Marie Curie Attended a Secret, Underground “Flying University” When Women Were Banned from Polish Universities

curie underground education

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Marie Curie has long stood in the pan­theon of sci­en­tists for her research on radioac­tiv­i­ty — research so close to the sub­ject that, as we post­ed about last year, her papers remain radioac­tive over a cen­tu­ry lat­er. She’s also become the most promi­nent his­tor­i­cal role mod­el for female stu­dents with an inter­est in sci­ence, not least because of the obsta­cles she had to sur­mount to arrive at the posi­tion where she could do her research in the first place. Born in 19th-cen­tu­ry Poland to a fam­i­ly finan­cial­ly hum­bled by their par­tic­i­pa­tion in polit­i­cal strug­gles for inde­pen­dence from Rus­sia (whose author­i­ties took lab­o­ra­to­ry instruc­tion out of the coun­try’s schools), she hard­ly had a smooth road to fol­low, or even much of a road at all.

“I was only fif­teen when I fin­ished my high-school stud­ies, always hav­ing held first rank in my class,” Curie wrote of those years. “The fatigue of growth and study com­pelled me to take almost a year’s rest in the coun­try.” But when she returned to the cap­i­tal, she could­n’t con­tin­ue her for­mal learn­ing there, giv­en the Uni­ver­si­ty of War­saw’s refusal to admit women. So she con­tin­ued her learn­ing infor­mal­ly, get­ting involved with the “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” (or “Float­ing Uni­ver­si­ty”) that in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry clan­des­tine­ly offered an edu­ca­tion in ever-chang­ing loca­tions, often pri­vate hous­es, through­out the city. (Over 5,000 Poles, male and female, ben­e­fit­ed from its ser­vices, includ­ing the writer Zofia Nałkows­ka and doc­tor Janusz Kor­czak.)

Marie Curie and the Sci­ence of Radioac­tiv­i­ty author Nao­mi Pasa­choff writes that “the mis­sion of the patri­ot­ic par­tic­i­pants of the Float­ing Uni­ver­si­ty,” as its name is also trans­lat­ed, “was to bring about Poland’s even­tu­al free­dom by enlarg­ing and strength­en­ing its edu­cat­ed class­es.” Young­sters eager to read more about Curie’s expe­ri­ence there might like to read Marie Curie and the Dis­cov­ery of Radi­um, whose authors Ann E. Steinke and Roger Xavier write of Curie’s expe­ri­ence lis­ten­ing to “lessons on anato­my, nat­ur­al his­to­ry, and soci­ol­o­gy. In turn she gave lessons to women from poor fam­i­lies.” She would lat­er describe her time there as the ori­gin of her inter­est in exper­i­men­tal sci­en­tif­ic work.

With their sights set on West­ern Europe, Curie (then Maria Skłodows­ka) and her sis­ter Bro­nis­lawa (known as Bronya) made a pact: “Maria would work as a gov­erness to help pay for Bronya’s med­ical stud­ies in Paris. As soon as Bronya was trained and began to earn mon­ey, she would help cov­er the costs of Maria’s uni­ver­si­ty train­ing.” Curie earned two degrees in Paris in 1893 and 1894, and her first Nobel Prize in 1903. The Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty last­ed until 1905, and the oper­a­tion would lat­er return to activ­i­ty in the late 1970s and ear­ly 80s with Poland under the thumb of com­mu­nism. We now live in more enlight­ened times, with prop­er edu­ca­tions, sci­en­tif­ic or oth­er­wise, avail­able to stu­dents male or female across most of the world — thanks to the will that drove uncon­ven­tion­al insti­tu­tions like the Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty, and its uncon­ven­tion­al stu­dents like Marie Curie.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Marie Curie’s Research Papers Are Still Radioac­tive 100+ Years Lat­er

New Archive Puts 1000s of Einstein’s Papers Online, Includ­ing This Great Let­ter to Marie Curie

Free Online Physics Cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, Marie Curie Attend­ed a Secret, Under­ground “Fly­ing Uni­ver­si­ty” When Women Were Banned from Pol­ish Uni­ver­si­ties

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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