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Vol. 33 No. 1
January-February 2011
 
Marie Curie and Her Time  

by Hélène Langevin-Joliot

Marie Curie (1867–1934) belongs to that exclusive group of women whose worldwide recognition and fame have endured for a century or more. She was indeed one of the major agents of the scientific revolution which allowed experimental investigation to extend beyond the macroscopic world. Her work placed the first stone in the foundation of a new discipline: radiochemistry. And Curie’s achievements are even more remarkable since they occurred in the field of science, an intellectual activity traditionally forbidden to women. However, these accomplishments alone don’t seem to fully explain the near mythic status of Marie Curie today. One hundred years ago, she was often considered to be just an assistant to her husband. Perhaps the reason her name still resonates is because of the compelling story of her life and her intriguing personality.

A July 1895 wedding photo of Pierre and Marie. They first met in 1894.

The Most Beautiful Discovery of Pierre Curie
The story of the young Maria Skłodowska leaving her native Poland to pursue upper-level studies in Paris sounds like something out of a novel. At that point, however, Maria’s future was far from written. “I keep a sort of hope that I shall not disappear completely into nothingness,” she wrote to a friend, three years before leaving Warsaw for Paris. In the fall of 1891, she registered at the Sorbonne and from then on until her successes in physics and mathematics, she spent days, evenings, and even nights in the attic where she studied. She wrote to her brother: “We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that thing at whatever cost must be attained.”

Marie Skłodowska and Pierre Curie had apparently ruled out love and marriage for themselves when they first met in 1894. At the time, Marie thought her duty was to teach in Poland. Eventually, Pierre found the words to overcome her hesitations: “It would be a fine thing, in which I hardly dare believe to pass our lives near each other hypnotized by our dreams, your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.”

Frederick Soddy wrote about Marie that she was “the most beautiful discovery of Pierre Curie.” Of course, it might also be said that Pierre Curie was “the most beautiful discovery of Marie Skłodowska.” It is difficult to imagine more contrasting personalities than those of Pierre and of Marie. In spite of that, or because of that, they complemented each other astonishingly well. Pierre was as dreamy as Marie was organized. At the same time, they shared similar ideas about family and society.

A Woman Scientist in a Male-Dominated Society
The discoveries of polonium and radium in 1898 are, no doubt, a cornerstone of Marie Curie’s celebrity nowadays. However, this article focuses not on her research, but on Curie herself and the important people in her life. It should be noted that a century ago, it would have been exceptionally difficult for a woman to be recognized for scientific achievement—by the academic community, let alone by the public—without the encouragement and support of a father, a husband, or a brother. It is worthwhile to point out the importance for Curie’s scientific future of the seemingly simple act of placing only her signature on the April 1898 note to the French Academy of Science. Although even today this might seem presumptuous for someone who was still only a Ph.D. student, the fact that her signature alone appeared on that note would later prove significant in recognizing her contribution towards the discovery of polonium and radium.

In this iconic photograph of participants at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927, Marie Curie is third from the left in the front row.

Marie Curie had begun working on her Ph.D. thesis on Becquerel’s rays a few weeks after the birth of her first daughter Irène. She measured the radiation with an apparatus using a piezoelectric Quartz that had been set up by Pierre Curie. The experimental program was mainly hers; in particular, the crucial decision to investigate minerals and to compare the activity of the natural chalcholite she was studying to that of an artificial one. However, she was a Ph.D. student and she benefited from Pierre’s help and advice since they had already started to work together. The tradition, still practiced today, would have been for the “supervising” physicist to also sign the note. Clearly, Pierre thought it important for her to sign it alone. For the other two papers that they published that year, in July and December, announcing the discovery of Polonium and Radium, they both signed their names. In 1903, they shared with Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in physics.

The opening of the Nobel Prize Committee’s archives brought to light an astonishing story about the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. In Stockholm, the committee for physics at first considered naming only Becquerel and Pierre Curie as recipients of the Nobel Prize, following the suggestion of the French Academy of Sciences. Thankfully, Pierre was privately informed by a Swedish colleague of the impending decision. He immediately protested and Marie was added as a prize recipient. Ironically, because the prize did not refer to the discovery of radium, it left the door open for her to win a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time for chemistry. And with that, Curie became the first celebrated woman scientist in the world.

. . .the fact that her signature alone appeared on that note would later prove significant . . .

After the Nobel Prize of 1903, journalists focused on the dilapidated shed where Marie, with Pierre’s help, had successfully separated pure radium. Marie described this period as “her killing work” in a letter to her sister. However, she protested later against the glorification of their poor working conditions, insisting they would have reached their goal much faster if the conditions had been better. Today, the symbol of the discovery of radium is not Pierre and Marie Curie with their electrometric set up at the School for Industrial Physics and Chemistry in 1898. It is a sketch of Marie Curie at a cauldron handling a heavy bar and mixing boiling matter. The picture illustrates her efforts to separate pure radium, an important result of her thesis and a major step for her second Nobel Price. As a result, unfortunately, Pierre and Marie’s work in common in 1898 is blurred.

Losing Pierre
Marie and Pierre enjoyed their family life with Pierre’s father, the young Irène, and their second daughter, Eve, and their time with close friends. Although they spent days and many evenings at the laboratory, but they managed to stop working on weekends and holidays. The Curies believed that it was quite important to let their children benefit from the countryside.

Pierre and Marie Curie on their honeymoon, 1895.

Tragically, this happy period of Marie’s life was cut short on 19 April 1906, when Pierre was hit by a horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Paris and died instantly. This terrible loss would remain with Marie for the rest of her life. For years, she could not speak of Pierre to her children. On the other hand, she refused a national pension offered to her after Pierre’s death. The French academic authorities, strongly upset by the sudden death of Pierre Curie, quickly made the historic decision to put Marie in charge of Pierre’s lectures and the laboratory. This simple act swept away for the first time traditions excluding women from high-level education positions and opened the door for other women.

“Pierre Curie had devoted his life to his scientific dream, he needed a companion who could live the same dream as him.”

Marie Curie’s first lecture at the Sorbonne on 5 November 1906 was celebrated in newspapers as a victory for feminism. Yet, Marie, depressed at the time, did not think of it as a victory. She was writing despaired “letters to Pierre” in her private diary. She couldn’t forget the circumstances that led to her promotion, noting that “some fools congratulated me.” Articles described Marie as modest and simple as she demonstrated the blue light of radium at the lecture, and then left, indifferent to the applause.

Prof. Władysław Skłodowski and his daughters (from left) Maria, Bronia, and Helena in an 1890 photograph.

Curie did not exhibit some of the typical “feminine” qualities of the time. She was deeply convinced that women and men were equal in their potential intellectual capabilities. In this sense, she thought of her nomination for the Nobel Prize as a “normal” decision. She was, however, by no means a militant of feminist ideas. In many respects, she was a woman of her time, albeit one with an exceptional personality. Of her husband, Marie wrote: “Pierre Curie had devoted his life to his scientific dream, he needed a companion who could live the same dream as him.”

Through Hardship and Success
In addition to spending time with her children, resuming her research on radium’s chemical properties provided the best comfort for Marie. She worked hard to prepare her lectures, which extended far beyond radioactivity subjects. She also was now at the head of a small laboratory, which she fought to expand so it would fit more researchers. In 1912, she was finally successful in this effort as construction of the Radium Institute began. This was especially rewarding for Marie Curie as the previous year had been one of hardship, even if also of success. In 1911, she fell one vote shy in the competition for a seat at the French Academy of Science. The “Institut de France,” which gathers the five French Academies, had publicly expressed the desire to maintain its male status quo. Prior to the vote, the press and religious fanatics had waged a campaign against Marie for being a feminist, anticlerical, and a free thinker. Her supposed “affair” with the physicist Paul Langevin had broken out in the papers in the fall, at the moment they were both attending the first meeting of the prestigious Solvay Council of physics. However, in November 1911 she was informed that she would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Marie Curie with daughters Eve (left) and Irène, 1908.

Marie attended the Nobel ceremony in December 1911. After weeks of nervous tension, she entered a period of deep depression. Her health greatly deteriorated and a kidney operation was urgently needed. Summer holidays in Great Britain with Herta Ayrton, a fellow scientist, helped her to recover. She never applied again to the French Academy of Sciences. Later, the Academy of Medicine offered her membership in recognition of the role of radium in cancer therapy. She accepted.

Marie Curie’s Impact on Medicine
The mythical status of Marie Curie among the general public probably has more to do with the medical use of radium than with her role in opening the atomic age. Pierre and Marie Curie had taken no patent for the procedure of radium separation, a decision which added to their reputation as disinterested scientists working for the benefit of humanity.

Marie Curie’s most direct collaboration with the medical profession did not involve the use of radium but of X-rays during the First World War. The military health service was unprepared for the huge demand for X-ray diagnoses. Curie helped set up X-ray stations in several hospitals and created dozens of radiological cars that could operate near the battlefront. She helped on the scene, examining the wounded to better understand how X-rays could be used, and she organized radiology training for nurses. Marie’s abilities in analysis, decision making, and organization proved quite helpful in this endeavor. The whole experience helped to strengthen her self-confidence and diplomacy skills, both of which would serve her well in the years that followed.

“Mankind’s effort toward its greatest aspirations is imperfect as everything which is human.”

In 1921, she contributed to the creation of the Curie Foundation for Radium Therapy and X-Radiotherapy. Marie, a powerful and dynamic director, successfully developed the new Radium Institute to make it one of the most important laboratories for radioactivity in the world.

A Leading Person
Among the many events that contributed to the public status of Marie Curie, one cannot overlook the visit paid by Mrs. Brown Meloney, an editor of a women’s magazine in the USA. This dynamic woman organized a successful subscription campaign among American women to offer 1 gram of radium to Marie Curie. Local and national newspapers followed every detail of the campaign, which involved a nationwide tour in 1921 by Marie Curie of numerous universities and a final stop at the White House to meet President Warren G. Harding.

Marie Curie attained such a celebrity status in the USA that shortly after her death, a book editor asked Eve Curie to write a biography of her mother: Madame Curie turned out to be a best seller in many languages all over the world.

Maria Skłodowska (left) and her sister Bronia.

Marie’s journey to America showed her that her prestige could be used for projects of general interest. Thereafter, she supported Jean Perrin in his campaign for fundamental research in France. She would even publicly state her support for a woman’s right to vote. She also spent more of her time attending conferences and visiting other countries to promote scientific cooperation. As vice president of the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, she pleaded for the creation of international fellowships so that gifted young men and women would not have to give up research work because of a lack of university positions. She also spoke out against the idea of a “failure of science.” “Mankind’s effort toward its greatest aspirations is imperfect as everything which is human,” she said. “It has often been turned off its direction by forces of national egoism and social regression.”

Beyond the Myth
One admires how Marie Curie devoted her life to science. She had commented: “I have given a great deal of time to science because I wanted to, because I loved research.” Shortly before her death, she defended her love of research against alarms and doubts expressed about the future of science and culture: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena, which impressed him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progresses can be reduced to mechanism . . . neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.” Marie Curie’s life is an outstanding example of how science can be a human adventure.

Hélène Langevin-Joliot, granddaughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, is director of research emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research, nuclear physicist at the Institute for Nuclear Physics, and president of the Rationalist Union.


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