Did You Know Marie Curie Got Her Start at a Secret Women's University?

Did You Know Marie Curie Got Her Start at a Secret Women's University?


Aug 24, 2016

Scientist Marie Curie would have absolutely been a MAKER — her scientific research in the 19th century has forever changed the way we see the world.

But the renowned mother of modern physics and radioactivity had an educational history that many don't know about.

The institution's name was as fleeting as the idea behind it, too. The "Flying University" was a school that frequently changed locations because it was illegal for women to attain any education in German and Russian-occupied Poland at the time.

This is because, like many colonizers, the Germans and Russians had the full intention of wiping away Polish culture that local education would perpetuate, thus, restricting men to state sanctioned curriculum depending on their location, while women, were encouraged to stay home.

Women like Marie Curie, though, wouldn't have it.

According to Atlas Obscura, the Flying University began in the Polish capital of Warsaw in 1882, when women began inviting other women into their homes for secret classes. Curie joined the University with her sister prior to earning degrees in France.

Here, the women didn't just exercise their intellect, but they also celebrated their native heritage free of influence from controlling political parties at the time. Polish philosophers, professors, and historians taught all the lectures and seminars.

Curie and the Science of Radioactivity author, Naomi Pasachoff, wrote 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."

The classes floated between private homes for years because their organization was illegal under government status — hence the name Uniwersytet Latający, the Flying (or Floating) University. (Atlas Obscura)

The school maintained its elusive operation until 1905, when changing attitudes in government made it publicly recognized. Once the University could operate legally, it established itself as the Society of Science Courses, and later as the Free Polish University

According to an article published on Open Culture, authors Ann E. Steinke and Roger Xavier write of Curie's experience in this once secret school as "lessons on anatomy, natural history, and sociology. In turn she gave lessons to women from poor families."

Atlas Obscura reports that Curie would later describe her time at the University as "the origin of her interest in experimental scientific work." While the University couldn't grant students an official degree, its education proved to be effective. Curie, after all, would go on to win multiple Nobel Prizes for her work.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

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