MARIE CURIE (1867-1934)

Hard worker!


You think you've worked hard? You think you've dedicated your life to your career? Well, you've done nothing compared to Marie Curie!

If you want inspiration, read the following description of her struggles as a student in Paris:

"By deliberate intention she had suppressed diversions from her schedule, as well as friendly meetings and contact with human beings. In the same way she decided that material life had no importance; that it did not exist. And, fortified by this principle, she made for herself a Spartan existence, strange and inhuman.

Rue Flatters, Boulevard Port-Royal, Rue des Feuillantines ... All the rooms Marie was to inhabit were alike in discomfort and cheapness of rent. The first was situated in a poorly furnished house where students, doctors and officers of the neighborhood garrison lived. Later on the girl, in search of absolute calm, was to take an attic like a servant's room at the top of a middle-class house. For fifteen or twenty francs a month she found a tiny nook which obtained light from a loophole giving directly on the slope of the roof. Through this skylight appeared a small square of sky. There was no heat, no lighting, no water.

Marie furnished this place with all the objects she possessed: an iron folding bed, the mattress she had brought from Poland, a stove, a white wooden table, a kitchen chair, a washbasin; a petroleum oil lamp, covered by a twopenny shade; a pitcher which she had to fill at the tap on the landing; an alcohol heater about as big as a saucer, which was to cook her meals for the next three years; two plates, a knife, a fork, a spoon, a cup, a stewpan; and finally a kettle and three glasses into which, according to Polish custom, the student would pour tea when the Dluskis came to see her. On the occassions - very rare at present - when Marie received visitors, the rights of hospitality were asserted: the girl lighted the little stove, whose zigzag pipe described complicated angles in the room. And for a seat she pulled out of its corner the bulging brown trunk which served her as wardrobe and chest of drawers.

No service, of course: even one hour of cleaning a day would have overweighted the expense side of the budget. Transportation costs were surpressed: Marie went to the Sorbonne on foot in all weathers. Coal was kept down to a minimum: one or two sacks of 'lumps' for the winter, which the girl bought from the merchant on the corner and hoisted up the steep stairs herself to the sixth floor, bucketful by bucketful, stopping at each floor to breathe. Lights were at a minimum: as soon as night fell, the student took refuge in that blessed asylum called the Library of Saint-Genevieve, where the gas was lighted and it was warm. Seated at one of the big rectangular tables with her head in her hands, a poor Polish girl could work until they closed the doors at ten o'clock. From then on all that was needed was enough petroleum to keep the light going in her room until two in the morning. Then, with eyes reddened by fatigue, Marie left her books and threw herself on the bed...

Marie did not admit that she could be cold or hungry. In order not to buy coal - and through sheer carelessness too - she often neglected to light the little stove with the twisted pipe, and she wrote figures and equations without noticing that her fingers were getting numb and her shoulders shaking. A hot soup or a bit of meat would have comforted her; but Marie did not know how to make soup. Marie could not spend a franc and lose a half hour to cook herself a chop. She hardly ever entered a butcher's shop, and even less the restaurant: it was too dear. For weeks at a time she ate nothing but buttered bread and tea. When she wanted a feast, she went into a creamery in the Latin Quarter and ate two eggs, or else bought herself a piece of chocolate or some fruit.

On this diet the fresh, solid girl who had left Warsaw a few months before rapidly grew anaemic. Often, as she was getting up from her table, her head would go round. She had just time to get to her bed when she would lose consciousness. Coming back to herself, she would ask why she had fainted; she would think herself ill and distain her illness as she did everything else. It never occurred to her that she was dropping with weakness and that her only disease was that of starvation...."

"Rereading a little poem of my mother's, written in Polish, on this time of her life, and remembering the accounts of it that she sometimes gave me, with many a smile and humorous remark, looking at the only portrait of herself which she dearly cherished: the small photograph of a student girl with daring eyes and determined chin, I have felt that she never ceased to prefer these hard, fervent days to all others.

Ah! how harshly the youth of the student passes,
While all around her, with passions ever fresh,
Other youths search eagerly for easy pleasures!
And yet in solitude
She lives, obscure and blessed,
For in her cell she finds the ardor
That makes her heart immense.

But the blessed time is effaced.
She must leave the land of Science
To go out and struggle for her bread
On the grey roads of life.
Often and often then, her weary spirit
Returns beneath the roofs
To the corner ever dear to her heart
Where silent labor dwelled
And where a world of memory rested.

No doubt Marie knew other joys later. But even in her hours of infinite tenderness, even in the hour of triumph and fame, the eternal student was never so content with herself, so proud, as in the poverty and fire of this integral effort. She was proud of living alone and independent in a foreign city. Working in the evening beneath the lamp in her poor room she felt that her destiny, still insignificant, mysteriously related itself to the high existences she most admired, and that she became the humble unknown companion of those great scientists of the past, who were, like her, shut into their ill-lighted cells, like her detached from their time, and, like her, spurred their minds to pass beyond the sum of acquired knowledge.

Yes, these four heroic years were, not the happiest of Marie Curie's life, but the most perfect in her eyes, the nearest to those summits of the human mission toward which her gaze had been trained. When one is young and solitary and swallowed up in study, one can 'not have enough to live on' - and yet live to the fullest. An immense enthusiasm gave this girl of twenty-six the power to ignore the trials and privations she endured; to magnify her sordid existence into magic. later on, love, maternity, the worries of a wife and mother, the complexities of crushingly hard work, were to restore the visionary to real life. But in the enchanted moment when she was poorer than she was ever to be again, she was as reckless as a child. She floated lightly in another world, that which her thought was to regard always as the only pure and true one.

Each day could not be altogether excellent in an adventure like this. There were unforeseen accidents which suddenly upset everything and seemed irremediable: a fatigue impossible to surmount, a short illness requiring care. Still other, and terrifying catastrophes: the one pair of shoes, with leaky soles, gave out finally, and the purchase of new shoes became necessary. This meant a budget upside down for weeks, and the enormous expense had to made up at all costs, on meals or on petroleum for the lamp.

Or else the winter was longer than usual and the sixth-floor garret was icy. It was so cold that Marie could no longer sleep; she shivered and chattered with it. Her supply of coal was exhausted ... But what of that? Could a Polish girl be conquered by a Parisian winter? Marie lighted her lamp again and looked about her. She opened the fat trunk and gathered together all the garmets she possessed. She put on all she could, then, having slipped into bed, she piled the rest, her other dress, her linen, on top of the single coverlet. But it was still too cold. Marie stretched out her arm, pulled the one chair over to her, raised it and piled it, too, on top of the amassed garmets, giving herself some sort of illusion of weight and heat.

All she had to do now was wait for sleep, without moving, so as to preserve the scaffolding of which she was the living base. Meanwhile, a layer of ice was slowly forming in the water pitcher."

From: "Madame Curie: A Biography", by Eve Curie, Garden City Publishing Co., NY, 1940, pgs. 107-109, 116-118.