"We are working here and I do hope we will be useful for something". (Maria Curie-Sklodowska, Correspondence with the daughter Irene) (1)
In this essay I would like to examine the impact of the world view of Maria Curie-Sklodowska (1867-1934) on her life and professional achievements. I would like to answer the question of how an anonymous woman from Central-Eastern Europe has achieved so much at the beginning of the twentieth century--at a time when the world was generally not friendly towards women, not even on a declarative level, especially to their education and professional aspirations. Moreover, this woman was born in a country that was not present then on the world map, and where the education of young Poles faced insurmountable barriers (since Polish was banned as a language of instruction at schools).
Therefore, I ask why Maria Curie-Sklodowska, who was married (widowed since 1911) and had two daughters:
-- was the first woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize (1903),
-- was the first and only woman to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and the only one that received them in different fields (in Physics-1903 and in Chemistry-1911),
-- was the first woman in history to become a professor at the Sorbonne (1911),
-- cofounded (as one of two women) and then (since 1923) was a deputy chairman of the first international commission on intellectual cooperation (Comission Internationale de la Cooperation Intelectuelle)?
Certainly the reasons for Maria Curie-Sklodowska's success were her natural abilities, character and hard work. However, she was not the only talented, persevering and industrious woman at that time. The sine qua non of her success was something more than that. She was able to succeed due to her world view, expressed in an individual hierarchy of values and implemented in life. Without this hierarchy Curie-Sklodowska would have achieved no more than other intellectually gifted women at that time, for whom the peak of professional performance was a teaching post at girls' school. Only a combination of natural talents, character and a particular world view laid the foundations for Maria Curie's academic and personal success.
Aiming at the identification and analysis of Maria Curie-Sklodowska's hierarchy of values, my research is based on her letters and autobiography, from which a clear and simple system of values emerges. For Maria Curie the most cherished values were: firstly, professional work (particularly scientific work); secondly, social utility of work and science; and, finally, science and education.
'Work' is a key word to Marie Curie's writings, which is repeated and referred to again and again. Its meaning describes the most important value in Maria Curie's life. In Autobiographical Notes she writes: "first of all in our [Pierre and Maria's] life was our scientific work" (2). But for her work it would have been her life. Working was always more important for her than any other responsibilities. She writes about her dilemmas after giving birth to her first daughter: "It became a serious problem how to take care of our little Irene and of our home without giving up my scientific work. Such a renunciation would have been very painful to me". (3)
Even when she was unable to work as a scholar during the war, and when her daughters missed her and feared the German invasion of France, she was still working. She trained medical staff in radiology and arranged a radiology war front service. If no one else could do that, Maria Curie x-rayed wounded people at the front by herself, arriving at field hospitals with a van containing radiology equipment.
In the analyzed value system the second most important position is occupied by utility, which is understood by Maria Curie as altruism, social usefulness, and contribution to the progress of society. Usability is also an universal desire to maximize common profit and--in this way--people's happiness. …