The Radium Woman


The Radium Woman

by Eleanor Doorly

illustrated by Robert Gibbings

Age: 10

Interests: science, scientists, biography, history, strong girls, Paris, Poland

Heinemann: 1939

181 pages, 19 chapters

Also by this author: The Insect Man (a biography of Fabre), The Microbe Man (a biography of Pasteur)

Next: more on Marie Curie: DK Biography: Marie Curie, and others; science biographies: Snowflake Bentley, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci; biographies of other pioneering women: Invincible Louisa

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.

(used copies available via


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. blogali
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 12:04:24

    Thank you for this post!

    In Maria Skłodowska’s times Poland was not occupied but partitioned. It may seem like a petty remark but in fact it’s important. Warsaw, where Maria and Manya grew up, was a part of the Russian Empire. That’s why both sisters had to study Russian language at school, and why they resented it.

    Does this book mentions Maria’s father? Władysław Skłodowski was a scientist himself, a teacher of physics and mathematics, and he supported his daughters’s aspirations when it was not all that common. In a sense, the father was more crucial for Maria’s career, than Pierre Curie.

    It’s also worth to emphasize (does this book do it?), that Maria studied and worked in her second language, that is French. We tend to forget about it, but this fact may serve as a model or inspiration to many young people in the U.S., for whom English is not their first language.

    All the best! 🙂


    • Kim
      Jan 23, 2014 @ 12:36:48

      Thank you for the correction! The book does in fact talk about Maria’s father and how important his influence was on his children and their education. It paints a very warm picture of him, in fact. In addition, the biography makes it clear that Maria was extremely gifted and on her way to great things before she even met Pierre, as young as she was. Thanks again for your comment!


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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