Marie Curie: A Case Study in Breaking Barriers


BRIAN KENNY: In the eyes of many, December 10th is a magical date for it marks the annual announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize. Each year since 1901, some 1,300 members of the Academy, government, industrial and science sectors gather in Stockholm City Hall to pay tribute to the Nobel Laureates in physics, literature, chemistry, physiology, and peace. The names of the nominees are closely guarded and inevitably not everyone agrees with the outcome. Alfred Nobel provided little guidance on how to choose a winner beyond saying that the award should go to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. With the bar set that high, it’s amazing the committee can agree to a winner at all, let alone agreeing to grant the Nobel to the same person more than once. But they did. In fact, just 58 of the 947 Nobel Prizes awarded since 1901 have gone to women, and of those, two have gone to the same person. Today on Cold Call, we’ve invited Professor Robert Simons to discuss his case on, “Marie Curie: Changing the World.” I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents Network. Bob Simons’ research looks at the relationship between business strategy, organization design and management control systems. Today we’re going to be talking about something completely different, so I’m really happy to have you on the show, Bob. Thanks for joining me.

BOB SIMONS: Well, Brian, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

BRIAN KENNY: You. It’s amazing. We all learn about Madame Curie, it’s part of the school curriculum here in the United States, and I certainly knew a little bit about her. But the case really reveals details about her, that I think most people will never have heard. I had no idea she had won the award twice. So we’ll talk about that. We’ll talk about her drive and what motivates her. So, I’m just glad that you wrote the case and it’s great to have you on here to talk about it. I’m going to ask you to start just by telling us what the central theme of the case is and what your cold call is to start the discussion in class.

BOB SIMONS: Oh, it’s a great question and I appreciate it. This case was written as part of a course with a modest title of Changing the World. And what happened, just to put a little context, is I had been studying for many years how executives make strategic choices, and some of my students asked if we could take those theories and frameworks and apply them to individuals. And then that opened up to become this course on Changing the World, trying to understand how famous people made choices in their life that allowed them to have an outsized impact. And so we studied a range of people across entrepreneurs like you would imagine, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Walt Disney. We looked at entertainers, we looked at government leaders. And so this brings us to the Marie Curie case, where we wanted to find prominent scientists. And she of course stands out, really a shining example. And when our students read this case for the first time, we always start off asking the question, “Did this person in fact change the world?” That’s kind of a standard opening, but the cold call to your question is really: what surprised you when you read this case? And students are just kind of blown away by her. I think many of us know her, but the degree of determination, the passion she brought to her work and her ability to take her discoveries and really change the world for the better, I think is just a phenomenal story.

BRIAN KENNY: Maybe you can talk a little bit about why you decided to write the case and how this connects back to the kinds of things that you think about as a scholar.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. Well, we do have a framework where we are building on, we call it the Building Blocks framework, in fact. And we look at things like the extent to which an individual invests in themselves early in their career, the extent to which core values determine the choices they make, how they set goals for themselves, how they look for new opportunities. And for each of our protagonists, we try to understand in what ways are they similar, in what ways are they different? And I think Marie Curie was a very nice example, especially in her day and maybe still today, of the difficulties faced by a woman in a domain that was traditionally dominated by males. And she really stands out for her ability to overcome those obstacles.

BRIAN KENNY: For sure. Why don’t we just, if we can take a look, sort of be … we all know Marie from her work in the lab, but her childhood is a really interesting one. In fact, I didn’t know her name was Maria when she was a child. So maybe you can talk a little bit about her upbringing and her early influences.

BOB SIMONS: So, Maria, she was born as Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw, Poland and modest family, kind of an intellectual family. Her father was a teacher, scientific, math oriented, and he was a very large part of her life. She was born at a very troubled time in Poland. And the Russian rulers were determined to eradicate any notion of Polish nationalism from the country. So speaking Polish was forbidden. You couldn’t teach it in schools. And her family was actually quite poor. Her father had been cut loose a little bit for previous views on the Russian overlords. And so they struggled day to day. And she found a way into a private school where the head mistress there, again, very Polish nationalist woman, found a way of secretly teaching the students Polish language, nationalism, history, culture, while at the same time showing a fake set of credentials to the Russian overseers.

BRIAN KENNY: What was the climate in Poland for women at the time that she was coming up?

BOB SIMONS: Well, the story’s even worse, I guess once you put that spin on it, because she was a top student in her school, typically won the prizes, was selected to do the speaking. But when she finished her high school years, women were essentially forbidden. There were no openings for women in university in Poland. And so, the problem she faced was she desperately wanted to continue her education. She loved science, she loved math, but there was no opportunity in her home country to go to university. And her father did not have the means, the financial means, to actually allow her to go abroad. So she was kind of stuck. And it was a very tough place to be, I think, with someone who was so talented and really had this absolute desire to do something important.

BRIAN KENNY: But she found a workaround.

BOB SIMONS: She sure did. And this is one of the things when I asked my students for the cold call, what surprises you about this case, is she and her sister came up with a plan that would allow each of them to travel abroad to go to university. And the plan was her sister, Bronia would first go to university and Bronia wanted to study to become a doctor. And she would go to Paris and study, and Maria would stay in Poland working as a governess and saving her pennies, saving her money, and sending it to Bronia in Paris to support her, to allow her to study. When Bronia finished her education. And it took seven full years for Bronia to study to become, successfully study, to become a doctor, then it would be Maria’s turn to travel to a Paris to the Sorbonne for herself to study and in turn Bronia would support her.

BRIAN KENNY: And things at the Sorbonne were not all that easy for now, Marie. Well, she switch her name.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. Well, that is kind of interesting. When she arrived, she decided that she wanted to fit into French society as best she could. So she changed her name from Maria to Marie, the French Marie. And interestingly, as an aside, many of the protagonists we study in the course changed their name as part of adjusting their identity, which was really quite surprising.

BOB SIMONS: Going through the list, for example, Cassius Clay, we looked at who became Muhammad Ali. We looked at Alyssa Rosenbaum, who became Ayn Rand. Leonard Bernstine changed his name to Leonard Bernstein, because he wanted to be like Arthur Rubenstein. So ,I didn’t mean to go down the tangent, but-

BRIAN KENNY: No, that’s interesting.

BOB SIMONS: But she did change her name to Marie. And she was very, very troubled to discover that even though all those years home in Poland she had worked nights in every spare moment trying to keep herself up, bring herself up to speed on math and physics and trigonometry, she basically was not able to compete with the French students who had had the formal training. So she absolutely threw herself into her studies, nights, weekends. She cut away all her social ties and really devoted herself to trying to bring herself up to the level of expertise that would be necessary to succeed.

BRIAN KENNY: And pretty spartan living conditions as well.

BOB SIMONS: Terrible. So again, very, very little money. And her father could send her a little bit and Bronia was helping her, but she was living in a sixth floor walkup that was unheated. There was a little stove in the corner. She had to carry the coal up six flights of stairs at nighttime. She slept with all her clothes on top of her. And it was so cold that the water in the basin froze at night.

BRIAN KENNY: Oh, my goodness.

BOB SIMONS: That’s what we’re looking at. And she was eating the basics to get by. Very, very tough.

BRIAN KENNY: And she never threw the towel in.


BRIAN KENNY: That’s so amazing that even despite all these obstacles, she’s still finding a way to make this work. How did she meet Pierre?

BOB SIMONS: She was developing somewhat of a reputation and a local society of engineers hired her, engaged her to see if she could study steel properties to find out if there were ways of adjusting the components of steel to make stronger magnets. So, she got a paying job. And the problem is she did not have a laboratory where she could do the work. The Sorbonne didn’t have facilities to support it. And she, through a friend, was introduced to Pierre Curie who was actually running a lab. And he agreed to let her come in and use the lab for her work. And as you know, her name becomes Curie. And so, you can probably guess that over time there was an attraction, although I think he fell in love before with her before she fell in love with him. And he chased her around for more than a year, asked her to marry him several times. And only I think after several attempts did she finally agree.

BRIAN KENNY: That’s determination on his part too.

BOB SIMONS: That’s right. But from everything we know, it was a very happy marriage. I think they were very happy with each other and they produced two lovely daughters. And it was, I think, a very strong marriage, in fact.


But still, the bulk of her time was devoted to her work. I’m curious how many women were in this kind of a field at the time?

BOB SIMONS: Almost nobody. Yeah, almost nobody. So, not only was the field difficult in its own right, but the fact that a woman could rise to this level. So ,she was very, very different, very driven. And she and Pierre worked together very, very well. And she struggled, I think, especially in those early years with what we call work life balance today. And this is the part my students have trouble with because she did everything she could to try to allow her to devote sufficient time to her family. She spent time with her children whenever she could. She hired a nanny. She did all the things we would expect. But at the end of the day, her real passion was her work. And so, I think in her life, that came first. But she was very careful to try to ensure that she could do everything possible to ensure that her children and Pierre and her father-in-law, who helped as well, were all looked after to the extent that she could.

BRIAN KENNY: And it sounded like she had pretty close familial ties when she was growing up. That family sounded like they were pretty bonded to each other?

BOB SIMONS: Yes, I think that’s right. I think he had very strong relationship. And I should mention going back to, you asked earlier about her childhood. When she was a very young girl, I think her first year of school, her mother died of tuberculosis, and she lost a sister to typhus. So, she had a very tough life coming through to this point in time. But she was determined to try to give her own children, I think a good, a much, much better life.

BRIAN KENNY: So, nothing to this point has really come easily to her?

BOB SIMONS: Nothing.

BRIAN KENNY: But then the big breakthrough happens. Can you talk a little bit about what led to the first Nobel Prize?

BOB SIMONS: Well, she did a degree in physics at Sorbonne and then stayed on for a second degree in mathematics and then was going to do a doctorate. And I don’t think there were any, I think I’m right on this. I don’t think anyone in the world, any woman in the world had ever achieved a doctorate in science. It had never been accomplished before. And as part of her doctoral work, she had to decide, of course, what she would focus on for her dissertation. And here I think she made a very, very critical, strategically important decision in that she was going to jump into a new field, not something that had been studied to death by others. And just the year before this, something brand new called x-rays had been discovered. That these very strange rays that could penetrate the body and illustrate bone structures, et cetera. And she decided that what she would try to do in her work is understand the physics of what these rays were and what made them work. So, she and Pierre, the two of them together really devoted these years in intense, intense levels of study, trying to understand what was making these rays work. And in that she discovered two new elements. And this was a very, very big scientific breakthrough. One she called radium, coming back to the idea of x-rays and the other she called polonium. And that was really named after her mother country of Poland, where she still had very, very strong national ties.

BRIAN KENNY: And what was the significance of those discoveries?

BOB SIMONS: Well, those discoveries really set the stage for things we take for granted today. And coming back to your opening question, I remember the last time when I taught the case and I said to a student, “Did Marie Curie change the world?” He said, “Well, I went to the dentist this morning and they took x-rays of my teeth. And if she hadn’t done what she’d done, they couldn’t have done that.” And another student put up her hand and said, “My mother has gone through cancer, radiation treatment, and that treatment comes directly from the work that Marie Curie did in discovering radium.”

BRIAN KENNY: And so, they win the Nobel Prize. It’s a big deal. Not everybody seems to be very accepting of her role in what happened there. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of bias that she faced?

BOB SIMONS: Yeah. Well, I think you’re being generous in saying people were not very accepting. The harsh reality was that people were not willing to admit that a woman could pull this off. So, essentially she was typecast as Pierre’s research assistant. And in fact, the original nomination for the Nobel did not include her name. And it was only Pierre who insisted that her name be put on that Nobel, that she ultimately got it. But the scientific community at large was not willing to recognize her contribution.

BRIAN KENNY: And so, their life changes for the better, because the prize comes with some … it comes with some money and other kinds of things.

BOB SIMONS: So, things are great. She money comes in, so for the first time, she’s not struggling, because I should have mentioned along the way, she earned a teacher certificate so that she could teach at a private school to earn enough money to support the family. So, not only was she doing her lab work, looking after the kids in the family, but she was also teaching in a private school to bring in enough money to support them all.

BRIAN KENNY: Just amazing.

BOB SIMONS: So, with a Nobel Prize, the money came in. So she was now not strapped for cash and she became famous. But it’s very funny when you read the stories that the reporters were all lining up to interview her and Pierre, and they had no time for them. They wanted to get back to the lab. They would give you 15 minutes maybe, but they had no time for this. All they wanted to do was a science.

BRIAN KENNY: And unfortunately, tragedy was just around the corner here again.

BOB SIMONS: It truly was. 10 or 11 years into their marriage, a very strong marriage, both from a love and from their professional careers, tragedy struck. Pierre was crossing the street on a terrible windy, a rainy, dark day, and he stepped off the curb and there was a very heavily laden horse carriage, apparently carrying armaments, was racing on the street. And he didn’t see it coming, stepped out in front and he was killed instantly.

BRIAN KENNY: Wow. So, how does that affect Marie’s life at that time?

BOB SIMONS: Well, so then she of course was in terrible grief for a good period of time. And she effectively threw herself into her work. The way she survived was just to spend even more time working, trying to get away from her grief. And she continued to be very, very productive. And as you may know, continued work that ultimately went on to win her a second Nobel Prize.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, tell me about that.

BOB SIMONS: Well, they had discovered these two elements on a theoretical level, but in her subsequent work after Pierre died, she was able to actually come up with a method to isolate radium. And so she could actually come up with a way of coming with pure radium as an element. And this was so impressive that to add to her Nobel Prize in physics, the committee actually awarded her a second Nobel Prize this time in chemistry. And I think to this day, she’s the only person in history that has ever won a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, just amazing. Just amazing. So, you would think she’d be a slam dunk to be named to the Academy of Sciences after this.

BOB SIMONS: Another sad story, of course, this is France’s most prestigious academic group, circle, by invitation only. And a seat had become vacant. And she applied for that seat and there was outrage in the French press. This was all the op-eds of the day were arguing that she was threatening the traditional gender identity of women. This would really do harm to the feminine view of women in France. And arguing that this was a mistake, she should never be allowed it. And at the end of the day, the academy voted not to give her the seat and instead gave it to someone named Edouard Branly, who had done some work on wireless telegraphy. But this work was nowhere near as notable as Marie’s work. And she, remember, again, was just the recent recipient of a Nobel Prize with a second one coming only one year later.

BRIAN KENNY: But in the case, it sounded like there were some voices out there who said, “You know what? You don’t need them. Who needs the academy?”

BOB SIMONS: I think that’s true too. Yeah, certainly she had supporters. I don’t want to paint a picture that everyone was against her. And even I think the head of the academy argued that there was no one better in the world who could represent the science of her work than Marie. But the academy, it was not enough to sway them in the end. She did not get the seat.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And when you talk in your course about people changing the world, I was really intrigued by the work that she did outside of the lab, where she really threw herself into the war effort in ways that I think probably saved a lot of lives.

BOB SIMONS: Yes. She realized that this new x-ray technology could have tremendous positive effects in the war effort. And she created what they were called petite Curie, little Curie motorized vehicles. They were motorized X-ray stations. She convinced automobile manufacturers to alter some of their trucks to allow this to happen. She got x-ray companies, commercial ventures to donate these machines. And she spent the war literally driving up and down the front lines herself and she didn’t know how to drive. So she taught herself how to drive. She got a driver’s license. She spent the war driving up and down the front lines in these x-ray units. She set up 200 stationary units. And by the end of the war, more than one million wounded soldiers had been treated through one of these x-ray units. And this allowed for the first time surgeons to view where there were shrapnel embedded, what injuries looked like so they could figure out what the right treatment could be right on the battle battlefield.

BRIAN KENNY: Absolutely amazing. It keeps getting more interesting as it goes on.

BOB SIMONS: I know. Just an amazing woman. And at the same time she was knitting for the war. She was making donations. The French government was asking people to donate coins and everything they could to help the war. And she offered up her two Nobel prizes to be melted down to support the war effort. Thankfully, they turned her down on that offer.

BRIAN KENNY: So, what’s going on with her children while all this is happening?

BOB SIMONS: So, she had two daughters, Irene went on to win the Nobel Prize. And what her contribution again was again around radio activity, but she figured out how to make radioactive materials artificially, not from the core elements. And Eve, the second daughter went on to become a quite well-known journalist and humanitarian, arguing and working for world peace.

BRIAN KENNY: So, the whole family’s made making the world a better place. Pretty remarkable. She did come to America for a tour of America and she stopped at Harvard. So, I’m curious about, how was she received when she came to America? And how did we treat her when she came here?

BOB SIMONS: One thing that you don’t get from reading about here, but she was quite a diminutive figure. She’s only stood to five feet tall, that she had a very soft spoken. So she went around America trying to raise money for her research, trying to get money to buy more radium, because it was very, very expensive. And in France she didn’t have very much of it. And she received 10 honorary doctorates as she traveled around America, because she was really a hero. But and of course the big but, is that the male scientists of the era in America, again, were not willing to recognize her contribution. And so this was probably not Harvard’s finest day. But when it was suggested that Harvard also should give her an honorary doctorate, the physics department at Harvard voted no as far as they were concerned she was just Pierre’s research assistant, and they thought she had not done anything since Pierre died and they refused to give her an honorary doctorate.

BRIAN KENNY: Yes. Not our finest moment as you said. Bob, this has been a great conversation about Marie Curie. I’d like to ask you one last question before we let you go, and that is, if there’s one thing you want our listeners to remember about Madam Curie, what would it be?

BOB SIMONS: Well, I think it’s an important question and I think how I would answer would be also for many of the others we study and that is, find something in life that you love to do. I think she would not have any regrets about how her life turned out. She loved to work, so much that every minute of every day I think was a joy to her. And coming back, I guess the second thought that I think is also important is she was very, very strategic with her time. Not one wasted moment. But the two pieces of advice is, one, find something you love to do. And number two, value every minute of your time.

BRIAN KENNY: Great insights, Bob. Thank you for being here to discuss it with us.

BOB SIMONS: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call you might also like our other podcasts: After Hours, Climate Rising, Skydeck, and Managing the Future of Work. Find them on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Be sure to rate and review us on any podcast platform where you listen. If you have any suggestions or just want to say hello, we want to hear from you. Email us at again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School, brought to you by the HBR Presents network.


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