s ban on female students. As voracious for knowledge as Dr. Faustus, Marie participated in her city’s Flying University, an underground women’s school. Desirous of a degree, Bronia and Marie plotted to enroll in the Sorbonne. Marie agreed to finance her sister’s medical training; in turn, Bronia would support her when she became a physician.
Marie worked as a governess, and in a letter home, she wrote she despaired of “ever becoming anybody.” Consolation arrived when she fell for her wealthy employer’s son. As Marie was not of their social class, the relationship ended. For distraction, Wladyslaw sent her complex mathematical problems to solve. Five years later, after Bronia had received her M.D.-one of three women among thousands of men-she sent a one way-ticket from Poland to Paris. Her sister sat in the train’s fourth-class section, on a stool, as she could not afford a seat. The young woman displayed fortitude by travelling alone, an act associated with prostitutes.
In Paris, the workaholic rented a sixth-floor garret in the Latin quarter. Thrilled when she came in first in her examinations, she berated herself over her second place in mathematics.
Four years later, Marie met Pierre Curie who she fell for upon hearing about his quadrant electrometer. What woman could resist? They had found their soulmates and were married in 1895 in a civil ceremony in which the bride wore a cotton blue dress. The honeymoon revolved around cycling.
Consumed by their experiments, meals consisted of bread and coffee in a shed described as “a cross between a stable and a potato cellar.” After the birth of Irene, Marie regulated childcare to her recently widowed father-in-law, Eugene, a retired physician. Pierre, who worked as a physics professor, knew his colleagues considered his wife Marie Marie quite contrary as she preferred holding a beaker to a baby-bottle.
While Marie christened Irene and her sister, Eve, she also named two of her discoveries: radium, from the Latin for ray, and polonium, a tribute to Poland. Of the ethereal beauty of her radiation, Marie mused, “The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.” The substance served as a novelty that appeared on watch faces, cream and lipstick, toothpaste, and laxatives. While they knew they were dedicating their lives to science, they were also sacrificing their bodies. By the time Pierre had received a chair at the Sorbonne, he limped from bone deterioration.
In 1903, the Curies received the Nobel Prize in physics, the first woman so honored. As a female, she was not permitted to speak during the ceremony. The President of the Academy delivered a biblical quotation that downplayed Madame Curie’s contribution, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helpmeet for him.” Pierre’s counter was his wife was far more than a mere helper. Fame dogged their footsteps and journalists even reported on their black-and-white cat.
Tragedy followed triumph. Three years later, as Pierre stepped off the curb, a horse-drawn wagon crushed him under its wheels. Devastated, Marie assumed her husband’s chair. As she was the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne, the event drew a huge crowd.
Far from a merry widow, (Albert Einstein found her “as cold as a herring”), a tsunami erupted with the news that Madame liked sex as well as science. The object of her passion was Pierre’s former student, Paul Langevin, with whom she rendezvoused in an apartment near the Sorbonne. Paul’s wife, Jeanne, the mother of his four children, dished the dirt to the press. Paris branded Marie the Polish Jezebel; Paul fought a duel against the journalist. The Swedish Academy that had just nominated Marie for her second Nobel Prize for chemistry did not appreciate the scandal. A letter from Stockholm urged Marie to not accept her honor in person so as not to force her presence upon King Gustaf V. Madame responded, “There is no connection between my scientific work and my private life.” Shortly afterward the ceremony, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Redemption arrived with World War I when Marie established the first mobile radiological center whose x-rays located shrapnel wounds. She worked with her daughter, Irene, who, along with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, earned the Nobel Prize for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Interestingly, Irene’s daughter married Paul Langevin’s son. Her younger sister, Eve, quipped that she was the only one of her family not to have won a Nobel Prize. However, her husband, Henry Richardson Labouisse, as the executive-director of UNICEF, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the organization’s behalf.
Marie had dedicated her life to science; what remains murky is if she knew she had also sacrificed her body. At age sixty-six, basically blind from cataracts, lesions covered her body. The martyr to radium died in 1934 from the substance that had gifted her immortality. Although her life held many honors, she had summed up her biography, “I was born in Poland. I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.” Irene and Frédéric died from the same scourge. Frédéric deemed it “our occupational disease.”
Marie’s internment was in a cemetery in the Paris suburb of Sceaux. In 1995, President Mitterrand arranged her entombment in the Panthéon. She was the first woman to receive the honor based on her own, rather than a husband’s, merit. President Leach Walesa of Poland was present during the ceremony.
The Polish Chemical society founded the Curie Museum in her eighteenth-century family home, on the centenary of her birth. In tribute, her countrymen had affixed an honorary plaque on its exterior. During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Nazis had targeted the building, but the plaque remained intact. On display is an elephant figurine that President Herbert Hoover had presented to Madame Curie in 1929 during her White House visit. One of the five rooms is a recreation of the Marie’s Parisian laboratory; another showcases photos and personal effects.
A difference between the Polish and Parisienne museums is the French one houses papers, furniture, and books that, even after a century, remain radioactive. If visitors want to investigate Madame’s possessions, they must wear protective clothing and sign a waiver of liability. The warning makes sense: radium-226 has a half-life of 1,601 years.
For those who see with analytical eyes, the museum holds the remnants of a remarkable life. But for the others who observe with an eye attuned to the supernatural, the rooms are suffused with an ethereal blue light.
A View from Her Window:
If Marie had X-ray vision, from her eighteenth-century apartment she would have seen the horror visited on her motherland. From her birth, due to the occupation by Imperial Russia, the name of her country had been excised from the map. Czar Nicholas was hell-bent on subjugating the Poles, and resistance resulted in wholesale imprisonment and executions at the point of bayonets. In 1938, the view was even more tragic when the Nazis goose-stepped over the border. From 1940 to 1945, the town of Oswiecim, (known as Auschwitz), became a death-chamber for Jews, a pollical prison for dissident Poles. Italian Jew who survived the camp stated, “There is no why.”
Nearby Attractions: Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews
The 43,00-square-foot structure, opened in 2013, is located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The museum’s mission is to relate the history of Poland’s Jews from their arrival in the Middle Ages till the Holocaust. The visit shares a staggering statistic: once home to 3.5 million Jews at the outbreak of World War II, currently, the number hovers at 25,000.