The female heroes of my childhood: Marie Curie

At work yesterday, I proudly proclaimed that Polonium is my favorite element. I was only partially kidding. I have dramatically yelled at Jeopardy contestants for not knowing Marie Curie discovered Radium and Polonium. “It’s named after her home country, you dum dums!” I probably* screamed. *I’m sure I used worse language.

The idea that I have a favorite element is somewhat amusing. Despite excelling in AP Chem, I have no interest in the field, and my talents in chemistry fail as soon as I’m faced with practical application, i.e. a lab.

It’s not that Polonium is my favorite element so much as Marie Curie is one of my favorite historical figures.

Growing up, my heroes were usually interesting historical figures who were either: amazing women or Polish. Marie Curie was both.

My grandfather was Polish. My motley American “melting pot” background means the rest of my ancestry is a mixture of Czech, Austrian, and … my dad’s side (Irish? Swedish? Who knows). I was always intrigued by the Polish side of my background and the family legend that we’re related to Nicolas Copernicus (also Polish).

Thus, when my grade school classmates were writing about how they want to be Michael Jordan or The President when they grow up, I was writing odes to Marie Sklodowska Curie. I always had a cursory knowledge of Curie. Her prominence as a chemist and female scientist.

I’ve continued to happen upon Curie through my life. I stumbled upon the Curie museum in Warsaw, a cute building tucked away near old town that prominently features black and white photographs and rarely translated captions. (I’d recommend the Copernicus museum in Torun, Poland, over Curie’s in Warsaw, if you’re looking for a tour of Polish scientists.) It’s there that I learned about Pierre Curie’s tragic-comic demise. He slipped on wet cobblestone and was run over by a carriage, an accidental death that has always struck me as particularly horrific. When on a poorly planned weekend to Stockholm, I explored the Nobel museum’s special exhibit, all about Curie’s work.

A week ago, a coworker posted a personality test for our office. I proudly proclaimed to all those who read our Slack channel that I shared a personality color with Marie Curie. And while I’m sure she had her flaws, as we all do, I can’t help wishing I had some more of her strengths. Curie didn’t mess around. She even starved herself in order to afford her time at the Sorbonne. She worked constantly, diligently, thoroughly. Her notebooks are still radioactive. She was passionate and intelligent. She has two Nobel prizes to her name. She never forgot where she came from. I can’t help but be inspired by her dedication. (Though I hope my passions don’t also cause my demise, like her radioactive research caused hers.)

Curie isn’t the perfect role model. I doubt any person is. But aspects of her life have been inspiring throughout mine. And that’s enough for me.

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