Marie Skłodowska Curie, the world’s most famous female physicist, was born 150 years ago, on 7 November 1867. Although her legacy is assured, in her lifetime she was a controversial figure.
New stories can always be told about familiar figures. There is only one female scientist who is known throughout the world, but many different versions of her exist and others are still being generated. In the 20th century she was compressed into a variety of cardboard cut-out figures – the scientific martyr, the Jewish whore, the double Nobel Prize-winner, the steely obsessive – although today’s schoolchildren associate her with a cancer charity and traditionally feminine virtues of compassion and caring. These multiple roles are made still more complicated by the variety of possible names. Determined to retain her Polish identity despite living in Paris, she usually called herself Marie Skłodowska Curie, but this was no nostalgic whim. Because of France’s restrictive legislation on married women’s rights, how she signed herself had practical consequences. Recent research suggests that some counter-intuitive stereotypes might also provide appropriate labels for this multi-faceted figurehead: the savvy media manipulator, the helicopter mother or the hard-headed negotiator.
However often she is reinterpreted, nothing can undermine her right to be celebrated as the founding figure of radioactivity; she invented the word. Her extraordinary array of scientific achievements transcends any attempt to undermine her significance: the first woman to win a Nobel prize in physics; the first female professor at the University of Paris; the first person ever to win a second Nobel Prize. Yet Marie Skłodowska Curie was not only a superb physicist; she was a feeling, fallible human being. Constantly hampered by her gender and her nationality, she struggled to establish her scientific identity.
A Polish heroine
Remaining close to her family in Warsaw, she paid her last of many visits home only a few months before she died. The youngest of five children – four girls and a boy – Maria Salomea Skłodowska grew up under straitened circumstances, as the families of both her parents had sacrificed their property to the cause of national independence. At that time, Poland was under Russian occupation and the five siblings were taught to use the banned Polish language at home as an act of defiance. The authorities clamped down, forbidding laboratory instruction in Polish schools and squeezing her father, an eminent physics teacher, out of his job for refusing to conform. Hardly surprising, perhaps, that from her teens onwards she suffered repeated bouts of depression.
Women were not allowed to attend conventional universities in Poland, so Maria and her elder sister Bronisława enrolled in Warsaw’s underground institution, the Flying University, while their richer friends left to study in Paris. Eventually, the family agreed that Bronisława could go to France on her own to train in medicine, while Maria earned money as a governess; when the time was right, she would join her sister in France. Despite some last-minute doubts, she made the journey across Europe around her 24th birthday. Three years later, in 1894, she possessed two degrees in physics and was researching magnetic steels.
Like many immigrants from Eastern Europe, Maria Skłodowska survived in Paris on the edge of poverty. Her garret existence, threadbare clothes and meagre diet during this period, were not unusual, but they have often been emphasised to reinforce the notion that scientific success can come only through suffering. Photographs show a solitary bleak figure: shabbily dressed and reportedly denying herself food and sleep in her determined bid for truth. During the second half of the 20th century, British girls were encouraged to follow the example of this heroic martyr to science. The message was clear: choosing a research career entails sacrificing personal happiness.
Marriage and discovery
Roentgen is often said to have stumbled upon X-rays accidentally, although he actually made his discovery by meticulously following clues, like a scientific Sherlock Holmes. As the French physiologist Claude Bernard expressed it: ‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’ Only a year later, another extraordinary announcement was made in Paris by the chemist Henri Becquerel. Like Roentgen, he had been primed to investigate unusual events. He spotted that uranium salts left images on photographic slides, even though they had been wrapped in black paper to protect them from sunlight. Apparently, here was yet another unknown type of radiation.
When female scientists pounce on a novel effect, they avoid the masculine competitiveness that often excludes them from mainstream topics. Overriding her husband’s reservations, Skłodowska Curie insisted that these mysterious effects should be pursued further. Unaware of any health hazards, she embarked on a systematic study of uranium compounds. The notebooks she kept during this work are so radioactive that they have been locked away for 150 years, but they reveal the steps she took to decipher the bizarre signals emanating from atomic nuclei. Fifteen years earlier, Pierre and his elder brother Jacques had developed a new type of electrometer to measure electrical charges. Where they had been investigating crystals, she used the same instrument to explore the nature of radioactivity.
Like Roentgen and Becquerel, Skłodowska Curie was inspired by the unexpected. When she observed that pitchblende, a mineral rich in uranium, was far more radioactive than expected, she took her first key step by proposing that it contained some hitherto unsuspected substances. Abandoning his own research project, Pierre agreed to join hers and the couple spent the next few years tracking down these unknown materials, discovering two new elements, polonium and radium.
With no access to university funding, they worked without help in a small, leaky shed propped up against a building. After months of experiments, they isolated minute traces of radium salts from many tons of tarry pitchblende by engaging in laborious processes of distillation and refinement.
Skłodowska Curie was trained as a theoretical physicist, yet she is celebrated not for her own revolutionary insights, but for the couple’s arduous and repetitive research. Once they were famous, the hardships they had endured began contributing to the burgeoning Curie mythology. The chemist Willem Ostwald condemned their laboratory as ‘a cross between a stable and a potato-cellar’, while Skłodowska Curie’s friend Albert Einstein emphasised the ‘devotion and tenacity in execution under the most extreme hardships imaginable, such as the history of science has not often witnessed’. But focusing on that mind-numbing physical task makes their research sound like glorified cooking on an industrial scale. Skłodowska Curie was not simply following a chemical recipe, she redefined the nature of chemical atoms. When she started her investigations, atoms were held to be indivisible, the tiniest particles that could exist. She had the insight and courage to hypothesise that radioactivity’s strange effects were being caused by changes inside atoms.
Like uranium, the two new elements they had identified are radioactive because the nuclei inside their atoms are unstable and spontaneously split apart from time to time. Occasionally, the nucleus of a typical radium atom spits out an alpha particle, consisting of two protons and two neutrons. As it does so, it generates energy and turns into the lighter nucleus of a stable gas, radon. On average, half the radium nuclei in a lump of pitchblende will go through this process in 1,600 years and this is called the half-life of radium. Polonium has such a short half-life (138 days) that Skłodowska Curie never managed to isolate it, although she did obtain pure radium in 1910, after Pierre had died.
In 1902, just seven years after Roentgen had published his eerie photograph, the Curies produced their first phial of radium chloride, a salt that glowed luminous green in their darkened laboratory. For every ton of pitchblende, they ended up with just one tenth of a gram of radioactive salt. Even this minuscule amount was enough to transform not only their own lives, but also the worlds of physics and medicine. News spread rapidly about radium’s potential to arrest the growth of cancerous tumours and commercial chemists were soon advertising a wide range of supposedly radioactive lipsticks, toothpastes and face creams. Ironically, the woman said to be uninterested in her appearance had spawned a new cosmetic industry.
Scientific acclaim was immediate but, even though it had been her project, she played a secondary role in the celebrations. When the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was initially announced, her name was missing: the money was to be distributed evenly between Pierre and Becquerel. It was only after a Swedish committee member protested that she was allowed to share Pierre’s half of the award. In England’s Vanity Fair magazine, they were depicted together in a series called ‘Men of the Day’. While Pierre holds up a test tube radiating light on to his forehead as though he were a born genius, Marie peers timidly from behind his shoulder, wearing the demure blue outfit that she had bought for her wedding but apparently wore every day, thus contributing to her reputation of neglecting her appearance.
The Curies had no hesitation when deciding how to spend their Nobel money. Initially declining the invitation to Stockholm, they immediately employed an assistant so that they could pursue their research further.
Martyr to science
In Walt Disney versions of history, obsessive scientists dedicate themselves exclusively to their work, pushing aside any thoughts of romance in their relentless quest for knowledge. Skłodowska Curie is often depicted as an emotionally barren martyr to science, yet in real life she fell deeply in love three times. Pierre Curie was her main anchor for 12 years, but before him she had been devoted to a Polish mathematician and, after her husband died, she embarked on a tortured relationship with one of his closest colleagues. In all three cases, the outcome was the same: she ended up alone and depressed. Totally committed to each man in turn, through them she experienced intense grief as well as extreme joy.
She met Kazimierz Žorawski when she was working as a governess in Poland, earning money and biding her time until she could join Bronisława in Paris. The son of the family who employed her to teach their younger children, he later became one of Poland’s most eminent mathematicians. In romanticised accounts, theirs was a passionate love affair thwarted only by his parents; while they forbade marriage with someone who was effectively a servant, he remained loyal until they were separated by death. Yet in a letter to her cousin, Skłodowska laid the blame on Žorawski:
‘If [men] don’t want to marry impecunious young girls, let them go to the devil! Nobody is asking them anything. But why do they offend by troubling the peace of an innocent young creature?’ Whatever really happened, she was heartbroken and a couple of years went by before she undertook the journey to France.
She met her future husband three years after arriving in Paris. In some narratives, it was love at first sight across a crowded room; in others, romance blossomed only after they had been drawn together by their shared love of science and her search for some laboratory space. Around 30 years later, she wrote in her biography of Pierre that she ‘was struck by the open expression of his face … His speech, rather slow and deliberate, his simplicity, and his smile, at once grave and youthful, inspired confidence’. Eight years older than her, he was said to be somewhat disengaged from everyday life, preferring to pursue what he called the ‘anti-natural life’. ‘We must eat, drink, sleep, be idle, love’, he wrote in his diary, although ‘in doing all this, the higher thoughts to which one is dedicated remain dominant and continue their unmoved course in our poor heads. It is necessary to make a dream of life, and to make of a dream a reality’. It was his ambitious, careerist wife who persuaded him to complete his doctorate.
Twined together at home and at work, with cycling in the countryside their major recreation, they embarked on 11 tumultuous years together. Married in 1895, their daughter Irène was born in 1897, followed by Eve seven years later; in between, Marie suffered a late miscarriage. Laboratory life was equally frenetic, as they divided their time between teaching, research and coping with the media attention generated by their Nobel Prize. While Marie submitted herself to an exhausting schedule, Pierre was often away from the laboratory, affected by pain and fatigue induced by prolonged contact with radiation.
Working obsessively is a common reaction to bereavement, but in 1911 her life became unbearably fraught. Keen to consolidate her rising academic career, Skłodowska Curie ran for a vacant seat in the French Academy of Sciences against an expert in telegraphy, Edouard Branly. Although less distinguished than her, he enjoyed two overwhelming advantages: he was a man and he was French. After newspapers vilified Skłodowska Curie as an ambitious harpie, Branly won by two votes.
Later that year she was again a victim of the press, this time slated as a Jewish outsider who had seduced Pierre Langevin, one of France’s most eminent scientists and a close friend of Pierre Curie. They were indeed having an affair, but exactly how their intimate letters were leaked to the press remains unclear. Although he was married, it was Skłodowska Curie who was blamed for destroying French homes. Journalists luxuriated in purple prose:
The fires of radium, which beam so mysteriously, have just lit a fire in the heart of one of the scientists who studies their action so devotedly; and the wife and children of this scientist are in tears.
Evidence is always open to interpretation, but it does seem that she was far more emotionally involved in the relationship than him. Resentful of his wife, she wrote (or pleaded?):
But when I know you are with her, my nights are atrocious … We are joined by a deep affection which we ought not to allow to be destroyed.
Choosing to ignore the furore, the Nobel Committee awarded her the 1911 Chemistry Prize, but Skłodowska Curie collapsed physically and psychologically a month after accepting it. She sought refuge in England with her friend, Hertha Ayrton, a suffragist and electrical engineer who had been nominated for fellowship of London’s Royal Society, but turned down on the grounds that she was married. Speaking to a journalist, Ayrton once declared:
I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of ‘woman and science’ is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.
They shared this idealistic vision of science: a century later, it still has not been fully realised.
Inconsistent, imperfect, outstanding
Both daughters accompanied Skłodowska Curie when she revisited the US in 1929 to obtain radium for her new Institute in Warsaw, but only Irène followed her parents’ example by researching into radioactivity and winning a Nobel Prize for Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot. Perhaps it is just as well that Skłodowska Curie died before their daughter married the grandson of her own former lover, Paul Langevin. Eve always felt the odd one out: interested in music and writing, she revelled in the glamorous clothes that her mother and sister disdained. But it was Eve who was at her mother’s bedside in the weeks before she died, and Eve who wrote her biography.
Unsurprisingly, Eve’s account was far from objective, but in 1943 it provided the basis of a still more distorted film starring Greer Garson as the devoted researcher. The scientific episodes were usually cut before the film was screened and – perhaps most improbably of all – Pierre dies on his way to buy earrings to complement the dress Marie has bought for the opening of their new laboratory.
A conflicted legacy
All over the world, except for Poland, this woman is celebrated as a French physicist called Marie Curie. Perversely, France has never felt comfortable celebrating the immigrant as one of its own, even though she lived there all her adult life and gave her husband’s surname to the international unit for recording radiation. During the First World War, she ran a fleet of X-ray vehicles that helped treat over a million French soldiers at the front, yet she received no official thanks from the government. For almost three decades after Pierre died, she struggled against debilitating illness to make Paris an international centre for radioactivity research, yet the city renamed a metro station and a university after both of them, as if he had been responsible for elevating her to glory. In 1995 she was reburied with him in the Panthéon, the Parisian equivalent of Westminster Abbey. Was that delayed recognition of a scientific superstar or an opportunistic act of international diplomacy?
Modern scientists still complain about discrimination against women, and national programmes such as the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena Swan Charter are trying to identify and eliminate sources of prejudice. Marie Skłodowska Curie remains the most eminent role model for aspiring female scientists, but it is counterproductive to caricature her as an obsessive martyr to science. Like all human beings, she was inconsistent and imperfect. She was also an outstanding scientist.
Patricia Fara is President of the British Society for the History of Science and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her books include Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Eve Curie Madame Curie: A Biography (Pocket Books, 1965)
Sarah Dry Curie (Haus, 2003)
Shelley Emling Marie Curie and her Daughters (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Susan Quinn Marie Curie: A Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995)
Eva Hemmungs Wirtén Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information (Chicago, 2015)