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Marie Curie and her fellow scientists

7 November 2017

The famed radiochemist deftly, but not flawlessly, navigated the obstacles of her male-dominated field.

Curie at the Conference on Nuclear Physics
Marie Curie (front, second from left), seen here with colleagues at the 1931 Rome Conference on Nuclear Physics, worked in a male-dominated field. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Goudsmit Collection

Maria Skłodowska (later Marie Curie) is well known as the recipient of two Nobel Prizes and the discoverer of radium. Critically, she demonstrated that radiation was not caused by an interaction between molecules. Radiation, she theorized, was an atomic property, proportional to the amount of the radioactive substance being measured. That insight made Curie one of the most important theoretical physical scientists of the early 20th century.

To succeed in science during that era, Curie had to make a place for herself in the almost exclusively masculine world of laboratory science. Curie’s success was the product of not only her creativity and perseverance, but also the relationships that she developed with her male colleagues. Some of the relationships were positive, particularly her partnership with her husband, Pierre. Others, including an affair with the physicist Paul Langevin, threatened to disrupt her career. Well after Pierre’s death, Curie had to fight the assumption that she had been merely his assistant, since women scientists were not expected to come up with theoretical advances.

Early years in Paris

Maria Skłodowska’s determination allowed her to overcome a childhood in Poland marred by the sickness and death of her mother and sister and by her father’s struggles to support his remaining four children. Maria’s formal education in Poland came to an end at age 15. Many obstacles prevented girls from attending universities in that country, and she had not received the rigorous education available to her male contemporaries. Maria became a governess in a wealthy family to earn enough money to attend a foreign university. After a disastrous affair with the son of her employers, she returned to her family, distraught but still eager to continue her education.

Finally Maria found a way to leave Poland to study in Paris at the Sorbonne. She had given her sister Bronisława (Bronia) money saved from her governess job, allowing Bronia to study medicine in Paris. Bronia reciprocated by permitting Marie (as she was called in France) to live with her and her husband. Because of academic deficiencies when Marie entered the university in 1891, she was forced to engage in remedial studies. She wrote in her autobiographical notes:

I divided my time between courses, experimental work, and study in the library. In the evening I worked in my room, sometimes very late into the night. All that I saw and learned that was new delighted me. It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.

But Marie soon found that her sister and brother-in-law’s active social life interfered with her studies. Dangerously short of money, she moved to an attic room without heat, lighting, or water. She almost starved before she was rescued by her sister’s husband and brought back to their apartment. Although those years were sometimes painful, Marie later wrote in her autobiographical notes that they also “had a real charm for me.” Eminently successful as a student, Marie earned a first-place degree in physics in June 1893 and a second-place degree in mathematics in July 1894.

A scientific partnership

During the time that Marie was completing her mathematics degree, she got a job that required her to study the magnetic properties of various steels. But she was limited by the lack of laboratory space. After hearing of her need, a Polish physicist friend and his wife introduced her to Pierre Curie, who was working on magnetism at a nearby institution. Although matchmaking was probably in the minds of the couple who introduced them, neither Pierre nor Marie had any thoughts of a relationship. Each had had unfortunate romantic experiences, which resulted in Pierre’s vow to live like a monk and Marie’s to return to Poland and use her new skills as a teacher and for the political betterment of Poland.

Pierre and Marie Curie
Pierre and Marie Curie complemented each other inside and outside the lab. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

It was fortunate for both that they changed their minds. The relationship between Marie and Pierre was complementary. By his nature, Pierre was not competitive. Marie, on the other hand, was more aggressive and appeared to care about establishing a reputation for herself. Neither would have accomplished what he or she did without the other.

By 1898, three years after their wedding and Pierre’s appointment to a professorship, the couple had developed a symbiotic approach to the study of radioactivity. As noted by Helena Pycior, Pierre brought to the table a broad knowledge of physics and skill in designing appropriate instruments. His willingness to put aside his research on crystal growth and join Marie in the study of radioactivity was favorable to both of them, but especially to Marie, who, as a woman, became more acceptable to male scientists because of Pierre. Pierre provided her with introductions to leading scientists of the time, and Marie was able to take advantage.

For example, in 1903 she accompanied Pierre on a trip to London where he presented an invited lecture. Despite the fact that Marie had done much of the work that Pierre was describing, she played along with the audience’s assumption that Pierre was the driving force. The payoff was that during the trip, she was able to meet the elite of British science, including Sir William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh, Sir Oliver Lodge, Ray Lankester, and Lord Kelvin.

Pierre’s death in a tragic accident on 19 April 1906 left bereft Marie with the couple’s two daughters, Irène and Ève. Marie had already shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Henri Becquerel. Pierre’s death provided Marie with an opportunity that she was eminently qualified for: a professorship at the Sorbonne, inherited from Pierre. Her appointment was the first for a woman.

Some scientists, including the grand old man of English science, Kelvin, never embraced radium as a new element. The idea that one element could be transformed into another smacked of alchemy, he and several others believed. However, that view was in the minority. Others, such as Sir William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederick Soddy, performed experiments indicating that this transformation occurred in other elements. For her part, although she reiterated that radium was a distinct chemical element, Curie diplomatically refrained from answering Kelvin herself; she once said that she did not consider it useful to combat his opinion. After Kelvin’s death, the opposition to the new element evaporated. Although she never found a collaborator like Pierre, Marie worked with his friend André Debierne to confirm that polonium too was a new element.

The Langevin affair

Even as radium’s elemental identity became accepted, Marie’s reputation among her male colleagues suffered in the years following Pierre’s death. She had managed to make a number of enemies along the way. She came to the attention of the French popular press in 1910 when she became a candidate for membership in the French Academy of Sciences. She was the first woman to apply, and quickly her candidacy made the front page of the newspapers. She was perceived by some of her male colleagues as too uncompromising, determined, and demanding; others insisted she was only a hack. Still, some men were impressed by her ability and achievements and supported her candidacy. Curie ended up losing the election by one vote, but the episode made her a household name.

The publicity could have been positive for Curie. However, it also made her vulnerable to attacks on her personal life. Five years after Pierre’s death, Marie entered a new relationship with one of Pierre’s former students, the unhappily married Langevin. In late 1911, a thief broke into Langevin’s study and stole a group of compromising letters from Curie. A scandal-hungry press jumped on the story, and Curie’s reputation as the stoic widow was reduced to shards.

Even more serious was the timing, for the Nobel Committee in Sweden had just awarded Curie the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Svante Arrhenius, a committee member who was an enthusiastic Curie supporter, originally encouraged her to go to Sweden to accept the prize. But he changed his mind after an aborted duel between Langevin and journalist Gustave Téry.

Ultimately Curie gave her Nobel Prize speech, but soon afterward she had a physical and psychological breakdown. Feeling that she had disgraced the Curie name, she kept her address secret from everyone except her family, close friends, and her children’s caregivers. In time, public opprobrium receded and she gradually reemerged, eventually regaining her reputation both as a scientist and, eventually, as a humanitarian.

Curie’s scientific reputation

Later in her career, Curie’s relationships with some of her male colleagues became more strained. One of her most vicious scientific adversaries was American radiochemist Bertram Boltwood. Early in his career, Curie had refused to allow him to compare one of his radium solutions with her own radium standard. Although she eventually lent him the sample, Boltwood was vituperative in his criticism of her work. He was outraged when she received her second Nobel Prize in 1911 instead of his preferred candidate, Theodore Richards. In his 1974 biography of Curie, Robert Reid digs up a letter from Boltwood to Rutherford proclaiming that “Mme. Curie is just what I have always thought she was, a plain darn fool, and you will find it out for certain before long.” He argued that Curie’s work was characterized by stubborn perseverance rather than theoretical brilliance.

Einstein and Curie
Albert Einstein and Marie Curie stroll near a lake in 1929. The two became close friends. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Although Rutherford liked Curie as a person, he agreed with Boltwood that her success was more due to hard work and tenacity than to any innate creativity. Like many of Curie’s male contemporaries, he believed that the true genius in the Curies’ collaboration had been Pierre.

In spite of all of the obstacles she encountered, and the harsh words by some of her later male critics, there’s no doubt that Curie exhibited both perseverance and creativity. The theoretical breakthrough that radiation was an atomic property was hers. “The history of the discovery and the isolation of this substance has furnished proof of my [emphasis added] hypothesis that radioactivity is an atomic property of matter and can provide a means of seeking new elements,” she said in her 1911 Nobel Prize lecture. Primary sources corroborate that Marie and Pierre had a true collaboration and that her part in the theoretical portions of their research was essential.

Fortunately, other colleagues saw the value of Curie’s work, including Albert Einstein, with whom she developed a close friendship in her later days. After her death in 1934, many of her colleagues, including Einstein, Robert Millikan, J. J. Thomson, and Louis de Broglie, rightly celebrated her as one of the most important scientists in modern times.

Marilyn Ogilvie is professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma. She specializes in the history of women in science and is the author of Marie Curie: A Biography (Greenwood Press, 2004).

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