Marie Curie Got Her Education at the Flying University

Marie Curie was a trailblazer in more ways that one. Heck, she was a trailblazer just in the field of winning Nobel Prizes — the first woman to win one, the first person to win more than one, and the only person to have won one in two different sciences. She had to have gotten a world-class education to do all that, and she did. But the world she grew up in didn't make that easy. Fortunately, the Flying University was accepting of any student.

Related: Marie Curie Among the 10 Most Intelligent People in History

Marie Curie's Flying Cir– er, University

Poland has had a pretty rough couple of centuries. In the late 19th century, the country had been divvied up by its beefier neighbors: Russia, Prussia, and Austria. As colonial powers are wont to do, one of the first items on the new ruling order's agenda was to control the education of the people. This was part of a process known as Germanization or Russification (depending on which part of Poland you were in), and it was virtually impossible to seek an education that did not attempt to erase the Polish national identity. Also central to this program was a blanket ban on women attending college altogether.

This was the environment that Marie Curie was born into. Fortunately, this military repression was met with creative resistance. Enter the Flying University. In 1882, this secret conspiracy of professors, philosophers, and historians traveled from private home to private home, teaching the stories forbidden by the government. And this resistance didn't just battle anti-Polish racism; it gave space for women like Curie to get an education as well. The obstacles barring women from universities were not unique to Poland, but the fact that things were dire enough to form an underground education system also led to opportunities for female scholars.

The Flight of the University

The early days were pretty ad hoc and disorganized, but in 1885, a woman named Jadwiga Szczawińska pulled the Flying University into a more cohesive structure. Instead of a loose-knit cloud of classes, the university started to pay its instructors, build its own library, and even develop a codified curriculum covering the sciences, history, math, and more. By the 1890s, the school had expanded to more than a thousand students. It was around this time that Curie and her sister entered the school, which continued holding secret classes until about 1905 when it came out in the open. With World War I on the horizon, the Russian and Germanic ruling forces began to loosen their grasp on the yokes of Polish education in an attempt to win the population over. The university didn't need to keep flying under the radar — it was finally able to operate publicly as the Society of Science Courses (and later as the Free Polish University).

Just because the university had landed didn't mean it would stay grounded forever, however. In the mid-20th century, Poland was once again trapped in the grip of an oppressive invading force: the U.S.S.R. The Flying University launched again, this time with a more overtly political goal. It often clashed openly with the ruling government, and eventually disbanded as the country began to move toward democracy. Perhaps the next time the Flying University takes off, it will have destinations around the world.

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The Flying University was only one chapter in Marie Curie's life. Read "Madame Curie: A Biography" by her daughter Eva Curie to learn even more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 1, 2016

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