XKCD is one of the few web comics I still follow (Hark, a Vagrant and Perry Bible Fellowship, I’m lookin’ at you), so imagine my excitement when I saw one of my all-time favorite heroines, Marie Curie, in a recent comic. (ETA: Apparently it wasn’t recent! I am expos’d!)
Oh, wait. Zombie Marie Curie is telling people not to use her as an example of a female scientist.
While the point of the comic is well taken (we should have a multifaceted history of women in science to draw from, of course Marie Curie wasn’t the only woman scientist of note, forge your own path and be incomparable!, blah blah blah), something about Marie’s denial of her own greatness rubbed me the wrong way. YOU GUYS. Leave Marie Curie alone! Marya Sklodowska Curie was pretty amazing! Please do not forget this!
Case in point:
Marie Curie worked her way through school. In a move that will inspire every starving college student and every young adult who struggles to make it, Marie Curie tutored when she wasn’t at school at the Sorbonne in Paris. Not only did she do this, but before moving to France, she worked as a governess and a tutor to provide financial assistance to her sister, Bronislava, who preceded her to the Sorbonne and gave her similar help once she had her degree.
Marie Curie agitated for Polish independence. Though it was illegal for Poles in Russian-occupied Poland to speak their own language, Marie (who was originally named Marya) did so and even attended an illegal “floating university” taught in Polish at night. Wonder why she named one of the elements she discovered polonium? Case closed.
Marie Curie struggled with depression. It is thought that Marie had a nervous breakdown when she was 15 years old, and she struggled with grief and depression throughout her life…while achieving some truly amazing things.
Marie Curie made many of her scientific discoveries in a shed. Yup, a shed, which was the only place the Sorbonne would give her to conduct her experiments alongside husband Pierre Curie. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but there are tales of the shed’s, shall we say, rudimentary charms, which included a leaky roof and bitter cold. In this shed, Marie and Pierre processed tons of pitchblende and discovered the radioactive elements that would make them famous.
Marie Curie invented a mobile X-ray unit that treated over 1 million soldiers. During World War I, Marie invented and deployed mobile radiology units to assist surgeons on the front. She also attempted to give the war effort her gold Nobel Prizes, but was thwarted when the French National Bank refused to cash them.
Marie Curie was stubborn, problematic, and testy. I don’t know about you, but I like my heroines complicated. Not only was Marie Curie the other woman in an affair (!!!) after the tragic death of Pierre Curie, but she was always noted for her ability to focus exclusively on the task at hand and her lack of interest in awards, accolades, and fanciness of any kind. Here’s what her colleague Albert Einstein had to say about Marie:
“Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”
In conclusion, I won’t be getting over Marie Curie any time soon.