Her life was, in a word, heroic. Marie Curie was absolutely unstoppable in any task she undertook, no matter what the obstacles. “First principle: never let one's self be beaten down by persons or by events,” she wrote in a letter to a friend when she was twenty-one. At the time, she was enduring life as a governess in a small town in Poland and dreaming of a university education in Paris. Student life at the Sorbonne eventually became a reality, and despite an erratic secondary education in Warsaw, she overcame the deficiencies, placed first in her licence ès sciences examination (among 1,825 students, 23 of them women), and second in the licence ès mathematiques examination. She chose as a topic for a doctoral thesis an immensely difficult study of the recently discovered phenomena of radioactivity. For that work she received a Nobel Prize, the first woman to do so, and later a second Nobel Prize; she was the first scientist, man or woman, to be so honored. She was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne, and came within two votes of being the first woman elected to the Académie des sciences (the only time in her life she allowed herself to be “beaten down”). During World War I, she designed and directed the operation of a fleet of mobile x-ray radiology units amidst the horrors and chaos of the western front. After the war, she became a superb laboratory director, taking on not only the scientific duties, which she loved, but also the chores of fund-raising and public relations, which she detested.
She was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw. Except in the patriotic spirit of its citizens, Poland did not then exist as a nation. At the end of the eighteenth century, the country had been carved into three provinces by Russia, Austria, and Prussia; Warsaw was oppressively ruled by Russia. Maria's father, Wladyslaw, was a professor of physics and mathematics in a government (Russiancontrolled) secondary school, but he suffered a series of demotions because of political differences with his Russian superiors. Finally he was forced to run a private boarding school in his home. “I found… ready help [in mathematics