Sunday, November 13, 2011

Marie Curie: Childhood

In every field, there will be several shining exemplars, role models for aspiring beginners to look up to. The field of science is not lacking of such big names. Newton. Einstein. Darwin. Well, and Stephen Hawking, just to name a few. They were great men who were the distinguished players of their field.

And yet, it seems that women are not often included in this list. There has been many outstanding individuals, but their achievements and contributions were often overlooked or underestimated, and they remained but a faded imprint in the yellowed pages of a history book. Their names were often forgotten, or mentioned in passing, overshadowed by their male counterparts.

Even the great woman scientist Marie Curie was not totally free from gender discrimination during her time.Although  she is now revered as the discoverer of radium, she used to be viewed as a mere helper of her husband, Pierre Curie.

Born on the 7th of November, 1867 as Manya Sklodowski, Marie was the youngest child of a family with 5 children. Her parents were intellectuals--her father was a teacher in Physics and Mathematics for a gymnasium for boys, while her mother was a headmistress of a well-known girls boarding school.Her parents put great emphasis on the education of their children, instilling in young Manya a love for science as well as a burning sense of patriotism.

She would have had a happy childhood, engaged in games with her siblings along with her fascination for learning, if tragedy had not struck the family. Her mother was down with tuberculosis when Marie was four, and since then she had never known a kiss or a caress. When she ran to greet her mother who came home from a long treatment, she was stopped. Her mother did not want to pass the contagious disease to her daughter, but young Manya did not know it. Eventually, it would mark her life in such a way that she was reserved in physical relationships with others, including her own daughters.

Manya was a studious child. She would become so absorbed in her books that nothing in the world could distract her. After the dinner table was cleared, the dining hall would be transformed into a study for the children. During one occasion, her sisters piled up a stack of chairs behind her while she was reading, hoping to give her a fright when she looked up. Minutes passed....the girls waited as the pyramid of chairs loomed behind her, the prank going unnoticed by the absorbed pupil. When Manya looked up finally, half an hour later, the chairs came tumbling down around her. Manya was not amused. Calmly, she retorted, "That's stupid!" Before leaving the room with her book in hand.

As she grew up, Manya became a star pupil. Poland was under the control of the Russians, and how she hated them! Her school ran a double schedule--they learned Polish history secretly, but when the Russian Inspector came the books were whisked away, to be replaced with demure needlework. Manya was younger than her classmates, but she was so bright that she was often called upon to answer the inspector's questions. Her answers were flawless, but the tension of the situation made her break down and cry after the inspector left. After she graduated from her Polish-based school, she enrolled in a Russian Gymnasia. She had to tolerate her Russian teachers, but her proud nature would never allow her to succumb fully to their authority. Her teacher once complained, "I find that you are always looking down at me." Manya, who was taller, replied coolly, “The fact is that I can't do anything else." Nevertheless, she did enjoy school, and her hungry mind absorbed knowledge the way a parched earth absorbed the rain.

She graduated as the valedictorian of her class, but the constant strain of performing well caught up with her. Bedridden in a darken room, she suffered from what that would be eventually identified as depression. These episodes became a recurring theme of her life. Anxious for his daughter's health, her father sent her to live with some relatives in the countryside. She then had the best year of her life--sleigh-parties that lasted until midnight, childish games, dances and fun activities occupied most of her time. She put her science books aside and engaged herself with novels. She danced merrily throughout the night until her dancing shoes had to be thrown away.Throughout her studious childhood, clouded by the death of her beloved mother and sister, she had never known such joy.

But good times flew past. Manya returned to the reality of life. The Russian universities did not admit women, and to fulfill her dream she had to study abroad, at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. Her father had little means to support her and her sister Bronya. The little money he had went to their brother's Josef's medical education. Unwilling to watch her dreams disappear into nothing, Manya sought a way out. She volunteered to work as a governess, supporting her sister Bronya with her wages. In return, Bronya would support her once she was established as a doctor. The pact sealed, Manya departed to her new position as a governess, while her sister departed for her studies in France.

The position of a governess was a hard and lonely one. She was not a servant, yet she was not an equal to her superiors. She was a young lady who was expected to have good breeding and education, but did not enjoy the same privileged position as the daughter of the house. She was but a poor girl working in another family's house, struggling to make a living for herself. This was Manya's position--and it came between the relationship between herself and her employer's son. Her employers flew into a rage when they realised that their son intended to marry a penniless governess well below his station. Manya was forced to suffer from the humiliation as she swallowed her pride and continued to work at her employer's home. Eventually, her father found a position with better wages, and she was released from her nightmare, bidding her old life goodbye and heading for a new one in Paris.


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