When I was a kid, Marie Curie was my greatest idol. I wanted to be a physicist for years, and I loved reading biographies of Curie, fascinated by her intelligence, drive, and passion for nuclear physics.
A Polish woman who lived most of her life in France, Curie (born Marie Sklodowska) had two children with husband Pierre Curie, also an eminent scientist. Pierre was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn carriage ran him down, crushing his head.
The following poem is in the current issue of 32 Poems (Vol. 3 No. 1) on page 22:
Marie Curie Gives Advice to her
Daughter Irene Before her Wedding
I remember this moment--the pram distilled,
its sediment was an infant,
no longer something born from me,
not residue, not pitchblende,
but its own particle,
an open mouth, a cry,
within its head, a mind wrestling with thoughts
--my motherland could be there,
driven into the skull,
some ancient homing.
Years I have soaked
I've begun to bleed light.
I see your father again
crossing streets in rain--
the doors are locked,
his umbrella fills with wind,
the horses approach,
hauling a wagon of soldier's uniforms--
something to dress the dead--
it's come to crush him.
My navy suit with solid stitching crushes me.
And since then I've begun to confuse
the glowing test tubes
with wicks of the moon, a dazing field of stars,
my own soul, and a moment goes by
when I forget the brutish charm of work.
My hope, daughter, is that
what you love doesn't come to kill you,
eye by eye, ear by ear, bone by radiant bone.
Marie Curie died from complications of radiation poisoning, although it is unclear whether in 1926--the year of Irene's wedding--she was aware that her ill health was due to radiaton. The first physicists who worked with these elements were mostly ignorant of the connection between their later ill health and radiation, which seems shocking to us today. What is especially poignant is that Irene goes on to become one of the most revered scientists in France, like her mother also wins the Nobel Prize (along with her husband), and later dies of leukemia contracted from exposure to radium.
Both of these women worked in an exciting, difficult, and deadly field, but before they left the earth, they made remarkable accomplishments for science and for women. They lived lives of dedication and passion.
Marie Curie photo found here.