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Madame Curie

Madame Curie

Eve Curie 1937

Introduction
Author Biography
Summary
Key Figures
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

"The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend." Madame Curie is the classic biography of Marie Curie, who is as well-known for her uniquely close collaboration with her husband, Pierre Curie, as for her ground-breaking accomplishments in the study of radiation. Marie Curie won the 1903 Nobel Prize for physics, along with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, for isolating new elements they called polonium and radium. She won a second Nobel Prize, in chemistry, in 1911.

Curie was born in 1867 into a poor but intellectually active family of teachers in Warsaw, Poland, then under the rule of the Russian empire. In 1891, she moved to Paris to pursue a higher education at the Sorbonne. There, her dedication to her studies bordered on obsession, aggravated by extreme poverty, so that she spent years studying long into the night, in unfurnished rooms with little light and no heat, subsisting on little more than bread and tea. She earned a master's degree in physics in 1893 and a master's in mathematics in 1894. In 1895, she married Pierre Curie, a physicist with whom she was to spend the next eleven years in close scientific collaboration, until his untimely death in 1906. Inconsolable about this personal loss, Marie took over Pierre's post as professor and continued alone the work they had begun together. Her final years were spent in dedication to her work as director of the Radium Institute in Paris, which had been established to accommodate her many students and lab assistants. She died in 1934 of leukemia, the result of years spent handling radioactive materials.

Madame Curie (1937), written by Marie's younger daughter Eve Curie, approaches the life of this world-famous scientist from several perspectives. The now legendary relationship between Marie and Pierre Curie, which Eve describes as a perfect bond based on personal affection and the shared belief in the "spirit of science," is central to this story. Marie's status as a pioneer woman in the field of science places this book in the category of biographies of great women in history. Although she lived most of her adult life in Paris, Marie's identity as a Pole, having lived under the oppressive regime of the Russian empire, continued to be important throughout her life. Finally, in Madame Curie, Eve Curie describes Marie's scientific work in terms easily understandable to the general reader unfamiliar with the field.

Author Biography

Curie was born on December 6, 1904, in Paris, France, the second daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicists Marie and Pierre Curie. Her father died when she was very young. She describes a childhood filled with her mother's love but with little discipline, direction, or direct attention, as Marie Curie was almost completely absorbed by her work. While her older sister, Irene, became her mother's laboratory assistant while still a teenager, Eve had no inclination toward the sciences, excelling instead in music. Nonetheless, after Irene married and moved away from home, Eve continued to live with her mother and remained at Marie Curie's bedside during the agonizing final days of her life.

In early adulthood, Eve Curie was a concert pianist, performing in France and Belgium. She received a bachelor's degree and a doctorate degree from College Sevigne and later became a journalist and music critic for the weekly Candide. Madame Curie, Eve Curie's biography of her famous mother, was first published in 1937, three years after Marie Curie's death. Eve's second book, Journey Among Warriors, was first published in 1943 and chronicled her travels in Europe during World War II. While in England during World War II, she participated in the French Resistance Movement, called Free France, fighting against German occupation. She later served in Europe as an officer of the women's division army of the Fighting French.

After the war, from 1945 to 1949, she worked as co-publisher of Paris-Presse, a daily newspaper. Between 1939 and 1949, she gave seven different lecture tours in the United States. From 1952 to 1954, she held the post of special advisor to the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). She married Henry Richardson Labouisse, an American ambassador to Greece, in 1954. From 1962 to 1965, she was executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund in Greece.

Summary

Early Life in Poland

Marie Curie, the subject of Madame Curie, was born Marie Sklodovska (or Sklodowska) on November 7, 1867, in Warsaw, Poland, the fifth and youngest child in her family. As a child, her nickname was Manya. Curie's family were Polish nationalists during the long period in which Poland was a part of the Russian empire. Her father, Vladislav Sklodovski, was a professor of mathematics and physics, while her mother was a director and teacher at a school for girls.

Curie experienced tragedy early in life, when her sister Zosia died of typhus and her mother died of tuberculosis. Not long before these losses, Curie's father's salary had been drastically reduced due to political tensions with the Russian authorities. Upon graduating from high school in 1883, Curie enjoyed a year of freedom, during which she spent time staying with relatives and family friends in the country. Returning to Warsaw, she and her siblings began tutoring in order to supplement her father's now meager income, which had been made worse when he lost all of his savings in a poor stock investment.

Curie became involved with the Polish nationalist intelligentsia in Warsaw, which formed a "Floating University" to study and teach subjects forbidden by the Russian authorities. Curie thus became interested in the school of thought known as "positivism." Part of the philosophy of her intellectual environment was that Polish resistance to Russian imperial authority should be exercised through the education of poor Poles, rather than through violent revolutionary activities. At eighteen, she began working as a governess. Her first position, with a wealthy Polish family, was unbearable to her, and she described it as a "prison" and a "hell." But she and her sister Bronya had agreed that she would work to support Bronya's attendance at medical school in Paris, an arrangement Marie had suggested. Her next position was as a governess in a wealthy family living in the country outside of Warsaw. There, she was treated with respect and kindness and even found time to tutor the impoverished children of the local rural community. However, when she fell in love with the eldest son of the family, they disapproved of his proposal of marriage because of Curie's poverty. Although she stayed on with the family, her heart was broken when her first love gave in to his family's wishes and broke off the relationship. After three years with this family, she took a position working for a wealthy woman in Warsaw while also learning and teaching for the first time in a science lab set up by the "Floating University."

Education in Paris

Marie Curie's sister Bronya had by this time completed school and married Casimir Dluski, a doctor. In 1891, Curie left Poland to live with Bronya and her husband in Paris while attending classes in the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne. She eventually moved into her own room in the Latin Quarter of Paris, closer to the university. While living on her own, Curie studied long into the night in small, unfurnished rooms with no heat and little light, more often than not neglecting to eat or sleep, due to both her miniscule budget and her lack of interest in anything other than her studies. She essentially lived on tea and bread for much of this time and rarely socialized with other students. In 1893, she earned a master's degree in physics, upon which she was granted the Polish Alexandrovich scholarship, which allowed her to continue her studies while maintaining the same level of poverty and deprivation to which she had become accustomed. In 1894, she earned a second master's degree, this time in mathematics.

Life with Pierre Curie

In 1894, Marie was introduced to Pierre Curie, a thirty-five-year-old physicist. After an extended period of resistance to Pierre's repeated proposals of marriage, she consented, and the two were married in 1895. The couple formed an unusually strong bond, based on both their love for one another and their mutual passion for scientific research. In the second year of their marriage, their first child, Irene, was born. While also an attentive mother and conscientious homemaker, Marie Curie continued her long hours of laboratory research. Within three months of giving birth to Irene, Marie had completed the research and writing of her first scientific publication. After Pierre's mother died, his father moved in with them and became a primary caretaker of Irene.

When Marie decided on a topic of research for her doctoral dissertation, Pierre found it so compelling that he immediately dropped his own research to assist her. Together, they isolated radioactive elements from pitchblende (a brownish-black mineral that is a principal ore of uranium), discovering two new elements, which they named polonium (after Marie's native Poland) and radium. From this point, their scientific collaboration became so closely melded that it would be inaccurate to attempt to distinguish exactly which role each of them played in their brilliant work. From 1898 to 1902, the Curies worked in an abandoned shed, which was the only laboratory space they could afford, under miserable conditions, to achieve their now-famous results. During this period the couple worked almost incessantly, earning a meager income from Pierre's increased teaching load and Marie's position teaching at the Higher Normal School for Girls. During this time, Marie's beloved father, still in Poland, died.

By 1903, when Marie was awarded her doctoral degree, the initial discoveries of the Curies had led to a further discovery: that radiation could be used to reduce cancer and other malignant tumors. In 1903, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, along with Henri Becquerel. The prize money made it possible for Pierre to quit teaching and devote himself entirely to research. In 1904, however, when the Curies had already acquired worldwide recognition for the achievements, Pierre was finally granted a position as professor at the Sorbonne, which he had being trying for years to obtain. This provided the couple with an increased income and the possibility of funding for more accommodating laboratory space. The media attention that descended upon the Curies following the award of the Nobel Prize was utterly and equally hated by both Marie and Pierre, whose concerns lay with science, not celebrity.

In 1904, their second child, Eve, was born. Tragedy soon followed, though, when, in 1906, Pierre was accidentally run over by a horse-drawn wagon on a rainy day in Paris, his head crushed by the back wheels of the vehicle, killing him instantly. Marie, while emotionally devastated by this loss, accepted the offer of the professorship at the Sorbonne previously held by Pierre. In 1910, Pierre's father, who had continued to live with Marie and care for the children, died.

Loneliness and Success

In 1911, Marie was again awarded a Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. During World War I (1914-1918), she was tireless in her determination to help the war effort by outfitting military hospitals with X-ray machines, which came to be called "Little Curies." During the course of the war, she helped install two hundred radiology units, as well as outfitting twenty cars with transportable X-ray machines. In the years after the war, although she continued to avoid many opportunities for public appearances that came with her increased fame, she did consent, in 1921, to a tour of the United States. In exchange, she was given the gift of a valuable quantity of radium much needed for her continuing research.

In 1932, the Radium Institute was opened in Warsaw, the fulfillment of a dream Marie had long harbored of bringing expanded opportunities to her native Poland. In her later years, Marie's incessant dedication to her work was exercised at the Radium Institute in Paris, which had been established in 1919 for her by now numerous students and research assistants.

Marie died of leukemia in 1934, the result of years spent handling radioactive materials.

Key Figures

Henri Becquerel

Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) was a French physicist who shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Marie and Pierre Curie in 1903 for his work on radioactivity. Becquerel is credited with the first discovery of radioactivity, in 1896, but the significance of his discovery was not made apparent until the Curies discovered the radioactive materials polonium and radium.

Dr. Curie

Pierre Curie's father is referred to in Madame Curie as Dr. Curie. Upon the death of his wife, Dr. Curie came to live with Marie and Pierre Curie in Paris, becoming a caretaker for their daughters. After the death of Pierre in 1906, Dr. Curie continued to live with Marie and her daughters until his death in 1910.

Eve Curie

Eve Curie was the second child of Marie and Pierre Curie. Although the only member of her immediate family who did not win at least one Nobel Prize, Eve Curie distinguished herself with the publication of her now classic biography of her mother. As a child, she took little interest in the family preoccupation with science, preferring the study of music, and she had an early career in journalism.

Irene Curie

Irene Curie (1896-1956) was the first child of Marie and Pierre Curie. As a teenager, she began to assist her mother in the laboratory and was given an official position as an assistant to Marie Curie at the Radium Institute in 1918. Irene received her doctoral degree in 1925. Her thesis was based on research on the alpha rays of polonium. That year she married Frédéric Joliot, who also worked at the Radium Institute. The couple collaborated on research and were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935 for their discovery that radioactive material could be artificially produced.

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian empire. Soon after graduating from high school, she worked as a governess for several years, before moving to Paris to attend the university. She earned her first master's degree, in physics, in 1893, and her second master's, in mathematics, in 1894. In 1895, she married Pierre Curie, who soon began collaborating with her in the effort to isolate radioactive materials, which they later named polonium and radium. In 1903, Marie shared the Nobel Prize for physics with her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity. She was personally devastated when Pierre was tragically killed in 1906, leaving her with two daughters. However, she was given his position as professor at the Sorbonne and continued to do important research on radioactivity for almost thirty years after his death. In 1911, she won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. The later years of her life were spent as director of the Radium Institute in Paris, which had been established as a laboratory for her many students and assistants. She died in 1934 from leukemia she had acquired as a result of her years of exposure to radioactivity.

Pierre Curie

Pierre Curie (1859-1906) was the husband of Marie Curie, as well as her scientific collaborator and co-winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize for physics. He met Marie in 1894 and married her in 1895. Also in 1895, he completed his Ph.D. When Marie chose a topic for her own dissertation, Pierre immediately realized the significance of the work and dropped his own experiments in order to assist her in isolating radioactive material from pitchblende. After years of financial struggle and unsuccessful efforts to obtain a position as professor, Pierre was finally granted a professorship at the Sorbonne in 1904. He died in 1906, when a horse-drawn wagon ran him over on a Paris street.

Bronya Dluska

Bronya was Marie Curie's older sister. As a young adult, Marie worked as a governess to support Bronya's education at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Bronya married Casimir Dluski, a doctor. In 1891, Marie came to Paris to live with Bronya and her husband while attending the Sorbonne. Years later, Bronya and Casimir moved to Galicia in order to start a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Carpathian mountains. Bronya was instrumental in the planning of the Warsaw Radium Institute, of which she was made the first director in 1932. Throughout her life, Marie Curie maintained a very close relationship with her sister.

Frédéric Joliot

Frédéric Joliot is described as "the most brilliant and the most high-spirited of the workers at the Institute of Radium" in Paris. He married Irene Curie in 1925, and they jointly won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935.

Media Adaptations

Madame Curie was adapted to the screen in a 1943 production by M.G.M. studios, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Greer Garson as Marie Curie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre Curie.

Mme. Sklodovska

Marie Curie's mother is referred to as Mme. Sklodovska. Director of a school for girls, she died of tuberculosis when Marie was only a child.

Vladislav Sklodovski

Vladislav Sklodovski was Marie Curie's father. His family was thrown into financial difficulties when his salary as a teacher was reduced due to political differences with the Russian authorities. He also lost nearly all of his savings in a bad investment deal.

Themes

Personal and Professional Collaboration

Although made famous by her scientific achievements, Marie Curie has also captured imaginations throughout the world for the unique relationship she shared with her husband, Pierre Curie. Eve Curie's biography elaborates upon their "unique happiness" in a marriage characterized by deep mutual affection and the perfect union of two great minds. She captures the essence of their relationship in a passage describing "one of the finest bonds that ever united man and woman":

Two hearts beat together, two bodies were united, and two minds of genius learned to think together. Marie could have married no other than this great physicist, than this wise and noble man. Pierre could have married no woman other than the fair, tender Polish girl … for she was a friend and a wife, a lover and a scientist.

Marie and Pierre were initially introduced on a professional basis, and their personal relationship developed in the context of their scientific interests. They shared a rigorous and exhausting work schedule, motivated by their passion for science and a genuine love of their object of inquiry. Eve Curie states that Marie's marriage to Pierre fused "into one single fervor her love of science and her love for a man." Of their scientific collaboration, she observes, "in the fusion of their two efforts, in this superior alliance of man and woman, the exchange was equal." This perfect union came into the international spotlight when, in 1903, they shared the Nobel Prize for physics (along with Henri Becquerel). Eve Curie emphasizes the internal devastation Marie underwent at the death of her beloved husband in 1906. While she went on with her work for over thirty years, during which she maintained her love of it and experienced great success, she remained a deeply lonely woman. The romance and tragedy of this relationship between two brilliant scientists easily made for a popular film adaptation of Madame Curie.

The Scientific Spirit

The story of Marie Curie is a story of great advances in the study of radiation. Her first great success was the isolation of polonium and radium from pitchblende, four years of diligence culminating in the completion of her doctoral thesis and the winning of the Nobel Prize. Curie's work had practical applications when it was soon discovered that radiation could be used to treat cancer and other malignant tumors. The publication of this discovery inspired many other scientists throughout the world to build upon her work.

In addition to her own continuing experimentation, Marie Curie was a great teacher, influencing many aspiring scientists through her professorial post. Her influence was instrumental in opening laboratory facilities to other researchers throughout the world, such as the Warsaw Radium Institute and her own Radium Institute in Paris. As a mother, she spawned another Nobel Prize-winning scientist, her elder daughter Irene, who, with her husband Frédéric Joliot, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for their discovery that radiation could be artificially produced.

Marie Curie shared with her husband a strong belief in the purity, or "spirit," of scientific inquiry. She and Pierre consistently turned down opportunities to profit from their work because they felt it was not in the interests of advancing science. For instance, the discovery of a medical use for radium quickly gave it a market value, and the Curies had the opportunity to patent their process for isolating radium, thereby profiting immensely from an international industry that was poised to take flight. Yet, they mutually agreed that to patent their scientific discovery, rather than openly publish the information, as was the custom in their field of inquiry, "would be contrary to the scientific spirit."

Celebrity and Humility

Eve Curie emphasizes throughout this biography the sincere humility maintained by the world-famous scientist. She says of Marie Curie, "She did not know how to be famous." Marie and Pierre hated the media attention that they attracted from winning the Nobel Prize in 1903. The unique husband-wife collaboration team was an endless source of curiosity to an international media audience that had little or no interest in science itself.

Marie only consented to travel and make public appearances when she thought that her presence could facilitate further funding of scientific research. For instance, she made a tour of the United States only when offered the gift of a precious quantity of radium necessary to her research. Otherwise, she was nervous and uncomfortable before crowds and audiences and completely uninterested in her own celebrity or the opportunity it brought to meet famous people outside of the field of science.

Humanism

Marie Curie, although primarily a scientist, had a strong sense of humanism and engaged in humanitarian efforts during several periods of her life. As a young adult in Poland she took it upon herself to teach reading and writing to poor women and children without monetary compensation, although she herself was poor. During World War I, she was tireless in her voluntary mission of providing over two hundred army hospitals with X-ray equipment, which greatly facilitated the surgeons' efforts to remove shrapnel from the bodies of wounded soldiers. She also outfitted twenty cars with mobile X-ray machines that could be brought to the troops in remote battle zones. This spirit of humanism was clearly passed on to her daughter Eve, who later held a post as executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund in Greece.

Family

Throughout this biography, Eve Curie captures the strong family bonds that characterized Marie's family of origin in Poland, Pierre's family of origin in France, and the extended family created by their union.

Topics for Further Study

  • Increasingly throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, radiation has been used for medical purposes. Four categories of medical uses of radiation are anatomical imaging (such as X-rays), diagnosis, treating cancer, and laser surgery. Learn more about the medical uses of radiation in one of these four categories. What is the history of the use of radiation for this particular purpose? What are some of the most important uses of radiation in this particular category? What are some of the newest advances in this area?
  • World War I was a significant event in Marie Curie's life. Learn more about this war. What was the role of France in World War I? How were France and French society and culture affected by this war?
  • In 1923, Marie Curie wrote Pierre Curie, a brief biography of Pierre Curie. Read this biography, and find other sources to learn more about the life and work of Pierre Curie before he met Marie. What were his significant scientific discoveries before he began collaboration with Marie? What were some of his major successes and setbacks, as both a researcher and a teacher?
  • According to Eve Curie, Marie Curie shared a "charming 'comradeship of genius"' with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Learn more about the life and work of Einstein. What were his significant scientific accomplishments? What impact did they have on the rest of the world?

While a teenager and young adult, Marie had a strong sense of love and duty toward her father, a financially devastated widower. At the age of nineteen, she diligently worked as a governess in order to support her older sister Bronya's education in medical school in Paris. The effort was returned when Bronya brought Marie to Paris, where she stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she also grew close.

Pierre's family was also closely knit. Early on, he and his brother Jacques collaborated in scientific research. When his mother died, his father, Dr. Curie, came to live with Marie and Pierre, where he became a caregiver of their children, with whom he formed strong bonds. Even after Pierre died, Dr. Curie stayed on with Marie and her two daughters until his death. As a teenager, Irene quickly became Marie's lab assistant, working closely with her mother for many years, during which she was granted an official post under Marie at the Radium Institute. This tightly knit world of family and work was made stronger when Irene married one of Marie's other lab assistants. The new couple became collaborators in the spirit of Marie and Pierre, even sharing a Nobel Prize for the results of their research. Eve Curie, while sharing neither the passion for science nor the austere sensibilities of her parents and sister, nonetheless sincerely speaks of her family in warm, glowing terms.

Style

Genre: Biography of a Great Woman in History

Madame Curie is written in the genre (or literary category) of biography. It can be further categorized among biographies of great women in history. Stylistically, a biography of this type not only tells the story of the life of an accomplished person but reminds the reader in a variety of ways of the accomplishments of the biographical subject specifically as a woman—triumphing against the great odds imposed upon her due to her status as a woman in a field or endeavor in which society has not traditionally welcomed women. Thus, in Madame Curie, Eve Curie intermittently points out to the reader the particular status of Marie Curie not just as a world-famous scientist but as a woman scientist pioneering in a field that has traditionally excluded women.

The story of Marie Curie's life and work is of particular interest in part because of her early accomplishments as a woman in a field not traditionally receptive to women. In 1906, she became the first woman on the faculty of the Sorbonne and, in fact, the first woman in France ever to occupy a professorship. In 1922, she was the first woman to be elected to the distinguished Academy of Medicine of Paris, as well as being the first woman to become a member of any of the French Academies. In 1995, when her ashes were enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris, she was the first woman to be granted this honor on the basis of her own work. Eve describes the added burden of traditional domestic duties as wife and mother to Marie's scientific pursuits, although, she notes, there was no question in the mind of Marie Curie that there need be any conflict between her scientific career and her family life. Within a three-month period, for instance, she gave birth to her first child as well as completing her first scientific publication. Eve Curie captures the impression Marie Curie made upon the public in the early years of her career in a description of her as "this rarest of animals, this phenomenon: a woman physicist!" In this capacity, Marie held "a scientific reputation without precedence for a woman," and yet, as a wife and mother, as well as a scientist, "she had not one second of time available for playing the part of the celebrated woman." However, women's organizations throughout the world recognized Marie Curie as a role model for other women.

Authorial Voice

Authorial voice refers to the characteristic narrative style in which an author inserts her or himself as a presence in the narrative. Madame Curie is a biography of a world-famous woman, written by her youngest daughter. The author, Eve Curie, could have chosen among several approaches to narrating a story in which she herself figures only peripherally. She chose to place herself within this story of the life of her mother through two different narrative techniques.

In describing her own presence as a child and young adult throughout most of the story, Eve Curie refers to herself in the third person, as "Eve." In other words, she describes Marie Curie's younger daughter, Eve (herself), as if she (as the author of this biography) were an objective narrator of the events of the book. At other points in the narrative, however, Eve Curie speaks in the first person using the pronoun "I." She speaks from her own personal perspective, however, not as the little girl or young woman of the time in which the narrative takes place, but from her present-day perspective as a grown woman reflecting upon her family and her childhood.

Throughout the narrative, Eve Curie skillfully and economically intersperses passages in which her own authorial voice becomes a presence. So, for instance, after describing the childhood of Marie Curie's daughters in the third person, in such statements as "Irene and Eve did not see anybody other than indulgent and affectionate friends," she goes on several paragraphs later to make the statement, "in spite of the help my mother tried to give me, my young years were not happy ones." In the hands of a less skillful writer, this intermingling of third-and first-person authorial address could have seemed clumsy or inconsistent.

Historical Context

The Sorbonne

Spanning two centuries, the Curie family was affiliated with the Sorbonne, a college of the University of Paris. The University of Paris was founded in 1170, and the Sorbonne was founded in 1257. In 1793, as a result of the French Revolution, the University of Paris became one of the academies of the newly created University of France. In 1878, at the age of eighteen, Pierre Curie became a laboratory assistant at the Sorbonne. In 1891, Marie Curie moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, from which she eventually earned two master's degrees and a doctoral degree. In 1900, Pierre was made a lecturer at the Sorbonne, and in 1904, he was given a post as professor. Upon his death, Pierre's professorship was handed over to Marie, making her the first woman on the faculty of the Sorbonne. Decades after the death of Marie Curie, the Sorbonne gained international attention when, in 1968, radical leftist students occupied the college in a massive protest that sparked strikes by workers throughout France. Although this student uprising was quelled before long, it is considered to have had a significant effect on French politics, as well as on the role of students in the university system of France.

The Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is highly regarded as the most prestigious international award in the categories it honors. The Nobel Prize was established in accordance with the will of the Swedish inventor Alfred Bernard Nobel and originally funded by his endowment. Nobel specified that the award should be given annually to those whose efforts most benefited mankind in the following five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Nobel died in 1895, and the first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. In 1903, Marie Curie shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And in 1935, Marie's elder daughter Irene Curie-Joliot shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot. In 1969, a sixth category, economics, was added to the annual Nobel Prizes.

Scientific Achievement in the Nineteenth Century

Marie Curie's early successes in the international scientific community came in the final years of the nineteenth century. Many significant scientific advances by an international community of scientists paralleled her own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) discovered the X-ray, so-named to indicate the unknown quantity of his discovery. In 1901, Roentgen was the first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics. Marie Curie was particularly taken with Roentgen's work and was instrumental in disseminating X-ray machines for medical purposes in French military hospitals during World War I.

The French scientific community during the nineteenth century was particularly fertile. At the Sorbonne, Curie was a student under Gabriel Lippmann (1845-1921), the French physicist who first invented a process of color photography, for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1908. In 1896, Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), building upon Roentgen's research on the X-ray, discovered radiation. Although Becquerel's work preceded that of the Curies, it was their discoveries of new radioactive

Compare & Contrast

1867: Marie Curie is born in Warsaw, Vistula Land (Poland).

1870: A massive migration of Poles to the United States begins in 1870, lasting into 1914, during which some three and a half million Poles emigrate to the United States.

1890: Marie Curie moves from Warsaw to Paris, France. Her father stays behind in Warsaw.

1893: The National League of Poland, an underground movement promoting Polish nationalism, is based in Warsaw.

1905: Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Polish citizens of Congress Poland rise up against Tsarist Russia. This uprising, however, is crushed.

1914-1918: The course of events of World War I lead eventually to the formation of an independent Poland, ending one hundred and twenty-three years of occupation and partition. In 1918, the newly formed Polish government controls the former Congress Poland and Galicia.

1932: The Warsaw Radium Institute is inaugurated by the Curie Foundation of Paris, in accordance with a longtime dream of Marie Curie to foster scientific research in her native Warsaw.

1939-1945: During World War II, Germany and Russia invade Poland, agreeing on an approximately equal partition of the nation between German and Russian rule. Three million Polish Jews are killed in the Holocaust by Nazi Germany.

1945-1989: Poland is ruled under the communist forces of the USSR. In 1952, Poland is renamed the Polish People's Republic.

1989: A history of Polish resistance to Soviet rule, expressed through demonstrations and worker strikes dating back to the 1950s and gaining momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, culminates in the end of Soviet rule in 1989. This accompanies the collapse of the communist rule of the USSR. In relatively free elections in 1989, the leading resistance party, Solidarity, wins a sweeping victory in Poland.

1992: Soviet troops are evacuated from Poland.

1870: In France, after Napoleon III is captured and held prisoner in a foreign war, citizens stage a non-violent uprising in which they demand the formation of a Third Republic.

1871: A communist revolution led by the Paris Commune is violently repressed. A new constitution is adopted for the Third Republic.

1894-1899: The Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish military officer is falsely accused of espionage, deeply divides French politics.

1914-1918: During World War I, French and German forces engage in trench warfare.

1939-1945: In 1939, France declares war on Germany. In 1940, France agrees to occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the Vichy government. The French Resistance movement, Free France, works to undermine German rule and the Vichy cooperation. Eve Curie is active in the French Resistance Movement.

1945-1958: The end of the war leads to the formation of a Fourth Republic. Women in France are granted the right to vote.

1959: A military coup in French colonial Algiers leads to the end of the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic is headed by General Charles de Gaulle.

1968-1969: A national crisis is caused in May 1968, with the occupation of the Sorbonne in Paris by student radicals, which inspires a surge of wildcat strikes among workers throughout France. De Gaulle, whose national standing never quite recovers from the incident, resigns in 1969.

1981-1995: The election of François Mitterrand ushers in a Socialist presidency in France, which lasts through two terms. In 1995, Jacques Chirac is elected president of France, ending the fourteen-year period of Socialist rule.

materials that made the work of Becquerel significant and brought it to the attention of the scientific community. Becquerel, in turn, made an important discovery when he found that a sample of the Curie's radium, which he was carrying, burned through his pocket and into his skin. The presentation of a professional paper on this phenomenon quickly led other scientists to the development of radioactive materials for treating cancer. For their combined efforts, the Curies and Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Marie Curie later became acquainted with the young German physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 for his development of the theory of relativity.

Critical Overview

Madame Curie was first published in 1937 and became one of the best-selling biographies ever. Eve Curie received a 1937 National Book Award for Madame Curie by the American Booksellers Association. It was also a selection in the book-of the-Month Club. That this was an authoritative biography is evidenced by the fact that no other biography of Marie Curie was published until over thirty years later. Marie Curie (1974), by Robert Reid, added the historical hindsight of the implications of research on radioactivity during the World War II and Cold War eras to the story already told by Eve Curie.

Marie Curie: A Life (1995), by Susan Quinn, is based on new information from Marie Curie's journals, which were released to researchers for the first time in 1990. In particular, Quinn reveals the unspecified scandal to which Eve Curie refers in only the vaguest of terms. Some time after the death of Pierre Curie, Marie Curie was revealed to be having an affair with Paul Langevin, a former student of Pierre's, a married man with children. Although Marie, as a widow, was not out of bounds in starting a new relationship, the fact Langevin was married caused an enormous scandal in the French press, providing the opportunity for further criticism of Marie Curie as both a woman and a Pole, a foreigner.

Quinn explains that Eve Curie's biography of her mother, written in a hurry, admittedly because she wanted to beat others to the punch, was intended as a defense of Marie Curie's injured reputation. Because of this, Quinn observes, Madame Curie specifically presents Marie Curie as heroic, humble, and pure. While Quinn acknowledges Marie Curie certainly had these strengths, she argues that Eve Curie's biography leaves out much of the important detail of her mother's personal life and emotional struggles. Quinn describes Madame Curie as a biography that portrays a mythical, idealized, triumphal image of a woman whose emotional life was much more complex than her daughter let on. This image, Quinn notes, unrealistically portrays Marie Curie as "impervious" to the "defeats and humiliations" of scandal as well as both sexual and national prejudice. Thus, Madame Curie, some sixty years after its initial publication, remains a classic biography of a great woman in history; and yet can now be viewed in its own historical context as just one side of the story of Marie Curie's life and work.

Criticism

Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses Marie Curie's Polish national identity.

In the 1790s, Poland was divided among the three invading nations of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. This period of Partitioned Poland, during which Poland as a sovereign nation no longer existed, lasted some one hundred and twenty-three years. Polish national identity, however, remained strong over more than a century of political and cultural oppression. Repeated Polish uprisings culminated in the reunification of Poland as an independent nation in the years following World War I. Marie's childhood, growing up in an educated Polish family in Warsaw, was characterized by a strong awareness of her Polish identity under the force of an oppressive Russian empire. Eve Curie's biography of Marie Curie emphasizes the centrality of this awareness throughout Marie's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, as well as during the subsequent forty years of her life spent in Paris.

Marie Curie was born just three years after an uprising by Poles against Russian rule in 1863-64 was violently crushed. The events leading up to the uprising, known as the January Insurrection, included the formation of two separate Polish nationalist movements. The Whites were a Polish patriotic organization of landowners and bourgeoisie developing out of the Agricultural Society. The Reds, a more radical, militant group of students, low-ranking army officers, and artists, held demonstrations to promote Polish culture which resulted in violent confrontations in 1861. In 1863, the Reds, now organized into an underground National Committee, instituted a massive uprising of Poles, which was later joined by the Whites. The fighting lasted from January 1863 through fall 1864, but the rebellion was ultimately crushed, and many of the leaders executed by public hanging, while others were sent off to Siberia. In retaliation, the Russian government instituted much harsher policies against the Poles in Warsaw, attacking Polish nationalism at the cultural level through such means as repression of religious expression, martial law, and reducing Congress Poland to the status of a Russian province, renaming it Vistula Land.

Marie's elementary school education included clandestine efforts on the part of her Polish teachers to counteract the strictly enforced Russian curriculum. Eve relates an incident in which Marie's school-teacher was leading a lesson in Polish history just as the Russian official inspector entered the school. A prearranged signal was rung throughout the school to warn of his arrival. At hearing this, the teacher and students quickly hid their Polish textbooks and began what appeared to be the middle of a lesson in Russian history. In high school, Marie attended a more Russian oriented school, because it was more highly respected by Russian authorities. In this context, Marie frequently clashed with some of her teachers over her expressions of Polish identity. Polish identity also played a significant role in Marie's family's financial status, when her father, a teacher, was given a demotion and severe salary reduction because he had clashed with the school authorities in failing to behave toward them with sufficient servility. The local educational director was regarded by Marie's family with both fear and hatred, representing to them the power of the Russian tsar over the Polish people.

Eve Curie describes the widespread efforts of the Russian empire "to kill the soul" of the Polish people. Chief among these tactics was the banning of the Polish language from educational institutions. Compounded by this denigration of Polish culture was the insistence of the Russian authorities on Polish children reciting their Catholic prayers in Russian. Eve Curie describes this policy as "one of the subtlest humiliations" inflicted by the tsar upon the Polish people. She explains, "while pretending to respect their faith" the tsar thereby "was able to profane what they reverenced." The degree of restriction was so great that, while discussing matters of political significance, Poles often spoke quietly, for fear of being overheard by an informer to the Russian authorities.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Pierre Curie (1923) is a biography by Marie Curie of her husband, partner in scientific experimentation and discovery, and co-winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize for physics.
  • Journey Among Warriors (1943) is Eve Curie's memoir of her experiences during World War II.
  • The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1994) provides an overview of the history of France and French culture. Of particular interest is the discussion of France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the period during which Marie Curie lived in Paris.
  • Marie Curie (1995), by Susan Quinn, is a new biography of Marie Curie, based on her previously unavailable journals.
  • A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity (1997), by Marelene F. Rayner-Canham, is a history of women chemists and physicists who made important advances in the study of radioactivity.
  • The History of Poland (2000) provides an overview of the history of Poland, Marie Curie's native country. Of particular interest is a discussion of Poland under the rule of the Russian empire.

Acts of rebellion against oppression, both large and small, took a variety of forms among the Polish youth of Warsaw. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, leaving Russia in official mourning. Marie, however, was reprimanded by a teacher when she and a friend were caught dancing for joy at the death of their oppressor. Eve Curie comments of this incident:

One of the most melancholy results of political constraint is the spontaneous ferocity it develops among the oppressed. Manya and Kazia felt such rancors as free human beings never know. Even though they were by nature tender and generous, they lived in accordance with a particular morality—the slave morality—which turns hatred into a virtue and obedience to cowardice.

In addition to the clandestine promotion of Polish language and education, Eve Curie describes symbolic forms of resistance Marie and her friends practiced against their Russian oppressors. For instance, they made a solemn ritual of spitting whenever they walked past a particular monument in Warsaw that had been erected in honor of Poles who had been loyal to the tsar. To the Polish nationalists, such figures represented a betrayal and deserved only their disdain. More perilous forms of rebellion are alluded to when Marie learns that the brother of a friend of hers is to be hanged for participation in the plotting of a Polish rebellion against the tsar.

In the 1870s, Polish nationalism, concentrated in Warsaw, took the form of a growing intelligentsia which, giving up on violent revolt, favored economic and educational "progress" among Poles. This growing body of Poles, among whom Marie's parents numbered, are described by Eve Curie as "the new heroes" of Russian nationalism. After graduating from high school, Marie became increasingly involved in this milieu. In particular, she and her sister Bronya, along with many Polish intellectuals during this time, became interested in a school of thought known as "positivism." The positivists rejected both the romanticism of literature and the arts, and the violent path of socialist revolutionary thought, turning to the study of math and science as a road to national independence. They had organized a "Floating University," by which they secretly studied math and science, meeting secretly in private homes to evade the Russian authorities, by whom such intellectual pursuits had been banned.

The real dangers of such an endeavor are described by Eve Curie in noting that the atmosphere in these small study groups of eight to ten was tense with fear: "at the slightest noise they trembled, for if they had been discovered by the police it would have meant prison for all of them." The Polish positivists thus promoted the empowerment of the Polish people through education. Eve Curie explains, "For them only one thing counted: to work, to build up a magnificent intellectual capital for Poland, and to develop the education of the poor, whom the authorities deliberately maintained in darkness." Marie, dedicated to this pursuit, undertook to teach reading and writing to poor Polish women in Warsaw.

Marie Curie's ongoing concern for her oppressed homeland was most publicly expressed when she chose to name polonium after Poland. She hoped that the results of her research with Pierre Curie would reach Russian, Austrian, and German scientists, thus reminding them of the survival of Polish national identity. Eve Curie comments, "The choice of this name proves that in becoming a French-woman and a physicist Marie had not disowned her former enthusiasms." Thus, she was disappointed when it turned out that radium (which she and Pierre had also discovered and named) became world famous, eclipsing polonium in the public eye.

As a Polish-born mother raising two children in France, Marie Curie instilled a strong sense of Polish national identity in her daughters, seeing that they learned the Polish language while also providing them with a thoroughly French upbringing. Eve Curie describes her mother's feelings on these matters: "Ah, let them never feel torn between two countries, or suffer in vain for a persecuted race!" Yet, even in Paris, Marie Curie's Polish identity was cause for public castigation. Having achieved world renown as a scientist, she was regarded by a segment of the French public as "'the foreign woman' who had come to Paris like a usurper to conquer a high position improperly."

"Marie Curie's ongoing concern for her oppressed homeland was most publicly expressed when she chose to name polonium after Poland. She hoped that the results of her research would reach Russian, Austrian, and German scientists, thus reminding them of the survival of Polish national identity."

Between the year Marie left Warsaw, in 1891, and World War I, Polish efforts to regain independence continued. The Polish League, which had been organized in Switzerland, formed the National Democratic movement, both of which became the National League in 1893, an underground organization in Warsaw. In the 1890s, socialism gained popularity among Poles, giving rise to the Polish Socialist Party, based in Paris, and the Polish Social Democratic Party, based in Galicia (Austrian Poland). The Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland, led by Rosa Luxemburg, held differing views from the other socialist organizations of Polish nationalists. Further efforts toward Polish independence were inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Just as Marie Curie never forgot her native Poland, Polish Warsaw never forgot Marie Curie. In 1911, a society of Polish scientists in Warsaw named Marie Curie an honorary member, and in 1912, a delegation of Polish professors traveled to Paris to offer her a research post in Warsaw. They presented to her a plea written by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), the writer Eve Curie refers to as "the most celebrated and the most popular man in Poland" at the time. Sienkiewicz, a supporter of Polish independence, had gained celebrity among Poles for his articles influenced by positivism, as well as historical novels set in seventeenth-century Poland. He had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. Despite the honor and appeal of being so addressed by Sienkiewicz, Marie Curie chose to stay in Paris. She did, however, agree to the creation of a building for radiation research to be erected in Warsaw in her name.

In 1913, she traveled to Warsaw for the inauguration of this building. As a renowned Polish scientist living outside of Poland, Marie Curie's presence in Warsaw was a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities—who duly ignored the ceremonial arrival of one of the greatest scientists of the century. Among the Poles, however, her homecoming was triumphant. She was given the opportunity, for the first time in her life, to make a public presentation of her research in her native Polish language.

The events of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 led up to the recognition of Polish independence. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, President Wilson publicly announced his support of Polish independence, as did the Russian Provisional Government in the aftermath of their revolution. The thirteenth point of President Wilson's Fourteen Points, presented in 1918, further pressed for Polish independence. The Inter-Allied Conference, six months later, supported this view. By the end of 1918, with World War I over, the newly established independent Polish government encompassed Congress Poland and parts of Galicia. The new boundaries of the Polish nation, wrought from parts of the original Poland which had been divided between Austria, Germany, and Russia, were disputed through violent struggles between 1919 and 1923. For Marie Curie, having lived in France some thirty years, the achievement of Polish independence was no less significant than when she had lived there as a child and young adult. Eve Curie explains that, when Poland "was born again from the ashes," Marie Curie's "'patriotic dream"' had come true.

With the achievement of Polish independence, Marie Curie was soon to realize her dream of creating a Radium Institute in Warsaw. After years of fundraising and planning, much of it by Marie's sister Bronya, Marie traveled to the newly formed republic for the laying of the cornerstone of the Warsaw Radium Institute in 1925. Her visit was welcomed by Polish authorities and heads of state, including Stanislaw Wojciechowski (1869-1953), the second president of the Polish republic (1922-1926), whom she had met in Paris in 1892, when he was a leader in the fight for Polish independence. She was dubbed "'The first lady-in-waiting of our gracious sovereign the Polish Republic."'

In 1932, Marie Curie made her last trip to Poland for the inauguration of the Warsaw Radium Institute. Polish identity, and the dream of Polish national independence, had remained a constant force throughout the life of this world-renowned scientist.

Source:

Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses views of womanhood in Eve Curie's Madame Curie .

"The life of Marie Curie contains prodigies in such number that one would like to tell her story like a legend," her daughter Eve writes in her introduction to her biography, Madame Curie. "She was a woman; she belonged to an oppressed nation; she was poor; she was beautiful.… It would have been a crime to add the slightest ornament to this story, so like a myth."

The story is like a myth in many ways, and in some ways Eve Curie commits the crime she deplores; instead of clarifying the myth, she adds to it. Throughout the book, she presents an idealized image of Marie Curie as a heroic, self-sacrificing, and saintly figure. This image is augmented by the language she uses. She writes in a flowery, poetic, and rather theatrical style, which presents a legendary, larger-than-life image of Marie Curie. For example, of the years when Marie lived in extreme poverty in Paris, Eve Curie writes, "Yes, these four years were, not the happiest of Marie Curie's life, but the most perfect in her eyes, the nearest to those summits of the human mission toward which her eyes had been trained."

Eve Curie is careful not to mention anything that might tarnish the perception of her mother as "a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity," instead of as a human being with an ordinary mortal's shortcomings. Indeed, she bristles at any attempt to reveal her mother as a richly talented person who nevertheless shared the struggles common to all humanity. Despite the fact that she's writing about her mother, Eve Curie writes, "Great men [sic] have always been subjected to the attacks of those who long to discover imperfect human creatures beneath the armor of genius." In her assumption that great men—or in this case, women—should not be seen as imperfect human beings, Eve Curie sells her mother's story short, leaving out some incidents, only alluding to others, and interpreting still others in ways that accentuate the idea of Marie Curie as a long-suffering, self-sacrificing, and saintly figure.

For example, one issue that is not addressed by the book is the scandal of the love triangle involving Marie Curie, the French physicist Paul Langevin, and Langevin's wife. This affair was known in Marie Curie's time; it became public shortly after Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1911. Once the committee became aware of the affair, a member of the committee told Marie Curie not to bother to come to Stockholm to accept the award. Marie Curie courageously told him that on the contrary, she would come and accept it, because the award was for her scientific work and did not have anything to do with her private life.

This incident, and the affair that caused it, so interesting and so revelatory of Marie Curie's character, is denied in Eve Curie's biography, despite the fact that when Marie Curie's correspondence was made public many years later, her letters revealed it to be true. Eve Curie writes angrily of the accusations, "A scientist, devoted to her work, whose life was dignified, reserved, and in recent years especially pitiable, was accused of breaking up homes and of dishonoring the name she bore with too much brilliance." She also comments righteously, "Some among these men [who made the accusations] came to ask her pardon later on, with words of repentance and with tears." This is all she says about the affair and its aftermath; then, she deflects the reader's attention away from it by insisting that the real reason for the attacks on Marie Curie was her ethnic origin as a Pole.

According to Susan Quinn, who wrote Marie Curie (1996), a more recent and perhaps more open biography of the scientist, Eve Curie told Quinn that she had published her own biography of her mother as quickly as possible after her mother's death, so that "no one else would write it first and not 'get it right."' Quinn saw this swift action as a sort of a "preemptive strike" to create an acceptable story of Marie Curie's life, which would, Eve Curie hoped, prevent others from writing a more true-to-life biography that might contain the story of the affair and other more human realities of Marie Curie's life.

In a talk she gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on October 8, 1998, Susan Quinn also remarked that she deplored the use of the title "Madame" for Marie Curie, a usage that began with Eve Curie's book, "because it makes Marie Curie a 'Mrs.'—and not a person in her own right—or an icon."

"In her assumption that great men—or in this case, women—should not be seen as imperfect human beings, Eve Curie sells her mother's story short, leaving out some incidents, only alluding to others, and interpreting still others in ways that accentuate the idea of Marie Curie as a long-suffering, self- sacrificing, and saintly figure."

As Quinn notes, the book presents Marie Curie as an icon of idealized womanhood but doesn't discuss the prejudice Marie Curie faced as a woman scientist in a man's realm. Quinn also remarked on the fact that, just as Marie Curie herself didn't discuss the gender discrimination she experienced, her daughter didn't discuss it either—even though, as Quinn commented, "Perhaps no gender discrimination was more severe than her rejection by the French Academy."

"Women cannot be part of the Institute of France," a member said, summing up their arguments against her. On January 23, 1911, the day of the election that would decide whether or not she would be accepted into the Academy, the doors of the Academy were opened and the president said loudly, "Let everybody come in, women excepted." Her membership was denied by a margin of one vote, largely because she was a woman.

In December of that same year, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. This was the second time she had won it; previously, in 1903, she, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel had been jointly awarded the prize. In 1911, Eve Curie notes, the news of her second award—an honor no man, and certainly no woman, had ever had before—stirred up a great tide of jealousy and spite among other scientists, because she "exercised a man's profession." Presenting Marie as noble, defenseless, and self-sacrificing, she writes, "A perfidious campaign was set going in Paris against this woman of forty-four, fragile, worn out by crushing toil, alone and without defense."

However, Eve Curie doesn't pursue this line of thinking, because Marie's identity as a woman is connected to the accusation against her—that she was having an affair with married physicist Paul Langevin, who had tutored her two daughters, and that Langevin's wife was angry about it. Instead, Eve Curie attacks the accusers, then weakly argues that the real reason they attacked Marie is because of her Polish heritage.

In Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun explores the unspoken rules that for many years have defined the scope of biographies of women. For centuries, she asserts, male-dominated culture has labeled certain aspects of women's lives taboo and decreed that women be presented in certain socially acceptable ways.

According to Heilbrun, in traditional biographies of ambitious, successful women, their ambition and desire to succeed have typically been downplayed because these qualities have not been considered appropriate for a woman. Instead, she writes, "One must be called by God or Christ to service in spiritual causes higher than one's own poor self might envision, and authorized by that spiritual call to an achievement and accomplishment in no other way excusable in a female self."

Madame Curie fits this pattern. Although Marie Curie was not religious, her daughter does see her life as a highly spiritual vocation. Eve Curie doesn't explore the driving ambition her mother must have had, her relentless scientific curiosity, and the conflicts between her scientific work and her need to do the work more typical of a wife and mother of her time. Instead, Marie Curie is idealized; for example, Eve Curie writes of Marie's life after the death of her husband, Pierre, "The rest of her life resolves itself into a kind of perpetual giving." Marie gave her "devotion and her health" to the wounded during World War I, when she used X-rays to help in their treatment, and she gave "advice, wisdom, and all the hours of her time" to her students, future scientists from all over the world. Eve Curie rarely alludes to the pleasure her mother must surely have gotten purely from achievement, from receiving scientific honors and awards, and from seeing her discoveries expanded on and used by many other scientists. Perhaps this is because admitting her mother had these qualities would make her mother appear immodest and grandiose, qualities deemed unsuitable for a woman. As Heilbrun commented,

Well into the twentieth century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical [or biographical] narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts or the generosity of others.

Heilbrun also noted that biographies of women are unlike those of men because in women's lives, their personal and public lives are assumed to be in conflict. A woman is always assumed to have trouble combining marriage, family, and work, whereas in stories of men's lives, the need to do housework, to clean, to cook, and to take care of children is almost never mentioned, presumably because most men have had women in their lives who did these chores and left them free to pursue their work full-time. This was the case with Pierre and Marie Curie.

Eve Curie describes Marie's struggles in the kitchen; as a scientist, she had never bothered to learn how to cook, but after she married Pierre Curie, she felt she would have to learn. Eve Curie writes, "Pierre's clothes had to be kept in good condition and his meals had to be suitable. With no maid." And, she notes, Marie Curie was stimulated in this by the fear of what her new in-laws would say if they discovered Marie didn't know how to cook or keep house. In the evenings, after a full day of work and housework, Marie did the household bookkeeping, while Pierre concentrated on his own scientific career. Only after the bookkeeping was done could Marie return to her scientific thoughts.

This double burden of work and home responsibility is simply taken for granted by Eve Curie, whose prose carries an undercurrent of praise for Marie Curie's efforts: "Little by little she improved in housekeeping wisdom." What Curie could have accomplished if she had not been occupied with housekeeping, as Pierre was not, is never explored.

Eve Curie writes admiringly, "The idea of choosing between family life and the scientific career did not even cross Marie's mind. She was resolved to face love, maternity, and science, all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, she was to succeed." This success is, of course, admirable, but Eve Curie never questions the assumption that it was Marie, and Marie alone, who had to juggle all these roles. The one-sidedness of this assumption is shown by the fact that such a line would seem ludicrous in the biography of a man, for example: "He was resolved to face love, paternity, and science, all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, he was to succeed."

Eve Curie also praises a trait of Marie Curie's that is typical of the old-fashioned woman: she suffers in silence. Often, when faced with insurmountable grief or trouble, Marie simply refused to speak about it, to an extent that at times seems pathological. For example, Marie Curie never spoke about their dead father to her two daughters, never told them about her early poverty, never spoke about the hardships she endured while working with the wounded in World War I, and never spoke of "the cruel effect of X-rays and radium upon her damaged organism"—an effect that would eventually lead to incurable, fatal anemia. For the rest of her life, after her husband's death in an accident, she avoided saying "Pierre," "Pierre Curie," "my husband," or "your father," to her children, using "incredible stratagems" in her conversation to avoid referring to her dead spouse. The depths of such grief, so moving and tragic, and which would have lasting effects on her two daughters, are not explored at all by Eve Curie, who presents this silence as noble and admirable.

Marie Curie made discoveries that would forever change the course of human history, and she died as a result of these discoveries. Her life was a study in contrasts: the quiet, shy Polish girl who became a world-renowned scientist and won two Nobel Prizes; the devoted wife and mother who shocked people when, after her husband's death, she had an affair with a married man; the impassioned scientist who found beauty in the scientific aspects of radiation but who worried about the quality of her cooking; the famed genius who lived a simple life. These contrasts illuminate her fascinating life, but they are only hinted at in her daughter's account of it.

Source:

Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Joyce Hart

Hart is a published writer with a background in literature and creative writing. In the following essay, she examines the conflicts between Marie Curie's dream of uninterrupted scientific study and the details and drama of her private life.

Marie Curie was a student for the entire length of her life, states her daughter Eve in the biography, Madame Curie, a book Eve wrote to honor her mother. And although Marie eventually found both fame and fortune because of her unquenchable desire to learn, she never found a way to remain in that special state of mind that she referred to as "the ardor / That makes her heart immense." Even as a young girl, when she wrote this line in a poem, she was well aware of the distractions that would be her constant companions in her attempts to forever return to "the blessed time," a term she used to describe the solitary hours she spent studying. She knew that she would have to leave the "land of Science" and struggle "on the grey roads of life." Although Marie was able to find some color along that road, her poem reads almost like a prophecy, as the details of her personal life seemed, at times, to be almost as determined to pull her away from her "land of Science" as she was determined to remain there.

The first distraction that the young Marie encountered was while she was still living in Poland and still maintained her Polish name, Manya Sklodovska. Her mother, having died when Marie was eleven years old, left Marie's father alone to raise four children. Marie, although the youngest of the children, considerate of her father's financial and personal struggles, took it upon herself to sacrifice her own education to assure her siblings what she thought was their rightful position—to earn an education before she did. So when she turned eighteen, Marie took on a job as a governess, giving up, or at least postponing, her studies. What little money she made, she sent to her father and her eldest sister, who had left Poland for Paris to study to become a doctor.

One of her governess jobs sent Marie deep into the countryside. There she was consumed with the care and education of a large family. At first she made the most of it, even to the point of "hardly ever speak[ing] of higher education for women," even though this was her constant dream. At twenty, still living in the country, still sending her money home, Marie wrote to her brother to encourage him to follow his dream. But for her, she said, "I have lost the hope of ever becoming anybody, all my ambition has been transferred to Bronya [her sister] and you." Marie believed that her family had been bestowed with the gift of intelligence, and she was afraid that these gifts would be wasted if one of her sisters or her brother did not follow through on her or his dreams of a solid education. Since she had all but given up hope that she would ever attain her dream, she pushed her siblings all the harder to not give up theirs. "The more regret I have for myself the more hope I have for you."

But the world would not have been the same had Marie permanently given up her hope for an education. Upon finally leaving the countryside, Marie, referring to the three years she had worked as a governess, wrote to a friend, "There have been moments which I shall certainly count among the most cruel of my life." Although she wrote these somewhat dark thoughts, her mind was already rebounding from the those past years that she felt she had wasted taking care of someone else's children, putting all her time into teaching them when all she really wanted was to have someone teach her. She continued in that same letter that "it seems to me that I am coming out of a nightmare." And so the nightmare of the countryside was over, but Marie's struggle was not. She was back in Warsaw, working yet again as a governess for another family, but this time she was self-educating herself behind the closed doors of a so-called museum, "a front to present to the Russian authorities" so the "teaching of science to young Poles" could continue during occupation of their country.

"I have been stupid, I am stupid and I shall remain stupid all the days of my life," Marie wrote to her sister "and I shall never be lucky." This was part of a letter that Marie sent to her sister after Bronya invited Marie to come to Paris. "I bore you … with my own wrecked future," she continued. "My heart is so black, so sad, that I feel how wrong I am to speak of all this to you and to poison your happiness." Marie's depressive thoughts had gained on her again. She knew that the education she was receiving in Warsaw was not good enough for her to ever complete her dreams, and she'd given in to despair. Despite her sister's invitation, Marie could not see how she could raise enough money to support the trip to Paris, even though it loomed over her like a fairytale dream. She also could not face leaving her father behind in Poland. She insisted that Bronya put her efforts, rather than into helping her, into helping their brother. With her help, Marie wrote, he could "become useful to society." Once again, Marie was passing her dream on to another sibling.

Marie was twenty-four years old by the time she finally decided to take up her sister's insistent request to move to Paris. Encouraged by her sister, she finally made the decision that if she didn't take this aggressive step toward her education, she would never attain it. After all those years of waiting, she finally would be able to begin a real education. She walked into the Sorbonne, where "she had her place in the experimental laboratories, where, guided and advised, she could … succeed in some simple experiments." Did this mean that her troubles were over? Unfortunately not. In some ways the challenges only grew more intense. For one thing, Marie's French was not up to par. She struggled to understand the complex discussions in class. And "in mathematics and physics Marie discovered enormous holes" left there by her haphazard education in Poland. To make up for this lack, Marie became obsessed with study, to the detriment of her health. But if she was ill-nourished, she did not notice, and for "three solid years she was to lead a life devoted to study alone—a life finally in conformity with her dreams."

Just at this time of her life when she was enjoying, if not a completely healthy schedule, at least her ideal of the "blessed time" in her "land of Science," Marie met Pierre Curie. At first, just like having to earn a living, having to find food to eat, Pierre was but another distraction from Marie's craving for pure study. While she'd been a governess in the countryside of Poland, she'd fallen in love with another young man. The situation had been torturous for her, as the young man succumbed to the pressures of his family not to marry beneath his class. Since Marie was a mere governess, she was not considered worthy of the well-to-do family. After that experience, Marie had sworn off men, deciding that they were not worth the effort. And so when she first met Pierre, although she was inspired by his intelligence, she was reluctant to become romantically involved. Pierre pursued. Eventually Marie gave in, and, in the end, their relationship, contrary to Marie's initial contentions that Pierre might be yet another challenge that took energy away from her studies, nurtured Marie's commitment to science.

Pierre matched both Marie's intelligence (he earned his master's at the age of eighteen) and her intensive drive to work. And although they had a beautiful relationship in which each respected and admired the other, their challenges were far from over. Money and time were constantly in short supply during the major part of their marriage. Philosophically they both believed in the purity of science and research and would not accept financial support unless it was specifically for research. And research money rarely came their way. Marie was to write in her journal, after being given a small, damp, and cold lab in which to work, a lab that had some of the oldest apparatus that the university owned, that "life is not easy for any of us.… We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained." Marie kept her focus despite the poor conditions and lack of support, and as the world knows, she and Pierre eventually discovered the element radium.

"Marie's depressive thoughts had gained on her again. She knew that the education she was receiving in Warsaw was not good enough for her to ever complete her dreams, and she'd given in to despair."

Even this discovery, which would change science forever, did not stop the challenges in Marie's life. The discovery of radium was, in the beginning, an abstract discovery. No one had seen it, "touched it, weighed and examined it." Before a chemist could accept its existence, it would have to have its atomic weight assessed. This huge task took Marie and Pierre four years to accomplish. Describing the conditions under which they worked, Marie wrote the following: "We had no money, no laboratory and no help in the conduct of this important and difficult task … this period was … the heroic period of our common existence." And yet, as if she thrived most under the worst conditions, Marie adds that these years were some of "the best and happiest years of our life … entirely consecrated to work." As an anecdote to this time of their lives, Eve Curie writes about a housekeeper that the Curies employed, who one night out of total frustration, because her employers never seemed to notice her, demanded that the Curies tell her what they thought of the meal she had just prepared for them. She asked specifically if Pierre enjoyed the beefsteak. He was to look up at her, then down at his plate, now empty, and reply: "Did I eat a beefsteak?" For the Curies, research was their main course in life.

The news of the findings of the Curies' research spread throughout the world, especially after they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their scientific work. With the prize came money, which the Curies did accept this time because it was not "'contrary to the scientific spirit."' And for the first time in their married life, Pierre could leave his teaching post so as to devote his full energies to further research. Unfortunately, because of the notoriety caused by the winning of the prize, the Curies were inundated with visits from reporters, the famous, and the curious. Once again, their work was interrupted.

Radium was eventually extracted from the ore samples that lined the small research shack in which the Curies worked. It would appear at this point that Marie's trials would be over. But in fact, one of the worst trials of her life remained. On April 16, 1906, only twelve years after they first met, Pierre walked absent-mindedly along a roadside on his way to a meeting. It was raining and the roads were slick. In a confused state, he walked out into traffic at the same time that a cart pulled by horses was passing. Pierre walked right into one of the horses and tried to regain his balance by hanging on to the chest of the horse. His feet slipped. The horse reared. Pierre fell down. The horse and the front wheels of the wagon missed him, but the rear wheels of the cart were not so forgiving. They crushed Pierre's head.

Marie again found herself lost after this great tragedy. In her journal, she hints at thoughts of suicide. But Marie was a mother now, and if at first she found it difficult to return to her research, she could not forget her daughters. Then, in a gesture of respect and confidence in Marie's abilities, the council of the Faculty of Science, where Pierre had held a chair, confided the honor of the chair to Pierre's widow. She would teach a course in physics and be the chief of research work at the university. This would provide her with a very decent annual salary. Her response to this honor was: "Whatever happens, even if one has to go on like a body without a soul, one must work just the same."

In December 1933 "a short illness impressed Mme. Curie more deeply" than some of her earlier illnesses that she usually attributed to fatigue. "The fever became more insistent and the chills more violent." Doctors took X-rays and some of them declared that she either had the grippe or bronchitis. Other specialists left her bedside perplexed by her symptoms. They did not understand her condition or her inability to regain her health. In a last, desperate move, the doctors suggested that she be taken to the mountains, a common cure at the time for tuberculosis. The trip, Eve Curie writes, would prove fatal.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie died. In his report upon her death a Dr. Tobe wrote: "'The disease was an aplastic pernicious anaemia of rapid, feverish development. The bone marrow did not react, probably because it had been injured by a long accumulation of radiations."' In other words, Marie Curie died from her own hard work, from her long hours living most blissfully in her research lab, from her discovery and handling of radium.

"A hard and long and dazzling career had not succeeded in making her greater or less, in sanctifying or debasing her. She was on that last day just as gentle, stubborn, timid and curious about all things as in the days of her obscure beginnings."

Source:

Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Madame Curie, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Sources

Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman's Life, Ballantine Books, 1988.

Quinn, Susan, Marie Curie: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Further Reading

Adams, Steve, Frontiers: Twentieth Century Physics, Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Frontiers is a history of developments in the field of physics in the twentieth century.

Folsing, Albrecht, Albert Einstein: A Biography, Viking, 1997.

This is a biography of Albert Einstein, the famous physicist who put forth the theory of relativity. Marie Curie was acquainted with Einstein.

Michette, Alan, and Slawka Pfauntsch, eds., X-Rays: The First Hundred Years, John Wiley & Sons, 1996.

This is a history of the scientific developments and practical uses of the X-ray in the century since it was invented by Wilhelm Roentgen.

Strathern, Paul, Curie and Radioactivity, Anchor Books, 1999.

This history focuses on the important research and discoveries of Marie and Pierre Curie in the study of radioactivity.

Winkler, Kathy, Radiology, Benchmark Books, 1996.

This book gives an introduction to and history of, radioactive imaging techniques for medical purposes, beginning with the discovery of the X-ray in the nineteenth century, with a focus on medical and other uses of radiology in the twentieth century.

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