I have a confession to make. I didn’t know Marie Curie was Polish. I mean, I knew she was Polish. But not really. To be honest, when my mum used to tell me, I didn’t really believe her.
Why not? Perhaps because it was akin to her always telling me that the best shoes are Italian. Or that Poles invented almost anything. Or if I climbed that tree, I would fall out of it and die. My mum you see, is a proud person of her country. Especially the one she doesn’t live in.
I got that Chopin was Polish. He didn’t live in Poland either. But ok, he was Polish. We went to his country home near Warsaw more than once. We put those generic slipper socks on and did 360s on his polished floors. Polished Polish floors. Hehe. And had our photos taken with the grand lion statues outside. So we knew Chopin was the real deal.
But Marie Curie? We never went to visit her country residence. Her manor home. Aha. Turns out she didn’t have one – that’s why. I discovered through helping Delphine with her science homework that Marie Curie was from a distinguished family who lost most of their wealth – during the 19th century Russian occupation of Poland. Her parents were teachers, but their resistance to the Russians left them in financial hardship.
Basically Marie Curie’s family were badasses. Ok, I thought. That must have been where she got it from. Coining the term ‘radioactivity’ with her husband. Discovering radium and polonium. Developing the first mobile X-ray units used in World War I.
I probably wouldn’t have discovered this if it wasn’t for helping Delphine. I wouldn’t have got those goosebumps while we were answering questions about her life.
Also, I’m a bit ashamed of myself. Did I not listen to my mother properly? Passed my mother’s comments off as outhouse nationalism? Firstly, I’d taken it for granted that her name was Curie. That was her married name. Duh. Her name was Maria Skłodowska. She’d gotten married and Frenchified it.
Then, secondly, is my institutional misogyny. Had I not taken her legacy seriously – because well, you know. Woman are trained early to hate on other women. Another reason why working with my girls is a humbling experience. Pushing girls to push hard. Break ceilings. Be ambassadors. It has to start at home.
And lastly, there is a Marie Curie figure in my family. Not one who earned two Nobel Prizes for two separate fields – physics and chemistry: the first scientist to ever do so. But a chemist nonetheless who worked during the war and lost the love of her life to a Siberian Gulag.
She too was a graduate of chemistry and died early – like Curie, working with harmful chemicals without adequate protection. We know her name every time we visit my grandpa’s grave in Warsaw. Irena Lewandowska. She was my grandpa’s sister. They are buried together under a beautiful tree.
So now I know, I really know who Marie Curie was. She worked non-stop. Loved her kids but hardly ever saw them. They loved her back. And she was Polish. No wait. She was a Polish badass. I wish we’d visited her house too.