You don’t have to be a scientist to benefit from Marie Curie’s tenacity, according to Susan Marie Frontczak. Frontczak will bring that famous tenacity and intellect to life during this year’s Annual Chautauqua.
“Marie Curie’s perseverance, her focus, her dedication to her task continue to inspire me when I feel I am facing a wall and don’t know how to surpass it,” Frontczak said.
Frontczak recalls first hearing stories about Chautauqua festivals from her mother, who attended the events in upstate New York with her family growing up. Later, when Frontczak was working as a waitress and playing clarinet in a youth symphony, she heard the term again. But it wasn’t until sometime later that she began to give the program serious consideration.
“I first developed a full length, two-hour one-woman show portraying Marie Curie, which debuted in 2001. Some people who saw this production recommended that I apply to get on the Chautauqua roster for Colorado Humanities, my home state,” Frontczak said. “Up until this suggestion came in, I didn’t know about the Living History reincarnation of Chautauqua. I then carved the shorter, 40-minute program out of the longer show and became a Chautauquan, first in Colorado and then in other states. I still perform both programs.”
While she has developed six historical figures for Chautauqua, Frontczak’s Marie Curie performance has become the most widely traveled, having been performed in 34 states and nine countries. She even credits her fascination with Curie for partially inspiring her to pursue a degree in engineering, a field that she worked in for 14 years before becoming a Chautauqua scholar.
“Marie was a multi-faceted visionary. First, through perceptive observation, she established and advanced a new field of physics, which the Curies named ‘radioactivity.’ Second, she understood that expanding human understanding of the physical world is worth doing even if you have no idea yet how that greater understanding will be applied. Third, she lived the principle that discoveries belong to all humankind,” Frontczak said.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Curie’s life was her resilience and ability to overcome the adversities life threw at her. Born into political oppression and economic challenges, she faced pushback from the scientific community because of her gender. But Frontczak feels certain the most difficult challenge was the loss of her husband, Pierre Curie, who died unexpectedly in 1906, when she was 38 years old with two young children.
“In one blow she lost the love of her life, the father of her children and her avid scientific collaborator,” Frontczak said. “It is astonishing to me that from this low point she went on to make significant advances in radioactivity, became the first woman ever to teach at the university level in France, received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and skillfully set up and managed a laboratory that welcomed both men and women from around the world.”
Despite her losses and the indignities dealt to her in life, Curie never grew cynical, according to Frontczak. Quite the opposite in fact. Curie was a generous humanist who was “immersed in the spirit of disinterested service.”
“Through her father, Marie absorbed the idea that science was a language anyone in the world could speak and benefit from. So it is not surprising to me that she and Pierre declined to patent their process to isolate the element radium; that she selflessly poured her savings and her energy into helping soldiers during the Great War through the new technology of x-ray; that she later paid back the scholarship that had earlier allowed her to continue her studies in Paris,” Frontczak said.
On Saturday morning, Frontczak will present the workshop “Marie Curie’s Legacy.” Defining a single influential aspect of that legacy is difficult, she said, when so much of what Curie did was influential. But ultimately it comes down to Curie’s inspirational status as a female scientist when women were not accepted in the sciences.
“It never occurred to me twenty years ago, when I started to present as Marie Curie, to keep track of all the women who spoke to me or wrote to me either after a program or just having visited my website to say how they had been inspired to choose their career because of Marie Curie’s story,” Frontczak said. “Even if I had kept count, my tally would still be merely anecdotal, as it is happenstance who became aware of my program. There must be myriad others. On top of that, how many more have in turn been inspired by those women scientists?”