Polish Girlhood (1867-1891)

Nation and Family

A PRISONER IN CHAINS. That is what Poland seemed like to Maria Sklodowska. Manya, as she was affectionately called, learned to be a Polish patriot from her parents, Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowski. At the time of Maria's birth in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, Poland had not been an independent country for most of a century. It had been divided up among Austria, Prussia, and czarist Russia.

Warsaw was in the part of Poland controlled by the czar, who hoped to stamp out Polish nationalism by keeping the people ignorant of their culture and language. But Polish patriots were determined to regain control of their nation. As educators, Maria's parents did their best to overcome restrictions placed on them by their Russian supervisors.

The birth of Manya, her fifth child, led her mother to resign her position as head of a school, where the family had resided until then. They moved to a boys' high school, where Vladislav taught math and physics and earned a good salary. Eventually, however, the Russian supervisor in charge of the school fired him for his pro-Polish sentiments.

"Constantly held in suspicion and spied upon, the children knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm, not only themselves, but also their families." --Marie Curie

AS HER FATHER WAS FORCED into a series of progressively lower academic posts, the family's economic situation deteriorated. To help make ends meet they had to take in student boarders. Maria was only eight when her oldest sister caught typhus from a boarder and died. That death was followed less than three years later by the death of Madame Sklodowska, who lost a five-year battle with tuberculosis at the age of 42. The surviving family members--Professor Sklodowski; his son Joseph; and his daughters Bronya, Hela, and Maria--drew closer to one another.

Although Sklodowski would never forgive himself for losing the family savings in a bad investment, the children honored him for nurturing them emotionally and intellectually. On Saturday nights he read classics of literature to Maria and her siblings. He also exposed them to the scientific apparatus he had once used in teaching physics but now kept at home, since the Russian authorities had eliminated laboratory instruction from the Polish curriculum.

"I easily learned mathematics and physics, as far as these sciences were taken in consideration in the school. I found in this ready help from my father, who loved science....Unhappily, he had no laboratory and could not perform experiments."

Manya was the star pupil in her class. Her personal losses did not impede her academic success, but the pleasure of being awarded a gold medal at her high school graduation in 1883 was blunted because it meant shaking the hand of the grandmaster of education in Russian Poland. After graduating at 15, Manya suffered a collapse that doctors thought was due to fatigue or "nervous" problems -- today it might be diagnosed as depression. At her father's urging Manya spent a year with cousins in the country. A merry round of dances and other festivities, it would be the only carefree year of her life.

The Floating University

ARIA HOPED, LIKE HER SIBLINGS, to get an advanced degree. Although Joseph was able to enroll in the medical school at the University of Warsaw, women were not welcome there. Maria and Bronya joined other friends in attending the Floating University. This illegal night school got its name from the fact that its classes met in changing locations, the better to evade the watchful eyes of the czarist authorities. Its students' lofty goal went beyond mere self-improvement. They hoped their grass-roots educational movement would raise the likelihood of eventual Polish liberation.

This fly-by-night education could not match the curriculum at any of the major European universities that admitted women. Although Maria understood this fact, at the Floating University she did get a taste of progressive thought and an introduction to new developments in the sciences.

"It was one of those groups of Polish youths who believed that the hope of their country lay in a great effort to develop the intellectual and moral strength of the nation....we agreed among ourselves to give evening courses, each one teaching what he knew best."--Marie Curie

Next: The Governess

Exhibit Contents

2000 - American Institute of Physics