by Eleanor Doorly
illustrated by Robert Gibbings
Interests: science, scientists, biography, history, strong girls, Paris, Poland
181 pages, 19 chapters
Also by this author: The Insect Man (a biography of Fabre), The Microbe Man (a biography of Pasteur)
A lively, conversational account of the life of the most famous female scientist in history, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only person to win in multiple sciences (Physics and Chemistry). From her childhood in occupied Poland, to hard years working as a governess, Maria Sklodovski always dreamed of going to university and studying science. Before she could realize her dream however, she insisted on supporting her older sister through medical school. When she finally arrived in Paris, poor as she was, Maria was deliriously happy to be studying what she loved. After meeting and marrying the famous young scientist Pierre Curie, she continued her work, juggling housework and a newborn daughter. Together she and Pierre discovered brand new elements, working diligently for many years before making the discovery that would make them famous – that of the element Radium.
Curie’s life story is a demonstration of the power of perseverance, hard work and diligent study. She loved science with all her being, and wanted nothing more than to be allowed to do her work in peace. After Pierre’s untimely, accidental death, she continued in her quiet, determined way to continue their studies of the radioactive elements. During World War I she even worked to supply X-ray machines and technicians to field hospitals throughout the French countryside, work which saved countless lives but shortened her own, due to over-exposure to radium.
This is a wonderful story of a scientist’s life, and the struggles of a brilliant, determined woman in a male-dominated field. And the Curies were principled as well as talented – they chose not to patent their procedures thus sacrificing the possibility of great wealth, preferring to provide their research free to the world, in the interests of helping everyone.
This book is written in a friendly and accessible manner, however at times it doesn’t give enough historical background. The author seems to assume a knowledge of 19th century history that modern readers will not have. For example, at the beginning Manya and her Polish friends are required to learn only Russian in school, though they secretly study Polish history and language at every opportunity. The reasons for this aren’t explained quite enough, but hopefully the story will prompt readers to want to know more about that period in European history.
The full consequences of the discovery of radium and later discoveries regarding the dangers of radioactivity are conspicuously absent from this book, written as it was in the 1930s. Other more recent accounts could fill in these gaps.
The block-print illustrations are striking, but I found myself wishing there were photos instead – photos of the people involved, and the locations and homes, to make the historical period come alive for the reader.
In general, the story moves along nicely and the tribulations of Marie’s life never seem to bog her down. She was single-minded and driven, but also fun-loving and warm. And as this account is adapted from the biography by Marie’s daughter Eve, it includes detailed and loving scenes of home life and holidays.
Unfortunately it appears that this book is out of print, but second-hand copies may be found online.