Polish Girlhood (1867-1891)

The Governess

MARIA AND BRONYA MADE A PACT: the younger sister, still not 17, would work as a private tutor, setting aside money to pay Bronya's tuition at medical school in Paris and her living expenses there. As soon as Bronya could, she would help subsidize Maria's education.

After two years of teaching various subjects to children from wealthy families, Maria realized she was not saving money efficiently enough. For the next three years she worked as a well-paid governess.

Her charges were the children of an agriculturist who ran a beet-sugar factory in a village 150 kilometers north of Warsaw. Maria felt a kinship with her employer when he permitted her in her spare time to teach the illiterate children of his peasant laborers. He encouraged his older daughter to assist Maria, even though he knew the czarist authorities equated such activity with treason. "Even this innocent work presented danger," Maria recalled, as all initiative of this kind was forbidden by the government and might bring imprisonment or deportation to Siberia.

When their governess fell in love with their oldest son, however, her employers were none too pleased. As fond as they were of Maria, they did not welcome the knowledge that their beloved Kazmierz, on vacation from his agricultural engineering course in Warsaw, wanted to marry the penniless girl. Although the couple bowed to his parents' wishes and broke off the engagement, their romantic involvement continued for several years more. As difficult as it was to stay under the same roof as a family that clearly did not welcome her as one of their own, Maria remained in their employ because she took her pact with Bronya seriously.

"If [men] don't want to marry impecunious young girls, let them go to the devil! Nobody is asking them anything. But why do they offend by troubling the peace of an innocent creature?" --letter of Marie Curie to her cousin Henrietta Michalowska, April 4, 1887

TO FILL HER LONELY HOURS she began a course of self-study. Unsure at first where her academic interests lay, she read sociological studies and works of literature along with physics and chemistry textbooks. By mail she also took the equivalent of an advanced math course with her father. When it became clear that math and the physical sciences were her forte, she took chemistry lessons from a chemist in the beet-sugar factory.

After returning to Warsaw in 1889, Maria worked as a live-in governess for another year before resuming life with her father and work as a private tutor. During her absence Sklodowski had become director of a reform school, and the new position paid well enough for him to send a monthly subsidy to Bronya in Paris. By arrangement with Bronya, he began to set aside a portion of that subsidy to compensate Maria for the sums she had been sending her sister. Eventually it became clear that by fall 1891, Maria would have enough money to begin studies at the University of Paris--the famous Sorbonne.

"During these years of isolated work, trying little by little to find my real preferences, I finally turned towards mathematics and physics, and resolutely undertook a serious preparation for future work."

MARIA STILL LACKED real laboratory experience, and she hoped to gain some before her departure. This was no easy task, given the czarist ban on such work. The ingenuity of her cousin Joseph Boguski helped her achieve her illicit goal. A former assistant of Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev , Boguski ran the so-called Museum of Industry and Agriculture, which was actually a laboratory aimed at training Polish scientists. One of Boguski's colleagues there gave Maria an intensive chemistry course on Sundays and evenings. More often than not, however, she struggled through experiments on her own, often failing to duplicate the expected results.

Finally, in autumn 1891, Maria Sklodowska set out for Paris. Traveling as economically as possible, she carried not only enough food and reading for the trip but also a folding chair and a blanket: fourth-class travelers through Germany were not provided with seating. "So it was in November, 1891," she recalled, "at the age of 24, that I was able to realize the dream that had been constantly in my mind for several years."

Next: A Student in Paris

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2000 - American Institute of Physics