Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences couldn’t legally attend college, so she did it illegally, going to what was known as the ‘Flying University’, a secret organization.

Marie Curie – Early Years

Maria Skłodowska was born in Warsaw, in Congress Poland in the Russian Empire, on 7 November 1867, the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers Bronisława, née Boguska, and Władysław Skłodowski. The elder siblings of Maria (nicknamed Mania) were Zofia (born 1862, nicknamed Zosia), Józef [pl] (born 1863, nicknamed Józio), Bronisława (born 1865, nicknamed Bronia) and Helena (born 1866, nicknamed Hela).

On both the paternal and maternal sides, the family had lost their property and fortunes through patriotic involvements in Polish national uprisings aimed at restoring Poland’s independence (the most recent had been the January Uprising of 1863–65). This condemned the subsequent generation, including Maria and her elder siblings, to a difficult struggle to get ahead in life. Maria’s paternal grandfather, Józef Skłodowski [pl], had been principal of the Lublin primary school attended by Bolesław Prus, who became a leading figure in Polish literature.

Władysław Skłodowski taught mathematics and physics, subjects that Maria was to pursue, and was also director of two Warsaw gymnasia (secondary schools) for boys. After Russian authorities eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish schools, he brought much of the laboratory equipment home and instructed his children in its use. He was eventually fired by his Russian supervisors for pro-Polish sentiments and forced to take lower-paying posts; the family also lost money on a bad investment and eventually chose to supplement their income by lodging boys in the house. Maria’s mother Bronisława operated a prestigious Warsaw boarding school for girls; she resigned from the position after Maria was born. She died of tuberculosis in May 1878, when Maria was ten years old. Less than three years earlier, Maria’s oldest sibling, Zofia, had died of typhus contracted from a boarder. Maria’s father was an atheist; her mother a devout Catholic. The deaths of Maria’s mother and sister caused her to give up Catholicism and become agnostic.

Maria (left), sister Bronisława, ca. 1886

When she was ten years old, Maria began attending the boarding school of J. Sikorska; next, she attended a gymnasium for girls, from which she graduated on 12 June 1883 with a gold medal. After a collapse, possibly due to depression, she spent the following year in the countryside with relatives of her father, and the next year with her father in Warsaw, where she did some tutoring. Unable to enroll in a regular institution of higher education because she was a woman, she and her sister Bronisława became involved with the clandestine Flying University (sometimes translated as Floating University), a Polish patriotic institution of higher learning that admitted women students. Continue Reading (30 minute read)

8 thoughts on “Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences couldn’t legally attend college, so she did it illegally, going to what was known as the ‘Flying University’, a secret organization.”

  1. Why_So_Slow

    On top of that – her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, received Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for the discovery of artificial radioactivity, and her second daughter Ève Curie, worked for UNICEF while the organisation was awarded Nobel Peace Prize.

    Her grand-children, Hélène Langevin-Joliot and Pierre Joliot-Curie, are both high profile, renown scientists.

    Just in case somebody is looking for a role model 😉

  2. KleszczTentes

    Marie Skłodowska Curie, that’s her full name. If you just use Marie Curie, people confuse her for a French

  3. dw_jb

    Incredible woman I think she died of radiation poisoning ultimately, but not before indirectly saving many lives with X-rays

  4. DryMartiniPlease

    Just amazing… a person to admire!!

  5. Blowfish1

    At first the Nobel price were intended for her husband and she would be accredited as an “assistant“

    Her husband then wrote to the Nobel committee and protested, stating that she had been as involved if not more in the work.

  6. LaddiusMaximus

    Can you imagine how much more these people would have accomplished in a free and open society? Illegal for her to attend college? FFS.

  7. poopedinapumpkin

    She is a fascinating person who helped change our lives through her discoveries. She and her husband, Pierre, discovered the elements polonium and radium. Together, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, and she received another one, for Chemistry, in 1911. Ironically and unfortunately, her work with radioactive materials doomed her, however. She died of a blood disease caused by radiation in 1934.

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