Jillian Cantor’s new novel, Half Life, deconstructs the life of Nobel Prize–winning scientist Marie Curie with a fascinating premise: what if Maria Skolodowska had never left Poland in 1891 to go to Paris and reinvent herself as Marie Curie? Alternating narratives explore parallel realities of two fiercely independent women (one marries a Polish mathematician and finds her world constrained by domesticity, the other meets Pierre Curie and leads a “phosphorescent” life in France), while occasional crossovers underscore how both versions of Maria are dedicated to work, love, and family.
Half Life examines not only the life Marie Curie did live but also the life she might have led if she’d made just one different choice as a young woman. I was first drawn to writing about Marie Curie when I read a piece about her personal life, which was filled with enormous struggle and marked by tragedy. I always knew she achieved amazing things in her career as a scientist, but what drew me to her story was examining what everyday life must’ve been like for her. I was fascinated with how she managed to persevere, not only as a woman existing in a very male-dominated world and field, but also as a person dealing with so many obstacles to her own happiness and success. Here are ten things you probably don’t know about her:
1. She wasn’t supposed to get an education. Marie Curie was born Marya Sklodowska in 1867 and grew up in Russian controlled Poland, where women were not allowed access to higher education. She and her sister, Bronia, attended a “Flying University” as young women, educating themselves in secret, the location of their school ever changing to avoid detection.
2. She worked as a governess. After Bronia moved to Paris to study medicine at the Sorbonne, Marya worked as a governess in Poland to earn money to support her sister’s education, with the agreement that her sister would, in turn, support her to do the same a few years later.
3. She almost didn’t make it to Paris. Marya nearly got sidetracked when she fell in love and got engaged to the oldest son of the family she worked for. However, his mother made him break things off (believing Marya was not good enough for her son), and Marya moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne in 1891 after all. She started going by the more French version of her name, Marie, once she moved there.
4. Lab space came before love. Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie in 1894 by a mutual acquaintance who knew Pierre had the extra lab space Marie needed to carry out research on the magnetic properties of steel.
5. Her career came first. Though Marie and Pierre fell in love, Marie turned down his marriage proposal three times, only accepting after he offered to give up his own scientific career to move to Poland with her, as she’d always planned to do after she finished her studies in Paris.
6. She didn’t get her dream job. Marie was turned down for the position she believed she’d get in Poland because she was a woman, and she and Pierre stayed in Paris to live and work after they got married after all.
7. She kept Poland in her heart. Marie discovered both radium and polonium, naming the latter after Poland, a country she always thought of as home and hoped to return to. Though she lived her entire adult life in France, she did eventually open a research institute in Warsaw in 1932, which was initially overseen and run by her sister, Bronia.
8. She was a record-breaker in more ways than one. Marie was not only the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person to win it twice. She shared the prize in physics with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel in 1903. In 1911 she won in chemistry, during the height of a personal scandal playing out in the press. The Nobel committee asked her not to come to Sweden to accept, for fear of more bad press. But she went anyway.
9. Nobel Prizes ran in the family. Marie had two daughters. Irène—who also became a scientist and went on to win her own Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 (which she shared with her husband Frédéric). And Ève – who became a concert pianist and then a writer and was the only one in the family not to win a Nobel Prize. However, she married a diplomat, Henry Labouisse, who did accept the Nobel peace prize on behalf of UNICEF in 1965 (where he was the executive director).
10. Her notebooks are radioactive. Marie Curie died in 1934 of aplastic anemia (likely due to so much radiation exposure from her work with radium). Marie’s notebooks are still today stored in lead-lined boxes in France, as they were so contaminated with radium, they’re radioactive and will be for many years to come. Radium, after all, has a half life of 1,600 years.