Elements of success

Marie Curie
November 17, 1995

Susan Quinn has given as one reason for writing this book that she "wanted to peel back the layers of myth and idealisation that had grown up around Marie Curie's story since her daughter told it over 50 years ago". She was also anxious to explore the barriers that surrounded Marie in Poland and France, and to look "more closely at her defeats and limitations at the hands of the Academy of Sciences as well as the proper bourgeoisie and the outrageous rightwing press". Eve Curie had found it was impossible to discuss these painful episodes. But Quinn has used them to show how antifeminists were doing their best to destroy the woman who is today regarded as a French heroine second only to Joan of Arc.

"My name is Marie Sklodowska. My father and mother belonged to Catholic Polish families. Both were teachers in secondary schools in Warsaw (at that time under Russia). I was born in Warsaw and attended a lycee there. Following the lycee I taught several years. Then, in 1892, I came to Paris in order to study science". These words from Marie's tribute to her famous husband, Pierre Curie, provide a fitting introduction to Marie Curie by hinting at the reasons why she took up science and had to go abroad to study.

Throughout the 19th century, lands which had once belonged to Poland were divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria; and in the Russian sector (which included Warsaw) thousands of Poles were driven in chain gangs to Siberia as part of a "Russification" programme aimed at eliminating all things Polish. Paris became the centre of Polish intellectual and cultural life and, by mid-century, there was an awareness that the damage caused by political incompetence could only be rectified by raising standards of education in Poland, and focusing on girls since they were less likely to be sent to Russian controlled schools than boys. Therefore, in spite of being an unusually attractive girl with lots of joie de vivre, Marie was prepared to work as a governess, and live in a garret, if by so doing, she could help Poland. Being a clever girl Marie naturally enjoyed her work at the Sorbonne and came first in the licence es sciences, and second in the licence es mathematiques. She now had excellent qualifications for teaching in Poland and fully intended to do this. But shortly before her departure date Marie met Pierre Curie at the house of a Polish friend. Though naturally a shy person, Pierre rapidly made friends with the more outgoing Marie and eventually persuaded her to stay in Paris.

Pierre, who was eight years older than Marie, was doing important work on crystals and, with his brother, had devised an instrument for measuring minute electrical charges. After his marriage he obtained permission for Marie to work in his laboratory, and together they made good use of limited space and equipment. It was Marie who eventually decided to make a systematic study of a recent observation of Henri Becquerel (of unusual emissions from salts of uranium), and it was she who detected (and named as radioactivity) the much stronger emissions from pitchblende and thorium. But it was Pierre, with his piezo-electric electrometer, who steered innumerable chemical separations in directions which led, via polonium and radium, to identification of a whole new series of radioactive elements.

As a result of this work, Pierre and Marie, together with Becquerel, won a Nobel prize, and Marie had her first taste of male chauvinism. On this occasion there seems to have been a concerted effort by four members of the French Academy to exclude Marie from the prizewinners, and only last minute steps taken by an influential member of the Swedish Academy prevented a gross miscarriage of justice. The 1903 prize was for "joint researches on the radiation phenomenon". So it left room for a future Nobel prize in chemistry, which was eventually won by Marie in 1911. By then Pierre had been killed in a road accident, and Marie was in an even more vulnerable position.

Only fellow scientists could prevent Marie from being the first woman member of the French Academy. But when news of an affair with a married man was leaked to the press, it was seized upon by reactionary elements both "to drum up xenophobic hatred of the 'foreign' woman who was destroying a French home, and to exploit an array of prejudices against intellectuals and emancipated women". This hate programme was so successful that it became known as "a second Dreyfus affair"; and only a last minute intervention prevented the Council of Ministers from formally asking Marie to leave the country. Marie also received a letter from a member of the Swedish academy mentioning the scandal: "All my colleagues have told me that it is preferable that you do not come here on December 10th". Mercifully, Marie ignored this advice and went in person to receive her Nobel prize from the Swedish king.

Later episodes in Marie's life, succinctly described by Quinn, include her war work with mobile x-ray units, which made short shrift of the sex scandal; visits to America under the aegis of admirers who could not understand why she had not made a fortune from her discoveries, and the occasion when Marie received a gram of radium from the American president on the steps of the White House. After the Radium Institute was built (to her own specifications) Marie made a point of helping young women scientists and was, of course, delighted when her daughter Irene and son-in-law Frederic repeated history by winning the 1935 Nobel prize for chemistry. With this fascinating material, and many clear accounts of the work done by other pioneers in the radiation field, Quinn has portrayed Marie in numerous situations. She has also made it easy to see why, in so many halls of fame, there are so few women.

Alice Stewart is a senior research fellow, University of Birmingham.

Marie Curie: A Life

Author - Susan Quinn
ISBN - 0 434 60503 4
Publisher - William Heinemann
Price - £17.99
Pages - 509

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