You want to see tough? Take a look at this picture of Marie Curie near life’s end.
It’s not an image you see a lot, but there is no picture of her that speaks more loudly. The woman here has experienced every hardship of life. She has lost a husband at a tragically young age, wrecked her body through exposure to radiation, been shamed by her adopted country’s greatest scientific institution as an imposter and reviled by that nation’s newspapers as an immoral foreigner, experienced firsthand the horrors of trench warfare, weathered kidney disease and encroaching blindness, and lived long enough to see colleagues die at the hands of the elements she discovered.
In this picture, Marie Curie (1867-1934) is dying. Her thick fingers are scarred and burned from years of handling radioactive substances, her sight in spite of multiple secret surgeries is a hazy fraction of what it was, and yet even encumbered by the pain and fatigue of acute anemia she is routinely the first one in and the last one out of the laboratory we see her standing in front of here. Director of one of Europe’s most prestigious research institutes, history’s first recipient of two Nobel Prizes, and a folk hero of the First World War, it took the fundamental atomic forces of Nature Itself to finally stop Marie Sklodowska Curie.
My first article about women in science was originally called On Beyond Curie, both because nothing privately delights me more than sneaking a Dr. Seuss reference into a title and because it was a piece about how there are finally enough biographies about women scientists out there that kids can read, at last, about somebody other than Marie Curie. Since then, I’ve noticed that same sentiment popping up all over the Internet – enough about Marie Curie, let’s talk about somebody, anybody else! And while that’s a generally good impulse, I do worry that Marie Curie will become buried in the scramble for new heroes, the details of her story lurching from the ubiquitous to the forgotten without stopping to rest at a sensible midpoint.
Because, really, it’s a story we can’t afford to stop telling. If we can still crank up and sing along with You Can’t Hurry Love every time it comes on in spite of having heard it a million billion times already, surely we can spare a moment, every year or two, to sit down and hear the tale again, of a girl from Poland who created a new world…
Much of what you need to know about Maria Sklodowska is contained in two facts: (1) she was a daughter of educators, and (2) she grew up in Russia-controlled Poland towards the end of the 19th Century. As a country, Poland had ceased existing a hundred years earlier when Prussia, Austria, and Russia partitioned its territories and divvied up the spoils amongst themselves. Russia, in its slice of Poland, sought tenaciously to eradicate all semblance of Polish culture, starting with an iron-fisted control of Polish education. A student in Poland was taught Russian, and forbidden to learn her native tongue. The history she learned was of Russia’s magnanimous generosity in taking up the burden of governing Poland. The result was a flourishing culture of black market education wherein administrators conspired to fool Russian educational inspectors, and innovators created flash-mob style solutions to the problems of informing Poland’s eager youth.
Maria’s father was a respected teacher who eventually ran afoul of the Russian establishment, losing thereby the means of supporting his family in any but the most threadbare of manners. But he was determined that his children, both sons and daughters, would become educated, by one means or another. Maria was a brilliant student, and when her gymnasium education ended there was nowhere left for her to go according to the official system. Fortunately for her, a woman named Jadwiga Szczasinska-Dawidowa had had the brilliant idea of creating a Flying University, an academy for women that moved from secret location to secret location to avoid the authorities.
Poland’s most respected scientists and historians taught the students of the Flying University, exposing them to the idea that, as women, they could go onto whatever careers they wanted. Maria and her sister Bronia made up their minds to take up careers in science, and formed a plan. There was no way they could, as women, study in Poland, but in France they might as the Sorbonne had recently opened its doors to women students. If one sister would stay behind and work to support the family, the other could leave and get a degree and then a job which would allow the other sister to take her degree in turn. Bronia went to Paris first while Maria settled down to the intellectually unrewarding life of a governess. She taught her charges, started up an informal school to educate the local country children, carried on an on-again off-again romance with the elder son of the family, woke up early to study science texts before her official duties began, and all the while burning to get back in the game.
She finally made it to Paris in 1891, 24 years old and ready to make up for lost time. She threw herself into her Sorbonne studies, supporting herself from a meager tutoring income, studying and living in an ill-heated attic, and in spite of that succeeding beyond all reason. She took first place in the licence ès sciences exam and second in the licence ès mathématiques exam in spite of her ramshackle living conditions, her late start, and pervasive institutional disadvantages. She lived tough, and studied hard, and was all set to return to Poland to apply her newfound knowledge to her home country when she met a fellow by the name of Pierre Curie.
Pierre was a scientific outsider, a brilliant loner who didn’t rise up through the privilege and tradition of the French scientific establishment, but who rather designed his experiments and built his instruments at home with his brother. The son of a free-thinker, he was a religious skeptic and a scientific positivist. After some early romantic tragedy, he swore off love and devoted himself completely to scientific work. When friends asked him if he would ever be tempted to fall in love again, he replied that it would take a woman with the same passion for science as he had, and he rather doubted that French society as it was then constituted would allow such a being to exist.
When he met Maria (now Marie), the result was inevitable. Years of scientific resolve melted away as he met somebody who worked as hard, and loved scientific work as much, as he did. Marie, in turn, saw that Pierre was unique among the men she knew – unconcerned about title or society, he loved her because of her mind, and not in spite of it, and wanted her to follow her passion for science, instead of quenching it in the name of home, hearth, and tradition. They were married in 1895.
Thus began perhaps the most important ten years in the history of science. From 1895 to 1905, the secrets of the atom and its mysterious forces revealed themselves in dizzying succession to a handful of scientific legends: Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, J.J. Thomson, Harriet Brooks, Mileva and Albert Einstein, and at the center of it all, Marie and Pierre Curie.
In 1896, Henri Becquerel had shown that Uranium salts gave off radiation that somehow electrified the air around it. It was an important result, but at the time the scientific community was mad about X-Rays and couldn’t be much bothered about Becquerel’s curious salts. Marie was intrigued, however, and set about investigating their properties using an electroscope of Pierre’s devising. She found that the strange radiation was an atomic property of the salts themselves, not the result of some interaction with outside molecules. Excited by this notion, she began testing other materials to find similar effects, coming at last across a mining compound called pitchblende.
With her electroscope setup, she soon discovered that pitchblende was significantly more radioactive than Becquerel’s uranium salts, so much more so that some new elements must be hiding within. Working together with Pierre, she undertook the arduous process of separating out these elements from the pitchblende, and undertaking the spectroscopic tests to prove that what she had isolated were in fact new elements. In 1898 they announced the discovery of polonium and soon thereafter that of radium. Both of these elements, and the intense radioactivity they produced, would prove central to the breakneck-paced advance in atomic knowledge that occurred in the early 20th century.
We are used to the idea of radioactive materials giving off alpha and beta particles and releasing energy now, but at the time it was a profound mystery how nature could allow this sort of event to happen. Radium appeared to produce an unending stream of intense energy. How? The law of conservation of energy seemed entirely against it. How could an atom keep producing energy from nowhere? After their success in isolating radium and polonium, Pierre and Marie specialized their roles. Pierre took up the job of physicist, theorizing about what radiation was, and how these energies were produced, while Marie became the chemist, working out methods to produce pure samples of radium that would become the global standard for industrial techniques, and hunting for new elements and radiation sources.
In her time, she had discovered two new elements, written the standard two volume work on the phenomenon of radioactivity, applied her knowledge of science to save lives during bitterest war…
Together, they received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics (along with Becquerel) for their work in uncovering the nature and properties of radiation. The Prize has only existed since 1901, and while there was the inevitable opposition from those who believed Marie was merely Pierre’s helpmate, not partner, nevertheless this once merit got its due and both Curies received the prize as partners and equals.
The Curies lived a scientific idyll, working hard together during the research year and clambering about with their children in vigorous outdoor activities during their vacations. Pierre, though of course not Marie, was admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, and was on his way to at last having a well-stocked professional laboratory instead of the cobbled-together research barn that he and Marie had been working in for the last eight years. Yes, his hands were so damaged by radiation that he couldn’t dress himself anymore, and his back was in chronic pain, but for all that, the future seemed bright with promise. Then, on a rainy day in 1906, he wandered out onto a Parisian street and was struck dead when a wagon knocked him over and crushed his head under one of its wheels.
As much as the years 1895-1906 represented a time of unified purpose and scientific bliss, the next decade would be for Marie Curie an almost farcical stream of tragedy that separated her from the work which might have been her solace. Too devastated to return to work at first, the idea that Pierre would have wanted her to continue with her research eventually pushed her back into the lab, and by 1910 she had finally fully isolated pure radium, and was soon tasked with the complicated preparation of a standard radium sample that all of Europe would use as its reference point. As she slowly returned to her former efficiency, she also found room in her heart for love again, only this time the object was a married man, Paul Langevin, and the result would not be scientific bliss, but national scandal.
Langevin was married to a physically and emotionally abusive woman who worked in tandem with her mother and brother to batter him into submission, but lest we feel too sorry for him, there is also every indication that he was verbally abusive whenever contradicted in his role as master of the house. It was one of those situations where two not great people, by virtue of living together, turn each other into monsters. Marie, seeing the bruises and hearing the stories, took pity on Langevin and felt a need to protect him, which turned eventually into love. The two scientists exchanged longing letters and rented a private room where they could be together.
Then an avalanche of misfortune struck Marie all within the space of a year: 1911. The Academy of Sciences considered her for membership and unleashed thereby a newspaper war in which conservative journalists railed against Marie Curie’s membership. With xenophobic shrillness, they inveighed against her as a foreigner, as a woman who was brazenly allowing herself to be considered an equal of men, and, in one of those daft and dangerous free-associations that anti-semites are experts at, as a tool of the Jews to undo the traditions of France. When it came to the final vote, Marie was denied membership and in fact would never join the Academy.
All that, however, was a pittance next to the invective piled upon Marie when Langevin’s wife hired burglars to steal the letters that Marie and Paul had been sending each other. Armed with these letters, she raised a hue and cry against Curie, painting herself as an innocent French mother whose home was being threatened by a godless, lascivious foreigner. The press rushed to defend her and the Nobel committee, which had taken the unprecedented move of giving her a second Nobel in 1911 to celebrate her work in chemistry in discovering radium and polonium, communicated with her that, had they known she was that sort of woman, they would never have given her the second award.
The same xenophobic publications that had rushed to condemn her potential Academy appointment predictably leapt at the opportunity to crush at last this upstart woman. Never mind that Langevin’s wife was a physically abusive blackmail artist. Never mind the grand hypocrisy of condemning Curie for loving a married man when French upper society had a grand tradition of mistress keeping. Marie was famous, and that made her indiscretion intolerable. She was pilloried, and her health collapsed. A kidney disease flared up that ruined her ability to work for fourteen long months.
And then, just as she was recovering emotionally and physically from the Langevin affair, just as she was set to return to the work that gave her life real meaning, World War I struck and she resolved to forsake her research once again in order to do something for the country that had just spent the better part of two years raking her over the coals of its own hypocrisy and poisonous traditionalism. Seeing the lack of frontline X-Ray facilities, she designed a fleet of mobile x-ray centers that could be mounted on cars and driven to field hospitals. She and her older daughter Irene, who was just 17 at the time, volunteered their time, driving from hospital to hospital to not only take the x-rays of wounded soldiers, but to perform the geometric computations to locate the shrapnel they revealed. They trained other volunteer woman to handle the equipment, take the images, and analyze them, and as a result, over the long years of the war, untold thousands of lives were saved. The disgraced woman of the Langevin affair had become the Angel of the X-Ray.
After the war, Curie set herself to the task of building up her institute for the study of radioactivity, and was aided unexpectedly by an American journalist. Missy Meloney idolized Curie and realized that a magazine campaign to raise money for Curie’s lab would be just the thing to touch her readership who wanted to do what they could to rebuild Europe after World War I. Curie had spent virtually all of her savings to aid the war effort and now found that she didn’t have enough to buy a gram of radium, the substance she had discovered, for research. Meloney organized a campaign that raised a hundred thousand dollars, and a tour of America for Curie that culminated in a meeting with President Harding. France, embarrassed by the fact that America was supporting one of its scientists better than it was, then stumbled over itself in an attempt to recognize her, awarding her a generous pension and other honors (though not an Academy seat, naturally).
The Langevin Affair forgotten, her finances in order, and her Institute running, Curie was ready to face the future again. Her lab contained a truly international assortment of radioactivity researchers, and boasted a hefty representation of women scientists. It was here that her daughter would discover the phenomenon of artificial radioactivity, and nearly the neutron as well. Curie, however, was so busy administering the institute and watching over the projects of her researchers that she had little time for new research of her own. Between the endless duties of the administrator, and her own crumbling health after a life-time of working in close proximity with radiation and x-rays, Curie’s personal scientific output steadily diminished until her death of acute anemia in 1934. In her time, she had discovered two new elements, written the standard two volume work on the phenomenon of radioactivity, applied her knowledge of science to save lives during bitterest war, and founded one of Europe’s leading institutes for the investigation of radioactive effects. Truly, there are few scientists, male or female, who have Gone Beyond Curie.
*Lead image: Marie Curie in her Paris laboratory, 1912. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
FURTHER READING: There is not a shortage of books about Marie Curie out there. Eve Curie, her younger daughter, wrote the first, which was an emotionally poignant attempt to reclaim her name and put the Langevin affair finally to rest. Barbara Goldsmith’s Obsessive Genius is probably the most popular. But my favorite is Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie: A Life. It goes into essential detail about how the cause of Polish Independence shaped Marie’s early years, and doesn’t shy away from a good amount of scientific detail about her discoveries.
MUCH THANKS: Just wanted to pop in here to say thank you to all the people who, over the last four years and 100 episodes, have been checking in to read these biographical vignettes and their accompanying illustrative tomfoolery. It is my great pleasure to make them, and that there are people who are still reading them is an immense and recurring source of happiness for me. So, thanks, folks, and onwards to 200!