Woman of Science

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize — in fact, to this day she remains the only woman to win two — and the first person of either sex to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. These achievements make it all the more noteworthy that her undergraduate education took place at an illegal, private institution.

When I recently learned that the Polish-born and naturalized French scientist Marie Curie attended an “underground” university in the 1880s in Warsaw, I immediately recalled a personal experience. In 1986, while embedded with the anti-government resistance in communist Poland, I met people who were taking classes at such a place, as well as others who had earned their illegal degrees at underground commencement exercises. Little did I know then that Poles have a storied history in what could be termed “educational independence.”

A hundred years before my visit to Poland, Curie’s college years began at the so-called “Flying University” (sometimes known as the “Floating University”). The nation of Poland had formally disappeared in 1795, partitioned for the next 123 years into regions of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia. Warsaw was under Russian occupation when the Flying University began there in 1885. Poles wanted to avoid “Russification” and desired to teach ideas that the Russian authorities officially censored, so they did what daring people do: they published books and created educational programs and institutions without government approval.

“We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” — Marie Curie  

Both sides of Marie Curie’s family were involved in resistance movements against occ…