AN AILING François Mitterrand, in the final weeks of his last term as French president, finally made amends for centuries of Gallic sexism. At an April 1995 ceremony in the Panthéon, the great monument to French national heroes, he enshrined the ashes of Marie Curie — the first woman to be so honoured for her achievements.
The ceremony at the domed monument draped with a huge French flag was symbolic in many ways: Marie Curie was not only a woman, she had been an immigrant and had, more than any other scientist of the early 20th century, enhanced the prestige of France in the scientific world. And ironically, Mitterrand himself was dying of cancer — the affliction that had eventually taken Marie Curie’s life.
Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland, on 7 November 1867. She was the fifth and youngest child of Bronsilawa Boguska, a pianist, singer and teacher, and Wladyslaw Sklodowski, a professor of mathematics and physics. Her childhood was difficult: the family had little money, and the premature death of one of her sisters and, later, her mother affected her deeply. From an early age she nurtured the dream of a career in science, a concept almost unimaginable for a woman at the time. Working for years as a private tutor and a governess, she made financial sacrifices so that her sister Bronia could study medicine in Paris — a favour she hoped might one day be returned. And it was.
In 1891, the shy but ambitious and self-taught young woman arrived in Paris. Surviving on scant meals of bread and butter with tea, she topped her graduation class in physics at the Sorbonne Université in 1893, and came second in mathematics. It was in the spring of the following year that a Polish friend introduced her to Pierre Curie.
The son of a Parisian physician and the introverted young head of the laboratory at the School of Physics at Sorbonne, Curie was known for his work in crystallography and magnetism. And like the 26-year-old Marya Sklodowska, he was passionate about science and the good it could bring…