Maria Sklodowska1 is one of the great names in the history of science. Her work led to the discovery of radium, polonium, and the invention of the term “radioactivity,” and she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize twice—first in physics and later in chemistry.
What set the young woman who would become known to the world as Madame Curie on her path to such creative and scientific success? To answer that question, we must return to her childhood and adolescence in Poland—a period when we see what in the theory of positive disintegration is called developmental potential—that inborn endowment that determines the level of development an individual can reach, given optimal physical and environmental conditions.2
In this first of a two-part series exploring Maria Sklodowska Curie’s development as an example of positive disintegration, I will explore her developmental potential as exhibited by her family influences, dreams, and responses to trauma amidst the political situation in Poland.3
The Poland into which Maria was born in 1867 had been partitioned for several decades by its neighbouring countries, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, before disappearing completely from the European map in 1795. Central and eastern Poland, with Warsaw included, became part of the Russian Empire and were subjected to intensive Russification, depriving Poles of their national heritage, religion, and culture in an effort to kill the soul of Polish people.
The Polish language was banned in schools and public places; the practice of Catholicism was forbidden, as was the teaching of Polish language and Polish history. Warsaw University was closed and replaced by a Russian-language Imperial University; professors were mandated to lecture in Russian and women were strictly denied admission. All schools, from primary to university, were placed under the strict control of the Russian curator of Warsaw, who regularly exercised their right to send agents to every school. Young students grew accustomed to intimidation, lies, and hypocrisy by administrators: they and their parents could be arrested and sent to Siberia at any time, just for speaking in their native language and for voicing their beliefs.
Maria was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867 into a family with four older children: three girls, Zofia, Bronya, and Helena, and one boy, Jozef. Both of Maria’s parents were very well educated. Her father, Wladyslaw, studied science at the University of Petersburg and taught mathematics and physics at a gymnasium (secondary school); her mother, Bronislawa studied at a prestigious private school for girls in Warsaw and later became a teacher and principal of the same school.
The family was very close, caring, and loving. Given the political situation in Poland, Maria’s parents did their best to soften a cruel, humiliating, and fearful atmosphere, often taking the whole family for vacations to the countryside, playing games, reading Polish books, and teaching the children science in their home.
Early Abilities, Talents, and Overexcitabilities
When she was four years old, Maria began reading spontaneously, to the astonishment of her parents. We can only assume that it was their shocked faces that triggered her consequent crying: too young to understand that this was not an unforgivable mistake, she felt worry and guilt over her ability to read so easily.
Maria would often be so engrossed in her reading that she lost consciousness of what was happening around her. This became a defense mechanism to reduce the nervousness she felt in the face of the stimuli of this world. She also had an amazing memory; she was able to recite poems after reading them no more than twice, and she could vividly recall events she had experienced during family vacations in the countryside.
Maria’s obsession with reading is an indicator of her intellectual overexcitability. Her experience of guilt is a dynamism expressing strong feeling of responsibility for one’s own imperfection and the need to satisfying other people4—indicative of strong emotional overexcitability.
Humiliating Events at School
When she was six years old, Maria attended a private school and excelled—even in a class of students two years her senior. She was known to act with vigor and independent spirit, and despite her achievements, teachers came to view her as stubborn.
During her time at school, the Russian school inspector visited frequently to question students and teachers alike; Maria was almost always chosen for the inspector’s questioning as she was fluent in Russian and the most knowledgeable in her class. Maria experienced enormous tension during these visits. She was acutely aware of the dangers posed by the inspector, choosing to tell lies during inspections in order to protect her family, classmates, and teachers from Siberian exile. The self-control required to suppress her fear and maintain the falsehood took a toll on her; she would often burst into tears afterwards to discharge the emotional tension that had built up and continued to be deeply disturbed hours after inspection was over. Maria hated these visits. She found them humiliating, yet her actions during these events demonstrated her intellectual and emotional maturity, even at the young age of six.
During Maria’s childhood, the Sklodowski5 family experienced a series of losses, which impacted her deeply. In 1873, her father lost his job when he stood firm against his Russian supervisor. Consequently, the family struggled financially, moved to a smaller apartment, and took on schoolboys as renters to make ends meet. Then, in 1876, Maria’s oldest sister, Zofia contracted typhus from one of the renters and died. A couple of years later, she lost her mother to tuberculosis. As she grew up without her mother’s love and tenderness and missed the protection of her older sister, Maria began to view life as cruel, leading her to question the existence of God.
At fourteen years old, Maria began her secondary education at an Imperial gymnasium and became one of its most brilliant students. Here, she continued to butt heads with teachers who saw her as stubborn and disrespectful.
During her time there, she was in constant battle with one of the most detested teachers at the school. This feud peaked after she and her friend Kazia were caught dancing with joy in celebration of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II—an oppressor of the Polish people. Influenced by her strong emotional overexcitability, Maria expressed her love for her country in this spontaneous and unpredictable way, feeling a sense of relief and freedom she had never experienced before.
Despite the challenges she faced, within two years, she completed her secondary studies with a gold medal, demonstrating a high level of intellectual and emotional overexcitability.
After completing her studies, Wladyslaw decided to send Maria to the countryside for a year-long vacation, to reward her for her hard work and to regain her health. For the first time in her short life, Maria allowed herself to be frivolous. She rode horses, rowed boats, swam, danced, and rode sleighs. She felt free, independent, and enthusiastic. Her rejuvenation through such physical activities points to a degree of psychomotor overexcitability in Maria. During this long vacation, she developed a passion for the countryside by observing the changes of the seasons and discovering the beauty of nature through the Polish landscape—influenced by her emotional and sensual overexcitability. Many years later, Maria would often recall this time as one of the happiest in her life.
Upon returning from the countryside in 1884, Maria learned of the poor financial situation at home. She and Bronya decided to make their own way in the world to support their family and to raise funds to further their education. Maria became a tutor and gave lessons in arithmetic, geometry, and French; this job was often thankless but she accepted it as a necessity of her life.
Like a lot of young Poles, Maria dreamed of Polish independence and nationhood. Unlike them, however, she did not dream of taking part in assassinations, throwing bombs at the Tsar’s carriage nor at the governor of Warsaw. Instead, Maria joined a peaceful movement started by the Polish intelligentsia who adopted ideas of Positivism: to work, to grow the intellectual wealth in Poland, and to develop the education of the poor.
Unable to attend the University of Warsaw, from 1884 to September of 1885, Maria continued her education in the “Floating University,” an underground and informal educational institution where Polish youths had an opportunity to study a variety of subjects such as social and natural sciences, pedagogy, history, and philology—among the teachers were some of the best Polish professors, philosophers and historians. The main purpose of this illegal education was not only to expand young people’s knowledge and culture, but also to give them a chance to become educators of poor people who didn’t have access to schools. Maria was one of them; she was giving lessons to poor women and distributing and reading Polish books to them.
During this time, Maria’s interest expanded beyond mathematics and physics. She was fascinated by the ideas of positive philosophy and social evolution, developed by a French philosopher Auguste Comte. She also immersed herself in reading of a variety of literature such as psychological novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, romantic poems by Zygmunt Krasinski, Juliusz Slovacki and Adam Mickiewicz, and contemporary novels of positivists by Boleslaw Prus and Eliza Orzeszkowa. She wanted a way to be of service to her country and fellow Poles, even though she knew that none of this would count towards obtaining her own formal higher education.
During this period, Maria was confused by so many conflicting ideas within her—her patriotism, her humanitarian ideas, and her intellectual aspirations. We see Maria’s actions and experiences became broader, deeper, and more complex because of three forms of overexcitability: intellectual, through a deep desire to continuing and expanding her studies; emotional, by taking responsibility for her own living, empathizing with poor people, and being fascinated by the idea of Positivism; and imaginational, by dreaming about the independence of Poland.
In analyzing this part of her life, we can see that Maria’s developmental potential is extremely strong. She displays three strong forms of overexcitability (intellectual, emotional, and imaginational) as well as some evidence of sensual and psychomotor forms. Her difficult and traumatic experiences during her childhood and adolescence accelerated her psychological development. From a very early stage of her life, Maria started to become a self-aware, independent, and responsible human being.
In our next issue: Young Maria takes on a job with a mission, and we see the dynamisms of organized multilevel disintegration unfold.
References and Footnotes
1 I’ll refer to her here as Maria Sklodowska, her name when she lived in Poland before moving to France
2 Dabrowski, K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katowickiego Universytetu Lubelskiego.
3 Curie, Eve (1947). Madame Curie. London, Toronto: William Heinemann Ltd.
4 Dabrowski, K. (1973). The Dynamics of Concepts. London: Gryf Publications Ltd., p.64
5 Polish surnames ending with –ski (e.g. Sklodowski) have a female form ending with “a” (e.g. Sklodowska)