A Student in Paris

Years of Study

M ANYA BECAME MARIE when she enrolled at the Sorbonne in fall 1891. At first she lived in the home of her sister. Bronya had married another Polish patriot, Casimir Dluski, whom she had met in medical school. The Dluskis' home, however, was an hour's commute by horse-drawn bus from the university, and Marie resented the lost time, not to mention the money wasted on carfare.
view of Paris, 1899
Paris in 1889 (two years before Marie Sklodowska's arrival), with the Eiffel Tower newly erected for a world's fair--a celebration of modern technology      [another view]

In addition, remaining with the Dluskis meant participating regularly in the active Polish exile community in Paris. Marie's father warned her that doing so might jeopardize her career prospects at home or even the lives of relatives there. Thus after a few months Marie moved to the Latin Quarter, the artists' and students' neighborhood close to the university.

Her living arrangements were basic. Stories from these years tell how she kept herself warm during the winter months by wearing every piece of clothing she owned, and how she fainted from hunger because she was too absorbed in study to eat. But even if Bronya had to come to her aid from time to time, living alone enabled Marie to focus seriously on her studies.

“...my situation was not exceptional; it was the familiar experience of many of the Polish students whom I knew....”

painting of Paris rooftops

Paris rooftops, painting by Gustave Caillebotte

S HE HAD A LOT OF CATCHING UP to do. Marie realized quickly that her fears of being insufficiently prepared were accurate. Neither her math and science background nor her proficiency in technical French equaled that of her fellow students. Refusing to lose heart, she determined to overcome these shortcomings through diligent work.
drawing of Marie Curie, 1892
Another Polish student in Paris drew this portrait of Marie in 1892, after she had been enrolled at the Sorbonne for some months. Although at first she spent some time with other Polish students to help overcome homesickness, she soon had to devote all her time to her studies. (Photo ACJC)

The diligence paid off. Marie finished first in her master's degree physics course in the summer of 1893 and second in math the following year. Lack of money had stood in the way of her undertaking the math degree, but senior French scientists recognized her abilities and pulled some strings. She was awarded a scholarship earmarked for an outstanding Polish student. Before completing the math degree she was also commissioned by the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry to do a study, relating magnetic properties of different steels to their chemical composition. She needed to find a lab where she could do the work.

Love and Marriage

T HE SEARCH FOR LAB SPACE led to a fateful introduction. In the spring of 1894, Marie Sklodowska mentioned her need for a lab to a Polish physicist of her acquaintance. It occurred to him that his colleague Pierre Curie might be able to assist her. Curie, who had done pioneering research on magnetism, was laboratory chief at the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Unaware of how inadequate Pierre's own lab facilities were, the professor suggested that perhaps Pierre could find room there for Marie to work. The meeting between Curie and Sklodowska would change not only their individual lives but also the course of science.

“I noticed the grave and gentle expression of his face, as well as a certain abandon in his attitude, suggesting the dreamer absorbed in his reflections.”

Marie would eventually find rudimentary lab space at the Municipal School. Meanwhile her relationship with Curie was growing from mutual respect to love. Her senior by about a decade, Pierre had all but given up on love after the death of a close woman companion some 15 years earlier. The women he had met since had shown no interest in science, his life's passion. In Marie, however, he found an equal with a comparable devotion to science.

POLAND STILL BECKONED HER BACK. After her success in her math exam in the summer of 1894, Marie returned there for a vacation, uncertain whether she would return to France. Pierre's heartfelt letters helped convince her to pursue her doctorate in Paris.

Marie and Pierre around 1894

Marie hesitated before agreeing to marry Pierre Curie, because such a decision “meant abandoning my country and my family.” (Photo ACJC)

READ Curie's words

Gabriel Lippman
Gabriel Lippmann, Marie Curie's thesis advisor, did early studies in a field in which Pierre Curie and his brother were pioneers: electrical effects in crystals. A pillar of the French tradition of patronage, Lippmann let Marie use his laboratory for her thesis work and helped her find other sources of support.

“Our work drew us closer and closer, until we were both convinced that neither of us could find a better life companion.”

Marie was determined not only to get her own doctorate but to see to it that Pierre received one as well. Although Pierre had done important scientific research in more than one field over the past 15 years, he had never completed a doctorate (in France the process consumed even more time than it did in the U.S. or U.K.). Marie insisted now that he write up his research on magnetism. In March 1895 he was awarded the degree. At the Municipal School Pierre was promoted to a professorship. The honor and the higher salary were offset by increased teaching duties without any improvement in lab space.

In a simple civil ceremony in July 1895, they became husband and wife. Neither wanted a religious service. Marie had lost her faith when her devout Roman Catholic mother died young, and Pierre was the son of non-practicing Protestants. Nor did they exchange rings. Instead of a bridal gown Marie wore a dark blue outfit, which for years after was a serviceable lab garment.

Curies with bicycles on honeymoon trip
The Curies' honeymoon trip was a tour of France on bicycles purchased with a wedding gift. (Photo ACJC)
                                              Another view

Working Wife and Mother

Pierre Curie

2000 - American Institute of Physics