Finding Madame Curie

Not sure if he found Madame Curie or she found him?  Follow a day in the life of writer and historian George Hruby as he discovers a part of his past in a most unique way.



In his own words ….



My life has been quite a journey.  A remarkable odyssey.  A stone that has never stopped rolling.  Perhaps never will.  What is meant to be, is meant to be.  And along this way, I have lived such discoveries and experiences that few will ever know.  The most remarkable thing is that I never search any of them out.  Instead, almost as if I am led to them, they suddenly jump out at me and surprise me with themselves. They find me.  And I become bathed in their stories, their lives, and into that particular location that I suddenly find myself standing.


Place de la Contrescarpe on rue Mouffetard – Paris, France


Thus, was this particular day as I sat in my favorite hangout here in Paris. A forty-meter square located on rue Mouffetard, called the “Place de la Contrescarpe.”  Here, in my tumbling life, I found some solace in this place.  It was where other tumbling lives once found themselves trying to figure it all out as well.  Earnest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Sayre, Pablo Picasso, and others who had once hung out in this square.  They too, trying to find solace and some answers to life.  Like Hemmingway, I too had experienced war, death, and the very dark side of humanity.  It moves you.  Changes you.

However, despite it all, it also makes you appreciate and love life even more.  In that quest, you want nothing more than to live it to its fullest and in every way.  You suddenly want to stop and smell flowers, see children playing, and learn to love the simplest pleasures in life.

For me, just give me good food, a fine wine, and a beautiful woman.  And, if I die in the morning, I die a happy man.  For at the end of the day, despite all the chaos of the world and life, these three pleasures brought me such simple happiness.  None of the three to be taken for granted.   They are all gifts which I knew not all were lucky to have such simple pleasures.


George Hruby at Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris, France


And so, this particular late morning found me in Place de la Contrescarpe, coming out from an evening of Parisian bliss involving all three of these pleasures.  Here, I started my day with my morning coffee and a beautiful French woman.  Doing as the French do, we sat there in the square, sipping on our coffees and watching the tourists all around.  Watching them as they tried to order things at the cafes and bistros that are not served in France.  Watching them try to speak French.  Watching them take pictures.  Always amusing to see what they want to take pictures of here.  And typical French, we didn’t really talk.  We just watched.


George Hruby at Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris, France


It had rained much earlier. The streets still glistened from it, draped under the usual gray skies of Paris.  We finished our coffees and decided to find our way back to the Seine.  Neither of us knew the street or route that we were taking to do this.  Neither of us cared.  We just enjoyed walking together and exploring along the way.

We walked.  I was always so bright-eyed here.  Like a child, everything here was such a wonder.  Such a discovery.  Something that most adults lose to their fleeing childhoods.  ‘Sad,’ I thought.  I never could imagine my life without exploring, discovering, and having adventure-after-adventure.  I had realized this true reality in my late twenties.  That most of humanity lives sad and mundane lives.  Most, for a variety of reasons.  At my young age, I knew then that I could never be one of these types of people.  However, to live a life of adventure, it comes with risks.  This is something most are too scared to take.  Such are the trade-off’s we make in life.

She was beautiful to watch as we walked along.  We were lost as we enjoyed one cobblestone street after another until we came across a huge stone building set in the middle of a quartier.  She told me it was the “Panthéon.”

I knew of the Pantheon in Rome.  In ancient Greek, the word meant “Temple to all Gods.”  I had no idea of one built in Paris.

The Panthéon in Paris was commissioned under Louis XV in 1744, to be built upon the old ruins of the Abbey of St Genevieve.  Its front façade, complete with massive Corinthian columns, would be built in the likeness of The Pantheon in Rome.

Despite having grown up in Paris all of her life, she had never entered the Panthéon.  She asked if we wanted to go inside and check it out?  Of course we were quickly entering the old building and Parisian landmark.

Neither of us knew what would be inside or what the building even was.  Indeed, it looked like a huge cathedral inside but empty of everything.  It contained nothing religious at all.  Instead, there were great sculptures and paintings that adorned its walls.  Everything honored those of the French Revolution and other great French accomplishments.  In the very middle of this magnificent building was a single, large pendulum marking time.  We watched as it swung back and forth across a large dial set into the floor showing the hours of the day.  It made a click sound as it swung back and forth.  It was all that was heard in this huge rotunda as the few people around chose to not speak except in whispers.  The magnificent dome rose so high above us.

We probably would have left then as there was not much else to see in such a place.  However, our curiosity kept pulling us slowly along the walls of this great building.  Each painting, each sculpture, having its own unique story and history to tell.  Once done, neither of us were in a hurry to leave.  We were enjoying the art of exploring.  It was at that moment that we noticed a grand stairwell leading downward underneath the main floor of the Panthéon.  So, of course, like two kids on an adventure-of-a-sort, down the stairs we went.

We quickly discovered that we had entered burial crypts located in the bowels of the building.  It became apparent that these crypts contained great people of France recognized by the State.  Neither of us had any idea that any of this was here.  The tunnels, rooms, and crypts seemed to go on forever.  It was extensive.

There were so many interred here.  All the crypts so ornate.  We both quickly went our separate ways exploring the long hallways and rooms containing the sarcophagi of so many.  The names on each, all in French, meant nothing to me at the time.  I knew no one here.  I was still so new to living in France. However, I figured she (being French) knew many and so she was busy exploring much of where we were at.


Candid photograph taken of George Hruby beneath the Panthéon in the crypts – Paris, France



I was standing in a long corridor at this point, all by myself.  There were so many crypts that laid before me.  So many of the dead that were all around me.  Great men.  None of whom I knew.

I had already tried a couple of times to find my partner in this huge maze of the dead but had not been able to locate her.  The corridor I was now in had numerous tombs displayed to its one side while on the opposite, it held rooms.  Each held at least four tombs to a room.  Oddly, two of these rooms were completely dark and pitch black.  For some reason, the lights were turned off or did not work in these rooms.

The place I was in was one of great reverence to these dead of France.  Therefore, when I decided to pull out my phone to text my partner, I decided to do it out of view.  Looking at one of these darkened rooms, I thought I would ditch inside one of them and text her.

Indeed, for a moment, it felt strange being in a completely dark room with the dead lying around me in their tombs.  I texted my friend and just as I was about to put my phone away, its screen light lit up brightly the white marble that I was standing beside.  I then began to move the light around to see where I was at.  I quickly realized that the marble belonged to a sarcophagus.  The sarcophagus was raised up and I realized that I had been standing eye-level and face-to-face with a body.  I had no idea who it belonged to.  Indeed, I had no idea who anyone was buried in this huge building named the Panthéon.

I moved the light slowly around till my eyes came across a name carved into the tomb.  All alone in this completely dark room, with only the light of my cellphone, I read the name of the person that lay right in front of me.  It was Marie Curie Skłodowska.  Madame Curie, the famous scientist and icon of world scientific history.


Madame Marie Curie, 1920 Photo by Henri Manuel


It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.  You see, I knew this person that now laid before me.  Inside this tomb.  Inside this very dark room.  I knew her quite well.  Probably more than most.

The reason was that as a child, I had been educated by an order of Brigittine nuns in a private Catholic school.


Brigittine nuns, Sisters Bernadette and Mathew at St. Luke’s School, San Antonio, Texas (circa 1970)



As children growing up, we were well educated in much, including science.  This included the discoveries of Madame Marie Skłodowska Curie.  Even then, she stood out in our history books because no one in those days thought a woman could be a scientist much less make such a discovery as that of radioactivity.  The nuns forced us to study such people.  I was forced to have to present a report on her life to my class at the time.  She became a reoccurring part of my life as I continued to study her works while taking physics and chemistry in high-school.

This woman had become such a part of my life growing up.  Whom I had to study so much of, … her research and discoveries in physics and chemistry as well as even her personal life. There was just this solemn moment.  This intimacy with someone I had grown up with and yet never met.  Now, here she was.  Her mortal remains lay before me in the darkness of this room.


Marie Skłodowska (L) with her father and sisters in 1890 – Photograph by unknown


Like me, she was an immigrant to France.  Having arrived there from her native Poland, she was only 24 when she moved to Paris in 1891.  She would go on to win the Nobel Prize twice in her career.  First, in 1903 for her discovery of radioactivity and again in 1911 for her work in chemistry.


Madame Marie Curie in 1903 – Photo by the Nobel Foundation


She died in 1934 at the age of 66 from exposure to radioactivity.  It has been said that her body is contained inside a lead coffin that lies inside of the sarcophagus due to the radioactivity it still holds.  Just below her tomb is the tomb of her French husband, Pierre.


Tombs of Madame Currie and her husband Pierre at the Panthéon in Paris, France – Photo by Rémih


She became one of the greatest scientists in the world with her research and discoveries.  Yet, I knew her from a more personal side.  I knew of her broken heart when as a young woman, she fell so in love with a boy she had met only to be turned down by him and his family.  I knew how she did find love again in Pierre, her French husband who she would eventually marry.


Madame Currie (R) and her husband Pierre circa 1904 – Photograph by unknown


I knew of where she lived in the Latin Quarter of Paris near Sorbonne University, scurrying about the neighborhood between classes and student happenings.  I knew that with Pierre, she loved to bicycle about.  She loved traveling with him to so many places when they got a chance.  She eventually gave him a child, their daughter, Irene.


Pierre and Marie Currie with their daughter Irene circa 1902 – Photograph by unknown


Ironically, when she died in 1934, just months later, my mother, from Irish and French-German descent, would be born into the world.

I eventually put my cellphone away and departed the dark room back into the corridor.  I was left with such profound thoughts and feelings.  That this woman whom I had been made to learn and know so much about, whose contributions to humanity were so great; that I could by complete accident, now be left standing right in front of her.

I am not sure if I found Madame Curie that day or, she found me.  However, it was a great moment for me to pay my respects to her.  Someone who had labored so hard, sacrificed so much to give us in humanity so much knowledge of our world.  In the end, she inadvertently gave her life for her cause. 

The world … and time … is a small place.


George Hruby photographed in front of the Panthéon right after finding the tomb of Madame Curie – Paris, France




George Hruby


* * *

A special thanks to Wikipedia for their photographic images, sources and use.