Over the centuries, Poland, and its people, have substantially contributed to the world’s knowledge, science, arts, and culture. Let us introduce you to some of the greatest Polish people of all times, and their life stories. You can read about their different backgrounds, and interests. Hopefully, you either have or will refer to some of their works in your projects. The list is long, and we reveal just a small part of it:
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Frederic Chopin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Agnieszka Holland, Marek Kaminski, Tadeusz Kantor, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Roman Polanski, Robert Korzeniowski, Ignacy Lukasiewicz, Czeslaw Milosz, Maria Sklodowska-Curie, Tomasz Stanko, Wislawa Szymborska, Aleksander Wolszczan, Stanislaw Wyspianski… etc.
Marie Sklodowska – Curie, commonly known as Marie Curie, the famous radioactivity pioneer, was Polish-born and has doubtlessly retained Polish identity till the end of her life. She was the first female to graduate with a baccaleurate in physical sciences in 1893 from the Sorbonne, the first woman to have been nominated professor at the Sorbonne, and the first person to be honored with two Nobel Prizes (for Physics and Chemistry). Her most famous discoveries had been radium and polonium, two radioactive elements, the latter of which is named after Sklodowska-Curie’s home country. She was also elected, as the first female member in its 224-years’ history, to the prestigious Academy of Medicine.
Her daughters were Irene Joliot-Curie, and Eve Curie-Labouisse, who, following her mother, retained a Polish identity and a wish to spread Polish culture. Irene, who started her interest with sciences in childhood, was soon discovered as a great scientific talent by professors, including most notable scientists of all times, such as Einstein and Roentgen. She married Frederic Joliot-Curie, and started an extensive researsh on the structure of the atom. In 1935, they jointly won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of induced radioactivity. Her sister Eve, who was more oriented towards Arts, and Humanities, won no Nobel Prize on her own. She however devoted herself to the work on the organization of the UNICEF. She is held to have vastly contributed to the Nobel Peace Prize offered to her husband, Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr., on behalf of the organization in 1965. The family with most Nobel laureates to date had Polish ancestry. No wonder why the names Sklodowska-Curie, as well as Joliot-Curie, are frequent elements of place-names and names of institutions throughout Poland.
Ignacy Lukasiewicz graduated from the University of Vienna in 1852, in the field of pharmacy. Together with Jan Zeh, they, as first people in the world, managed to distill kerosene from seep oil in January 1853, and Lukasiewicz moved on to make research for a practical application for this discovery. Half a year after this, he made his first kerosene lamp available in public, illuminating an emergency surgical operation. As a passionate entrepreneur, Lukasiewicz developed the distillation process of kerosene (paraffin oil), constructed and popularized many kinds of kerosene lamps, and designed the first modern street lamp in Europe (built in 1853 in Lviv, Austrian Empire – today a major city in Ukraine).
The rising popularity of the new type of lamps resulted in the spread of refining industry in the region of Gorlice, which is now in South-Eastern Poland. Łukasiewicz founded the National Oil Society, and quickly became a wealthy businessman and a benefactor of his home region.
Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), was a brilliant Polish intellectual of the times when Poland was under foreign partitions: in fact, he managed to appeal to Polish-speaking communities living in 3 different countries. Besides this, he gained an all-European renown, and was called a universal artist.
Born in Krakow, he attended a school, where, despite the foreign rule over the Poles, the lectures were all delivered in Polish. At some stage, he also became a student of the legendary painter Jan Matejko. Wyspianski soon became an outstanding painter, but also expressed himself as a poet, playwright, and interior designer. He gained wide recognition both by the Poles and throughout Europe. He travelled to France (where he met and befriended Paul Gauguin), Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.
Wyspianski’s creative output combines several trends, but is, at the same time, very unique in itself. It can still be admired by people across the globe, and appeal to people of different cultures. There are portraits, self-portraits, designs of stained glass paintings and windows, paintings, illustrations. He also created a herbarium by drawing plants. Perhaps floral motives, along with unique colouring, is what now forms the most popular association with his visual art.
As a writer, and playwright, Wyspianski successfully combined modernism with elements of Romantic and folk tradition. His 1901 play Wesele (The Wedding) became an immediate hit in the Polish community, regardless of state borders. Since it contains a lot of symbolism and humour, it is still a source of quotations, or catchphrases, being one of the most recognized works of Polish literature.
Mikołaj Kopernik (1473-1543, Latin: Nicolaus Copernicus), the Renaissance Astronomer, the first scholar to prove that the Earth is not the centre of the Universe, which gave rise to a scientific revolution. Like many great minds of his times, he excelled in many areas of knowledge. He was also a brilliant mathematician, economist, clergyman, lawyer, physician, translator, and artist.
Kopernik’s scientific input, as lied out in his main work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, has three areas of particular importance:
In Economics, he formulated the Copernicus-Gresham Law.
In Geometry, he re-discovered the Tusi Couple.
In Astronomy, he proved and popularized the heliocentric model of the Solar System.
Kopernik was born in 1473 in Torun, Kingdom of Poland, into a merchant family of upper-class heritage. In 1491, he matriculated at the University of Krakow (now Jagiellonian University), in the heyday of its famous astronomical-mathematical school. After four years, he left the University without degree, but collected a huge library of books on astronomy, now kept at the Uppsala University Library. In 1496, he went to Italy to study law and humanities at the University of Bologna. This is also where he met the famous astronomer, Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his assistant. Between 1501 and 1503, he attended the University of Padua to study medicine and to receive his doctorate in law. After returning to Poland, he served the Roman Catholic Church as a clergyman, physician, administrator, and diplomat for many years. He continued his scientific research up to his death in 1543, and left unparalleled intellectual legacy.