Madame Curie

A Biography


By Eve Curie

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Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman scientist to win worldwide fame, and indeed, one of the great scientists of this century. Winner of two Nobel Prizes (for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911), she performed pioneering studies with radium and contributed profoundly to the understanding of radioactivity. The history of her story-book marriage to Pierre Curie, of their refusal to patent their processes or otherwise profit from the commercial exploitation of radium, and her tragically ironic death are legendary and well known but are here revealed from an inside perspective. But, as this book reveals, it was also true. An astonishing mind and a remarkable life are here portrayed by Marie Curie’s daughter in a classic and moving account.




DEEP SILENCE INVADED the school building in Novolipki Street on Sundays. Beneath the stone pediment, carved in Russian letters with the words "High School for Boys," the principal door was bolted and the columned vestibule looked like an abandoned temple. Life had retired from the single story of the long, low structure, from its light-filled rooms where the desks of black wood were aligned, scratched by penknives and cut with initials. Nothing could be heard but the bells of the Church of the Virgin, ringing for vespers, and, now and then, coming from the street, the rattle of a cart or the lazily trotting horse of a droshky. Behind the railing which bordered the courtyard the school's four lilac trees bloomed, dusty and meager, and passers-by in their Sunday best turned with surprise to catch a breath of the sugary scent. It was hot, even though May was hardly ended. In Warsaw the sun is as tyrannous and intense as the frost.

But something had disturbed this sabbatical peace. From the left wing of the building, on the ground floor, where dwelt M. Vladislav Sklodovski, professor of physics and under-inspector of the school, there came the muffled echo of mysterious activity. It sounded like hammer strokes, without order or cadence; then the rumble of a structure falling to pieces, saluted by sharp yells; then blows again. And brief orders shouted in Polish:

"Hela, I've run out of munitions!"

"The tower, Joseph! Aim at the tower!"

"Manya, get out of the way!"

"Why? I'm bringing you some cubes!"


A crash, the thunder of wooden blocks across the polished floor, and the tower was gone. The noise was doubled; projectiles flew, alighted.

The battle field was a huge square room with windows giving on an inside courtyard of the Gymnasium. Four children's beds occupied its corners, and, between them, four children from five to nine years of age played their game of war with shrieks and yells. The peaceful uncle, a lover of whist and patience, who had given the small Sklodovskis a building game for Christmas, had certainly not foreseen the use to which his present would be put. For some days Joseph, Bronya, Hela and Manya had obediently built castles, bridges and churches according to the models they found in the big wooden box; but the blocks and beams soon found their true destiny: short columns of oak formed an artillery, the small squares were bullets, and the young architects had become field marshals.

Crawling on his belly across the floor, Joseph was gaining ground, and moved his cannon methodically forward toward the adversary. Even at the height of the battle his healthy child's face, with its firm features underneath fair hair, kept the seriousness proper to an army commander. He was the eldest and the most learned of the four; he was also the only man. Around him were girls, nothing but girls, all dressed alike and all wearing, over their Sunday clothes, little frilled collars and dark beribboned aprons.

But, to be just, the girls fought well. The eyes of Hela, Joseph's ally, blazed with savage ardor. Hela was mad with rage at her six and a half years; she wanted to fling her blocks farther and harder; she envied Bronya her eight years—Bronya, the dimpled and dazzling creature whose blonde hair whipped the air as she pranced about defending her troops, drawn up between the two windows.

At Bronya's side a tiny aide-de-camp in a fancy apron gathered up munitions, galloped from one battalion to another, and busied herself mightily, her face aflame, her lips dry from having cried and laughed too much.


The child stopped in full flight and allowed her apron, which she held clutched to her breast, to fall; a consignment of blocks clattered to the floor.

"What's the matter?"

Zosia, the eldest of the young Sklodovskis, had just come into the room. Although she was not yet twelve she appeared, beside her younger brother and sisters, to be a grown person. Her long, ash-blonde hair was thrown back to fall loosely on her shoulders. She had a lovely, animated face and dreaming eyes of exquisite gray.

"Mother says you've been playing too long. You must stop now."

"But Bronya needs me … I'm the one that brings her blocks!"

"Mamma says you're to come now."

After a moment's hesitation Manya took her sister's hand and made a dignified exit. It is hard to fight a war at the age of five, and the little girl, at the end of her strength, was not altogether unhappy to abandon the battle. From the next room a gentle voice was calling her by names like caresses: "Manya … Manyusya … my Anciupecio …"

In Poland, diminutives and nicknames are the only wear. The Sklodovskis had never called Sophie, their eldest daughter, anything but "Zosia." "Bronya" had taken the place of Bronislava, Helen became "Hela," and Joseph "Jozio." But none of them had received as many nicknames as Marya, the youngest and best-loved in the house. "Manya" was her ordinary diminutive, "Manyusya" a name of affection, and "Anciupecio" a comic nickname dating from her earliest infancy.

"My Anciupecio, how mussed your hair is! And how red you are!"

Delicate hands, too pale and too thin, tied the undone ribbons of the apron and smoothed the short curls from the stubborn face of the future scientist. Little by little, the child relaxed and was at peace.

Manya had an infinite love for her mother. It seemed to her that no other creature on earth could be so graceful, so good or so wise.

Mme Sklodovska was the eldest daughter in a family of country squires. Her father, Felix Boguski, belonged to that small landowning nobility which has so many representatives in Poland. Too poor to live on his own estate, he had to administer the property of families more powerful than his own. His marriage was romantic: he fell in love with an aristocratic young girl with no fortune but of nobler birth than his, and carried her off to a secret marriage in spite of the protests of the beauty's parents. Years rolled on: the seducer became a timid, shivering old man and his beloved a peevish grandmother.…

Of their six children Mme Sklodovska was certainly the most balanced and the most intelligent. She received a very good education in a private school in Warsaw, and, having decided to devote herself to teaching, became a professor in the same school and finally director of the institution. When, in 1860, Professor Vladislav Sklodovski asked her hand in marriage, he was choosing a very accomplished wife. She had no money; but she was well-born, she was pious and she was active. She had an assured career ahead of her. Moreover, she was a musician: she could play the piano and sing the ballads of the day in a ravishing languid voice.

Last of all, she was very beautiful. An exquisite photograph shows her to us at the time of her marriage, with her perfectly drawn face, her smooth and heavy plaited hair, the marvelous arch of her brows, and the peaceful, secret look of her gray eyes lengthened like the eyes of Egypt.

It was what people called a "very suitable" marriage; the Sklodovskis were also part of that minor nobility which the misfortunes of Poland had ruined. The cradle of the clan, Sklody, was an agglomeration of farms about a hundred kilometers north of Warsaw. Several families, allied among themselves and originating at Sklody, bore the name of Sklodovski: according to a widespread custom, the lord of the manor at some time in the past was supposed to have bestowed on his tenants the right to adopt his coat of arms.

The natural vocation of these families was to cultivate the earth; but in times of trouble the estates grew poorer and were frittered away. Though in the eighteenth century the direct ancestor of Vladislav Sklodovski possessed several hundred acres and could lead a comfortable life, and even his descendants lived like well-to-do farmers, the same was not true of Joseph, the young professor's father. In his desire to improve his own condition and to honor the name of which he was so proud, that Sklodovski turned toward study; and after a career made dramatic by wars and revolutions, he is to be found directing the boys' school in an important town, Lublin. He was the first intellectual in the family.

The Boguski and the Sklodovski formed numerous households: six children here, seven there. Farmers, schoolteachers, a notary, a nun.… And then a few eccentric shadows appear: one of Mme Sklodovska's brothers, Henryk Boguski, was an incurable dilettante who believed himself to be gifted for the most perilous enterprises of genius. And as for the reckless Zdzislav Sklodovski—the professor's brother—that jolly fellow, who was successively a lawyer in Petersburg, a soldier in the Polish insurrection, and in exile, a Provençal poet and doctor of law at Toulouse, wavered perpetually between ruin and riches.

On both sides of the family hotheads and peaceable characters occur at once; men of judgment rub shoulders with knights-errant.

The parents of Marie Curie were among the judicious. He, imitating his father's example, went far in his scientific studies at the University of Petersburg, and returned to Warsaw to teach mathematics and physics. She successfully conducted a school to which the best families of the town sent their daughters. During eight years the family lived at her school in Freta Street, on the first floor. Every morning, as the schoolmaster left the conjugal lodging—which gave on the courtyard with balconies light as garlands from window to window—the rooms at the front of the house echoed with the chatter of young girls waiting for their first class.

But when, in 1868, Vladislav Sklodovski left the school where he had been teaching to become professor and under-inspector at the high school in Novolipki Street, his wife had to adapt herself to the new existence. It would have been impossible for her to live in the apartment allotted them by her husband's new position, keep her place as principal of the girls' school, and at the same time bring up the five children she had brought into the world. Not without regret Mme Sklodovska gave up her work at the boarding school and left the Freta Street house where, some months before (November 7, 1867), she had given birth to Marie Curie, little Manya.

"Now, then, Anciupecio, are you asleep?"

Manya, doubled up on a little hassock at her mother's feet, shook her head.

"No, Mamma. I'm all right."

Once again Mme Sklodovska ran her light fingers over the forehead of her youngest child. That familiar gesture was the sweetest Manya knew. As far back as Manya could remember she had never been kissed by her mother. She could imagine no greater happiness than to crouch near by, as close as possible to the pensive and charming figure, and to feel confusedly, by almost imperceptible signs—a word, a smile, an affectionate look—what immense tenderness watched over her young destiny.

She did not yet understand the cruel origin of these rites and of the isolation to which her mother was condemned: Mme Sklodovska was seriously ill. The first signs of tuberculosis had appeared when Manya was born, and in the five years since then, in spite of care and consultation, the disease had made certain progress. But Mme Sklodovska, a courageous Christian, was determined that nobody at home should notice her suffering more than she could help. Dressed with neatness, ever high-spirited, she continued the life of a busy housewife and gave the illusion of being well even though she imposed strict rules on herself; she would use only dishes reserved for herself, she would never embrace her son or her daughters. The little Sklodovskis knew very little about her dreadful disease: short attacks of dry coughing, which they heard from one room to the next; a desolate shadow on their father's face; and the short phrase, "Restore our mother's health," which, for some time past, had been added to their evening prayer.…

The young woman rose and gently put aside the childish hands that clung to her.

"Let me go, Manyusya … I have things to do."

"May I stay here? I—may I read?"

"I wish you would go into the garden instead. It's so beautiful today!"

A very special timidity reddened Manya's cheeks when she broached the subject of reading: the year before, in the country, Bronya, finding it extremely boring to have to learn the whole alphabet by herself, had taken it into her head to make her sister an experiment in education, to "play teacher" to her. For several weeks the little girls had amused themselves by arranging, in what was often enough an arbitrary order, their letters cut out of cardboard. Then, one morning, while Bronya was faltering out a very simple reading lesson to her parents, Manya grew impatient, took the opened book from her hands, and read aloud the opening sentence on the page. At first, flattered by the silence that surrounded her, she continued this fascinating game; but suddenly panic seized her. One look at the stupefied faces of M. and Mme Sklodovski, another at Bronya's sulky stare, a few unintelligible stammers, an irrepressible sob—and instead of the infant prodigy there was only a baby of four, crying in a doleful voice through her tears:

"Beg—pardon! Pardon! I didn't do it on purpose. It's not my fault—it's not Bronya's fault! It's only because it was so easy!"

Manya had suddenly conceived, with despair, that she might perhaps never be forgiven for having learned to read.

After that memorable session the child had grown familiar with her letters; and if she did not make remarkable progress it was owing to the adroit diplomacy of her parents, who constantly avoided giving books to her. Like prudent pedagogues, they were afraid of the precocity of their little girl, and every time she put out her hand toward one of the big-lettered albums that abounded in the house, a voice suggested: "You'd better play with your blocks.… Where is your doll?… Sing us a song, Manya." Or else, as today: "I wish you would go into the garden instead."

Manya cast a speculative eye in the direction of the door through which she had entered awhile before. The rumble of blocks on the floor and the cries that came almost unmuffled through the partition proved that she had small chance of finding a walking companion there. There was no hope in the direction of the kitchen, either: a steady chatter and the crash of poker and stove lid announced that the servants were preparing the evening meal.

"I'll look for Zosia."

"If you like."

"Zosia … Zosia!"

Hand in hand the two sisters went through the narrow yard where, every day, they had played hide-and-seek and blindman's buff; passing the school buildings they reached a big level garden guarded by its gate of worm-eaten wood.

A faint smell of the earth, of countryside, was exhaled from the meager grass and walled-in trees.

"Zosia, are we going to Zwola pretty soon?"

"Not yet—not until July. But can you remember Zwola?"

Manya, with her astonishing memory, could recollect it all: the stream in which she and her sisters had paddled for hours at a time last summer.… The mud cakes they had secretly kneaded, spattering their dresses and aprons with blackish spots, and as secretly put out to dry in the sun on a board known only to themselves.… The old lime tree which was sometimes climbed by as many as seven or eight conspirators at a time, cousins and friends; they used to lift her, too, the "little one" whose arms and legs were not long enough.… The main branches were padded with cabbage leaves, cold and crackling: in other cabbage leaves among the smaller branches they cooled their provisions of gooseberries, of tender raw carrots, of cherries …

And at Marki, the torrid granary where Joseph used to go to learn his multiplication tables, and where they tried to bury Manya under the moving grain.… And old Father Skrzypovski, who made his whip crack so brilliantly when he drove the "break"! And Uncle Xavier's horses …

Every year the children had intoxicating holidays in the country. The fact was that in this vast family only one branch had become city dwellers: the Sklodovskis had numerous relations on the land. In each province there were some Sklodovskis and some Boguskis who cultivated a little of the Polish earth, and even though their houses were not sumptuous, they all had room enough to take in the professor and his family during the fine weather. In spite of her family's modest revenue, Manya was saved a knowledge of the dull holidaymaking of the cheap "summer resorts" frequented by the inhabitants of Warsaw. In summer this daughter of intellectuals became—or perhaps became again, in accordance with the deepest instinct of her race—a hardy little peasant.

"Let's run. I'll bet I can get to the end of the garden before you!" Zosia cried, taking her role as "mother" with becoming seriousness.

"I don't want to run. I want you to tell me a story."

Nobody—not even the professor or his wife—could tell a story like Zosia. Her imagination added extraordinary touches, like the brilliant variations of a virtuoso, to every anecdote or fairy tale. She also composed short comedies, which she performed with spirit in front of her astonished sisters and brother. Zosia's gifts as author and actress had quite subjugated Manya, who giggled and shuddered by turns as she listened to adventures so fantastic that their thread was not always easy for a baby of five to follow.

The girls turned back toward the house. As they drew nearer to the high school the elder instinctively slowed down and lowered her voice. The story she was making up and declaiming was not finished: even so, Zosia cut it short. The children walked silently past the windows in the right wing of the school all veiled by the same stiff lace curtains.

Behind those windows lived the person whom the Sklodovski family most feared and detested: M. Ivanov, director of the Gymnasium, the man who represented, within the walls of that school, the government of the Tsar.

It was a cruel fate, in the year 1872, to be a Pole, a "Russian subject," and to belong to that vibrant "intelligentsia" whose nerves were so near the surface; among them revolt was ever brooding, and they suffered more painfully than any other class in society from the servitude imposed upon them.

Exactly a century before, greedy sovereigns, the powerful neighbors of a greatly weakened state, had decided Poland's ruin. Three successive partitions had dismembered it into fragments which became officially German, Russian and Austrian. On several occasions the Poles rose against their oppressors: they succeeded only in strengthening the bonds that held them prisoners. After the failure of the heroic revolution of 1831 the Tsar Nicholas dictated severe measures of reprisal in Russian Poland. The patriots were imprisoned and deported in a body; their property was confiscated.…

In 1863 another attempt and another catastrophe: the rebels had nothing but spades, scythes and clubs to oppose to the Tsarist rifles. Eighteen months of desperate struggle—and in the end the bodies of the insurgent leaders swung from five gibbets on the ramparts of Warsaw.

Since then everything had been done to enforce the obedience of a Poland that refused to die. While the convoys of chained rebels made their way toward the snows of Siberia, a flood of policemen, professors and minor functionaries was let loose over the countryside. Their mission? To keep watch over the Poles, to wear down their religion, suppress suspicious books and newspapers, and abolish the use of the national language little by little—in a word, to kill the soul of a people.

But in the other camp resistance was quick to organize. Disastrous experience had proved to the Poles that they had no chance of reconquering their liberty by force, at least for the moment. Their task was, therefore, to wait—and to thwart the dangers of those who wait, cowardice and discouragement.

The battle, therefore, had changed ground. Its heroes were no longer those warriors armed with scythes who charged the Cossacks and died saying (like the celebrated Louis Narbutt): "What happiness to die for my country!" The new heroes were the intellectuals, the artists, priests, schoolteachers—those upon whom the mind of the new generation depended. Their courage consisted in forcing themselves to be hypocrites, and in supporting any humiliation rather than lose the places in which the Tsar still tolerated them—and from which they could secretly influence Polish youth, guide their compatriots.

Thus beneath the affectations of politeness a profound antagonism existed between conqueror and conquered throughout the Polish schools—between the harassed teachers and the spying principals, the Sklodovskis and the Ivanovs.

The Ivanov who reigned over the school in Novolipki Street was particularly detestable. Without pity for the fate of his subordinates who had been forced to teach the children of their own country in the Russian language, he would pass with them from honeyed compliments to the coarsest reproof. In his zeal, Ivanov, who was an ignorant man, would review the compositions of day pupils, looking for the "Polish-isms" which occasionally slipped out in the work of little boys. His relations with Professor Sklodovski had grown singularly cold after the day when the latter, in defense of one of his pupils, had calmly replied:

"M. Ivanov, if that child made a mistake, it was certainly only a slip.… It happens that you, too, write Russian incorrectly at times—and indeed fairly often. I am convinced that you do not do it deliberately, any more than the child does."

The professor was talking to his wife of this same Ivanov when Zosia and Manya, returning from their walk, slipped into their father's study.

"Do you remember the Mass that the second-year boys had celebrated at church last week 'for the granting of their most ardent prayer'? They had got up a collection among themselves to pay the cost, and they wouldn't tell the priest what this extraordinary prayer was. Well, little Barzynski confessed the whole thing to me yesterday: they had learned that Ivanov's little girl had typhoid fever, and in their hatred for the principal, they had a Mass said to bring about his child's death! If the poor priest had known that, he would be in despair at having taken such a responsibility in spite of himself!"

M. Sklodovski was delighted with the incident; but his wife, a more fervent Catholic than he, would not laugh at it. She bent over her work, which was singularly rough: with shoemaker's knife and awl Mme Sklodovska was making shoes. One of her special characteristics was to find no task unworthy of her. Since her pregnancies and her illness had obliged her to stay indoors she had learned the cobbler's trade, and thereafter the shoes that the children wore out so quickly cost no more than the price of the leather in them. It was not so easy to get along.…

"This pair is for you, Manyusya. See how fine your feet are going to look in them!"

Manya watched the long hands cutting out a sole and managing the sticky string. Near by, her father had just settled himself comfortably in his favorite armchair. It would have been pleasant to climb up on his knees and make a mess of his big necktie, knotted with such care; or to pull the nut-brown beard that framed his rather heavy face and his kind smile.

But the talk of the grown-ups was too boring: "Ivanov … the police … the Tsar … deportation … a plot … Siberia …" Every day since she had come into the world Manya had heard the same phrases to which she obscurely attached some sort of fearful significance. By instinct she withdrew from them, holding off the moment when she would have to understand.

Isolating herself in deep childish dreams, the infant turned away from her parents and the murmur of their affectionate conversation, cut now and then by the sharp noise of the hammer on a nail, the squeak of the scissors on leather. With her nose in the air Manya wandered about the room and stopped, like a boulevard idler, to admire the objects which were especially dear to her.

This workroom was the finest room in the family lodging—or at any rate the most interesting to Manya. The big French mahogany desk, the Restoration armchairs covered by an indestructible red velvet, filled her with respect. How clean and shining the furniture was! One day, when Manya grew older and went to school, she would have a place at one end of the long ministerial desk with many drawers, Professor Sklodovski's desk, around which the children assembled in the afternoon to do their work.

Manya was not attracted by the majestic portrait of a bishop—framed in heavy gold and attributed in the family, but only in the family, to Titian—which decorated the wall at the end. Her admiration was reserved for the bright green malachite clock, fat and brilliant, which stood on the desk, and for the round table one of their cousins had brought from Palermo the year before. Its top represented a checkerboard, and each square on it was made of a different kind of veined marble.

The little girl avoided the stand which held a blue cup and saucer of Sèvres china ornamented by a medallion of Louis XVIII's good-natured face—she had been told a thousand times not to touch it, and in consequence regarded it with terror—and finally stopped before the dearest of her treasures.

One, hung on the wall, was a precision barometer mounted in oak, with its long gilt pointers glittering against the white dial; on certain days the professor regulated and cleaned it minutely in front of his attentive children.

The other was a glass case with several shelves laden with surprising and graceful instruments, glass tubes, small scales, specimens of minerals and even a gold-leaf electroscope … Professor Sklodovski used to take these objects into his classroom, but since the government had reduced the hours devoted to science, the glass case was always shut.

Manya could not imagine what these fascinating trinkets were. One day, straining on the tips of her toes, she was contemplating them with bliss when her father simply told her their name: "Phy-sics app-a-ra-tus."

A funny name.

She did not forget it—she never forgot anything—and, as she was in high spirits, she sang the words in tune.


Dark Days



"Tell us about Stanislas Augustus."

"Stanislas Augustus Poniatovski was elected King of Poland in 1764. He was intelligent and very cultivated, the friend of artists and writers. He understood the defects that were weakening the kingdom and tried to remedy the disorders of the State. Unfortunately, he was a man without courage.…"


  • "The actual record of Marie Curie's life is epic. Eve Curie writes that epic movingly."—Chicago Tribune

On Sale
Apr 2, 2001
Page Count
444 pages
Da Capo Press

Eve Curie

About the Author

Eve Curie Labouisse is the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie. She has worked in human rights and diplomacy, traveling worldwide on behalf of NATO and the United Nations.

Learn more about this author