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Marie Curie

From Women in European History

A Wiki Page by Thomas Graham

Based on Marie Curie's Autobiographical notes from Curie, M.S. (1923) Pierre Curie. New York: Macmillan Co.


Marie Skłodowska Curie was in many ways an anomaly. Working in France in an era in which women were discouraged from work and scholarship, she made pioneering contributions to nuclear physics, becoming “perhaps the first major woman scientist to receive full credit for her work.”[1] This success is principally thanks her own brilliance and intense dedication to science as a cause greater than herself. Yet it is also thanks to the remarkable support that she received from those around her, and in particular to her family’s liberal attitudes about the role of women. Both exceptional personal qualities and an unconventionally supportive family were necessary for a pioneer like Marie Curie to succeed to so great a degree.


Contents

Childhood

Marie Curie was born Maria Skłodowska on November 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland. Both of her parents were well educated and valued equally the education of their one son and three daughters. Maria’s father, Władysław Skłodowski, had studied at the University of Petrograd and taught physics and mathematics at a lyceum. Her mother, Bronisława Skłodowska, was the director of a prominent girls’ school and had, according to Marie Curie, “what was, for the time, a very serious education.” [2] Of Maria’s siblings, one sister would become a teacher, and the other two would become medical doctors.

The “first great sorrow”[2] of Maria Skłodowska’s life came with the death of her mother when she was only ten years old. In her autobiography, Curie wrote that her mother’s death “threw [her] into a profound depression…her influence over me was extraordinary, for in me the natural love of the little girl for her mother was united with a passionate admiration.”[2] Despite her early death, Bronisława Skłodowska had evidently crystallized into a role model for her daughter.

During Maria’s childhood in Poland, education—for both men and women—had become a political issue for Polish nationalists struggling against an oppressive Russian occupation. Government-controlled lyceums became the only institutions allowed to confer degrees. Curie recalled that “the moral atmosphere [of the lyceums] was altogether unbearable.”[2] Students “knew that a single conversation in Polish, or an imprudent word, might seriously harm, not only themselves, but also their families.”[2] Despite this stultifying environment, Curie says,


"I learned easily mathematics and physics, as far as these sciences were taken into account in consideration in the school. I found in this ready help from my father, who loved science and had to teach it to himself. He enjoyed any explanation he could give us about Nature and her ways."[2]


Maria graduated high school with the highest rank in her class when she was only fifteen years old. Unfortunately, Władysław Skłodowski lacked the financial resources to send her to university. Maria and her elder sister Bronia, however, agreed that they would work together to raise the necessary funds. As university admission was forbidden for women in Poland, they decided to travel to Paris. Bronia, they agreed, would go first, and Maria would earn money to support her studies. After Bronia had established a job in Paris, she would in turn support Maria. For the next few years, Maria worked as a governess at a country estate. The job was an unhappy one, yet she found time, inspired perhaps by her father’s example, to continue studying independently. It was during this time, Curie recalled, that she “finally turned toward mathematics and physics.”[2]

Studying in Paris

Bronia excelled in her studies in Paris and became engaged to another Polish medical student named Kazimierz Dłuski. She wrote Maria saying that, seeing as her fiancé would be a doctor soon, “you must make something of your life sometime. If you can get together a few hundred rubles this year you can come to Paris next year and live with us, where you will find board and lodging.”[3] After some initial hesitation about leaving her father alone, Maria traveled to Paris in the fall of 1891.

Paris in the 1890s was hardly a supportive environment for aspiring female scientists. There were so few female students that the word “étudiante” was more commonly used to mean the mistress of a male student[3]. Of the very few female students at Parisian universities, the majority were foreign, as a poor education in segregated secondary schools rarely prepared girls in France to pass the stringent university entrance exams. Thanks to her years of dedicated independent study, Maria Skłodowska passed the entrance exam and was admitted to the Sorbonne.

In her autobiography, Marie Curie described this period of her life as difficult, yet deeply rewarding. At first, she said, she was “insufficiently prepared…despite all my efforts.” Nonetheless, she went on to write that “it was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.”[2] Nowhere in her description of the Sorbonne does she mention being one of the very few women in her class. She seems to have chosen not to dwell on this fact. Any frustration she might have experienced in response to discrimination against her seems to have been overcome (at least in her memory) by the sheer joy of discovering science. Despite feeling initially unprepared, Maria Skłodowska (who had started going by “Marie”) would graduate at the top of her class.

Marriage to Pierre Curie

Marie Skłodowska and Pierre Curie were introduced by mutual friends of theirs in the spring of 1894. At the time, Pierre was an instructor at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris. Though 35 years old, Pierre had never married. He was waiting, as Marie wrote later, for someone who could “live his dream with him.” When Pierre was 22 years old, he had written in his diary:


"Women, much more than men, love life for life’s sake. Women of genius are rare. And when, pushed by some mystic love, we wish to enter into a life opposed to nature, when we give all our thoughts to some work which removes us from those immediately about us, it is with women that we have to struggle, and the struggle is nearly always an unequal one. For in the name of life and of nature they seek to lead us back."[2]


This apparently sexist remark from Pierre Curie perhaps says less about his prejudices and more about the standards by which women in France were judged at the time. Most women in France could not hope to live the life of a scientist or an intellectual, as that opportunity was shut out to them from an early age. Though some women in France were able to pursue intellectual distinction through their own heroic efforts, French girls in general were not raised to be “women of genius.” But Marie Curie had been. Of their first conversation, Marie Curie wrote that “there was, between his conceptions and mine, despite the difference between our native countries, a surprising kinship.”[2] Pierre Curie clearly saw in Marie an intellectual partner. “Soon,” wrote Marie, “he caught the habit of speaking to me of his dream of an existence consecrated wholly to scientific research, and he asked me to share that life.”[2] Eventually, she wrote, “each realized that he or she could find no better life companion.”[2] Marie and Pierre Curie were married in July of 1895.

In the broader context of marriage in France, Marie Curie was incredibly fortunate to find Pierre Curie and vice versa. In many cases, marriage in 19th century France tended to be an economic relationship that might or might not involve romantic love. Husbands were in charge of their wives’ property, and wives were expected to be subservient to their husbands. Wives were expected to work only in cases of necessity, and their education was not generally considered to be desirable. In his book Physiology of Marriage, Honore de Balzac went so far as to suggest that a husband contrive “various ways of consuming [his] wife’s time so as to leave her no time for reading.”[4] While feminists in France were beginning to question these views of a woman’s place in marriage, their opinions remained distinctly in the minority. Against this backdrop, the marriage between Pierre and Marie Curie, built on intellectual commonality and mutual respect, seems all the more remarkable.

In her autobiography, Marie Curie expressed gratitude that Pierre’s employer, Paul Schützenberger, allowed her to work with her husband. While this may seem bizarre now, this was not a trivial matter. At about the same time, another female nuclear physicist, Lise Meitner (later the first to postulate nuclear fission of uranium), was relegated to the basement of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute lest her male colleagues be scandalized by her presence upstairs[5].

The Curies’ first daughter, Irène, was born in 1897. Under other circumstances, this might have doomed Marie’s scientific career. Yet Pierre’s father, who was living with the couple at the time, cared for his granddaughter (later two granddaughters) so that his daughter-in-law could work. Except in cases of financial duress, it was generally frowned upon for women in France at this time to work outside of the home. In light of this prevailing attitude about a woman’s role in the family, it was truly extraordinary for Marie Curie’s father-in-law to care for her daughter so that she could work, not out of necessity, but simply out of a desire to do science.

Research on Radioactivity

While Pierre Curie continued his previous work on piezoelectricity of crystals, Marie Curie picked up on a research topic that few people were working on at the time (see Scientific Background). The world of physics had been riveted a few years before by Röntgen’s discovery of a mysterious new form of electromagnetic radiation known as “X-rays.” In experiments ostensibly seeking to study X-ray “phosphorescence” of different materials, the physicist Henri Becquerel discovered, to his great surprise, that certain compounds seem to emit radiation spontaneously. This mysterious phenomenon remained largely unexplored, and Marie Curie wanted to understand it.

In a small lab space not well equipped for the task, Marie Curie built
Marie and Pierre Curie in their laboratory shown next to their piezoelectric quartz measuring device.
(with technical assistance from Pierre) equipment for quantifying radioactivity. After investigating the radioactivity of a vast range of elements and minerals, she found that one type of mineral containing uranium, pitchblende, emits about four times more radiation than uranium itself. This suggested that pitchblende might contain a new element more radioactive than uranium. At this point, as Marie Curie wrote in the introduction to her thesis “M. Curie put aside the work on which he was engaged, and joined me, or object being the extraction of new radio-active substances and the further study of their properties.” [6]

Over the next few years, Marie and Pierre Curie worked intensely to isolate the new elements responsible for the high radioactivity of pitchblende. It became clear right away that whatever these new substances might be, they were present in very minute quantities. To obtain any appreciable quantity of them, it would literally be necessary to start with tons of starting material. Pierre and Marie were able to obtain several tons of pitchblende residue (at that point thought to be worthless) left over from uranium mining operations in Austria. The extractions were grueling, hazardous work, during which the Curies were exposed in a poorly ventilated space to toxic and radioactive fumes. Einstein would later say that Marie Curie had faced “the most unheard-of difficulties which have seldom been encountered in the history of experimental science.”[7] Despite the difficulty, Marie Curie wrote,

"A great tranquility reigned in our poor, shabby hangar; occasionally, while observing an operation, we would walk up and down talking of our work, present and future. When we were cold, a cup of hot tea, drunk beside the stove, cheered us. We lived in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.
"Sometimes we returned in the evening after dinner for another survey of our domain. Our precious products, for which we had shelter, were arranged on tables and boards; from all sides we could see their slightly luminous silhouettes, and these gleamings, which seemed suspended in the darkness, stirred us with ever new emotion and enchantment." [8]


Initially, Marie and Pierre Curie identified two new radioactive elements, which they named radium and polonium (the latter after Marie Curie’s home country). Marie Curie wrote up her work in fractionating these elements and defended it successfully in 1903 as a doctoral thesis. Radium was the first of the two elements to be fully purified. The extent of its radioactivity, wrote Marie Curie, “exceeded all of our expectations.”[8] Radium, as it turned out, was over a million times more radioactive than pure uranium.

For this remarkable work, the Curies, together with Henri Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Though the Curies were honored by the prize, it brought them sudden and unwanted publicity. Newspaper articles mostly tended to insinuate that Pierre Curie had done most of the work, and that Marie had “assisted” him [3]. Insulting though this was, this may have been a slight blessing for Marie Curie, as it spared her the brunt of public attention, which seems to have been borne by her husband. As Mme. Curie put it:


[The publicity] bore very heavily on a man who was neither prepared for it, nor accustomed to it. There followed an avalanche of visits, of letters, of demands for articles and lectures, which meant a constant enervation, fatigue, and loss of time [8].


Indeed, Pierre Curie’s output was diminished for the rest of his life—likely in part to unwanted demands of publicity.

Marie Curie's Second Great Loss

The second great tragedy of Marie Curie’s life occurred in 1905 when her beloved Pierre was struck and killed by a truck as he was crossing the street. Marie Curie was absolutely devastated, remaining in a deep depression for years afterward. Her trauma is poignantly recorded in the grief journal that she kept for a year after Pierre’s death. The day of Pierre’s death, she wrote, “I lost my beloved Pierre, and with him all hope and all support for the rest of my life.”[3] A few weeks later, she spoke of the difficulty of continuing her work: “I tried to make a measurement for a curve on which each of us had made some points. But after some time I felt the impossibility of continuing. The laboratory had an infinite sadness and seemed a desert.”[3]

Nonetheless, it seems that Marie Curie’s dedication to science ultimately provided her some solace. “I work in the laboratory all my days,” she wrote in a later entry, “I am better there than anywhere else.”[3] She could not envisage that anything else could give her “une vraie joie personelle sauf le travail scientifique.[9]

Though it would have been of little consolation to Marie Curie, Pierre’s death likely contributed to greater public recognition of her own talent as an independent scientist. Upon Pierre’s death, Marie Curie was promoted to his former position, becoming the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne. Alone now, she pursued the dreams that she and her husband had held of expanding the lab. She alone won a second Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for the “isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”[10] Though acknowledging Pierre multiple times, her speech describes mostly work that she had done alone or in collaboration with her coworker André-Louis Debierne.

The increasing recognition of female scientists like Marie Curie around this time may have been spurred by the growing women’s movements of the early 20th century[11]. As early as 1897 in France, Alphonse Rebière had published a three hundred-page compendium of women’s contributions to science[12]. A similar book was published in the United States in 1913 by John Augustine Zahm, writing under the pseudonym “H.J. Mozans.”[11] Yet despite being offered various honors like the Palmes Académiques (which she declined, as Pierre Curie had), Marie Curie’s gender was by no means forgotten. Most notably, she was rejected by the French National Academy of Sciences. The members’ statements made it clear that this was because of their reticence to have a woman in their midst[3].

Scandal and Recovery

Around the same time, however, Marie Curie’s public image was marred by scandal. She had begun having an affair with the physicist Paul Langevin, and several letters between them were leaked to the press. While in French society at the time affairs by married men were considered fairly normal, it was customary for the other woman to be unknown and unheard-from. Langevin’s affair with the well-known woman physicist Marie Curie, however, was considered scandalous. Curie was slandered as a home-wrecker by journalists who knew nothing of or choose to ignore the facts of Langevin’s severely dysfunctional marriage. Some right-wing publications seized the opportunity to preach the immorality of women having careers.

Whatever lingering talk of scandal remained was thrust aside a few years later by the onset of the first World War. During the war, Marie Curie spearheaded an effort to develop mobile X-ray devices for treating wounded soldiers in remote locations. She took a hands-on approach, training army medics in the use of the devices and sometimes driving mobile X-ray trucks herself.

By her later years, Marie Curie had became the focus of tremendous public admiration at home and abroad. One person who promoted Marie Curie's image in the United States was the American journalist Marie (“Missy”) Meloney, a writer for a popular women’s magazine who came to interview Marie Curie in 1920. Having just visited Thomas Edison’s mansion, Meloney was shocked by Marie Curie’s humble apartment paid for by her modest professor’s salary.
Marie Curie in America with her two daughters and Marie "Missy" Meloney (far left).
Moreover, Meloney was stunned to learn that Marie Curie’s laboratory, despite being the first to isolate radium, was limited by having only a gram of it for their experiments.

Deciding the situation had to be fixed, Mrs. Meloney started a nation-wide drive among American women’s organizations to raise $100,000 to buy Marie Curie another gram of radium. When it was clear that the goal would be met, Marie Curie came to the United States with great fanfare and was presented with the gift of radium by President Harding. Invitations to the event cited Marie Curie’s “transcendent services to science and humanity.”[13] During her trip, which she insisted be only two weeks so as not to disrupt her research, Marie Curie traveled across the United States and received honors from various organizations and honorary doctorates from various universities, including the University of Chicago, where she had been highly recommended for the honor by the prominent chemists Julius Stieglitz and A.A. Michelson [14]. Charlotte Kellogg of the Marie Curie Radium Fund wrote that Marie Curie was also convinced after “much delicate persuasion” to accept a small yearly fund for her personal use. Yet to Kellogg and Mrs. Meloney’s chagrin, Marie Curie, dedicated as ever to her science above everything else, spent it on her laboratory rather than herself [15].

Marie Curie's Legacy

The Curie lab continued to produce remarkable research. Moreover, Marie Curie took a special interest in mentoring young female scientists, having up to a dozen in her lab at a time. Among them, Marguerite Perey, who discovered the element francium, later went on to be the first woman elected to the French National Academy of Sciences. This was an honor for which Marie Curie was once turned down due to sexism and for which she never re-applied. Marie Curie’s daughter Irène married Fréderic Joliot, a young scientist in Marie Curie’s lab, and gradually the Joliot-Curies took over the management of the lab. Among other accomplishments, they were the first to demonstrate the “transmutation” of one element to another by bombardment with alpha particles. Seeing this particular accomplishment by her daughter and son-in-law, Joliot said “was without a doubt the last great satisfaction of [Marie Curie’s] life.”

Marie Curie died on July 4, 1934 of leukemia caused, no doubt, by exposure to the radiation that she spent her life studying. She had lived a remarkable life filled with both triumphs and difficulties. Her initial path toward science had been enabled by parents and siblings who supported her education and provided role models for her. She had the good fortune of a sister and brother-in-law who could support her study in a foreign country and a father who was willing to let her go for the sake of her studies. She was blessed with a devoted father-in-law who consented to provide day-care for her children so that she could pursue her career. Most of all, she found a husband who not only valued her intellectual powers but served as the second half of a profoundly successful yet tragically short-lived creative partnership. Yet none of Marie Curie’s great accomplishments would have been possible without her own intrinsic brilliance and commitment to the cause of science. It was this commitment that pressed her to study independently through her years as a governess, that likely served as an escape from the discrimination she experienced in Paris, that led her and her husband to success through a tremendously arduous research project, and that kept her from falling into utter inertia after Pierre Curie’s death. Given her scientific accomplishments and those of many other women whom she inspired, science should be immensely grateful for this convergence of talent and opportunity in Marie Curie’s life.

Notes

Also see Marie Curie Annotated Bibliography

  1. Pycior, H.M. (1993) Reaping the Benefits of Collaboration While Avoiding Its Pitfalls: Marie Curie's Rise to Scientific Prominence. Social Studies of Science. 23(2), 301-323.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Autobiographical notes from Curie, M.S. (1923) Pierre Curie. New York: Macmillan Co.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Quinn, S. (1995) Marie Curie: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  4. As quoted in Mainardi, Patricia. Husbands, wives, and lovers: marriage and its discontents in nineteenth-century France. Yale University Press, 2003.
  5. Rhodes, Richard (1995) The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  6. Curie, M.S. (1904) Radio-Active Substances. London: Chemical News Office.
  7. Albert Einstein. Testimony to MC and her work, 1 p. From the Joseph Halle Schaffner collection in the history of science, 1642-1961., Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Curie, M.S. (1923) Pierre Curie. New York: Macmillan Co.
  9. Nothing could give “true personal joy except scientific work”. Quoted by Nichols-Pecceu, M. (2000) "Cher Pierre que je ne reverrai plus ici": Marie Curie's Mourning Journal, 1906-1907. The French Review. 73(5) 872-880.
  10. Citation by the Nobel committee. Quoted at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1911/index.html
  11. 11.0 11.1 Schiebinger, L. (1987) The History and Philosophy of Women in Science: A Review Essay. Signs. 12(2), 305-332.
  12. Rebière, Alphonse. (1897) Les femmes dans la science. Nony & Cie.
  13. Printed invitation to presentation of the first gram of radium to MC, 20 May 1921. From the Joseph Halle Schaffner collection in the history of science, 1642-1961., Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.
  14. Letter from Julius Stieglitz to President Harry Pratt Judson of the University of Chicago, Feb. 14, 1921; Letter from Paris from A.A. Michelson to Harry Pratt Judson, March 7, 1921. From Office of the President. Harper, Judson, and Burton Administration Records. Box 39, Folder 6 (Honorary Doctorates), The University of Chicago Special Collections
  15. Kellogg, Charlotte. Carmel, California. An intimate picture of Madame Curie. From diary notes covering a friendship of fifteen years. 11 p. From the Joseph Halle Schaffner collection in the history of science, 1642-1961., Special Collections, University of Chicago Library.

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