Excerpted from the book Fabulous Female Firsts – The Trailblazers Who Led the Way by Marlene Wagman-Geller.
In 1888, Alfred Nobel read his obituary, “Le Marchand de la mort est mort” (“The Merchant of Death is Dead”). The article stated that the dynamite king, who had “become rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” The journalist had erred; it had been Ludwig, Alfred’s brother, who had passed away. The headline served as Nobel’s clarion call; to alter his legacy, he bequeathed his staggering fortune to those who had conferred the “greatest benefit on mankind.” The most revered people in history have journeyed to Sweden; among them was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, a lady of many firsts: Marie Curie.
Curie, one of the world’s most eminent mathematicians, was born in Warsaw in 1867, the daughter of Dr. Sklodowski, a teacher at the Lycee of Warsaw, and Bronsitawa Sklodowska, a principal of a girls’ school. Their daughter Marya was a serious child whose favorite pastime was playing with test tubes. The family were members of the Polish intelligentsia fighting against occupation by Czarist Russia, and several extended family members were in exile in Siberia for acts of resistance.
Marya Sklodowska became Marie Curie as a result of Warsaw University’s ban on female students. As hungry for knowledge as Dr. Faustus, she participated in her city’s Flying University, an underground women’s school whose members met clandestinely. A chance at the Holy Grail of education presented itself when Bronya, her older sister, suggested she work to support Bronya, who would study medicine at the Sorbonne first, and then upon graduation would return the favor to Manya, as her family called Marya. Accordingly, Marya took a job as a governess, and in her spare time, she worked on solving mathematical problems received by post from her father. The “homework” helped distract Marya from the severe depression she had suffered since she was ten and had lost her mother to tuberculosis. What also proved a distraction was the older son of her well-to-do employers; they vetoed marriage due to her low social status.
After five dismal years, Marya’s prospects changed when Bronya sent her a one-way ticket from Poland to Paris. In 1891, at age twenty-three, she traveled forty hours in fourth class; that entailed bringing her own food and a stool on which to sit. The young woman displayed fortitude by traveling alone, an activity associated with prostitutes. The obsessive workaholic rented a sixth-floor garret in the Latin Quarter, studied French, and earned money cleaning glassware in labs. Begrudging every penny, she rationed her intake of food; on more than one occasion, she collapsed from weakness. She enrolled in the Sorbonne as one of only twenty-three women out of the two thousand science students and only one of two women to work for a degree in science. Marie—as she chose to be called in her adopted country—came in first in her examinations and berated herself for coming in second in mathematics. She was the first woman to graduate from the Sorbonne.
After four years in Paris, Marie met Pierre Curie, and they bonded over his invention, the quadrant electrometer— what woman could resist? Marie was not husband- hunting, and the older Pierre was a committed bachelor who had once written, “Women of genius are rare.” However, as no one was more brilliant than Marie, he wrote in a letter, “It would…be a beautiful thing to pass through life together hypnotized in our dreams: your dream for your country; our dream for humanity; our dream for science.” They were married in 1895 in a civil service attended by family and a few friends. For the occasion, Marie wore a blue cotton dress, one practical enough to wear in the laboratory post-ceremony.
Their unofficial vow, as Marie put it, was to forge a life, “consecrated entirely to scientific research.” In the day, Pierre worked as a physics professor, and Madame Curie taught physics at a girls’ school in Sevres. The evenings were dedicated to research. Consumed by their experiments, they frequently forgot to eat, and meals consisted of bread washed down with coffee in a shed that served as a makeshift laboratory. After the birth of her first child, Marie took breaks to breastfeed and eventually hired a wet-nurse; her recently widowed father-in-law, Eugene, a retired physician, helped with child-rearing. Colleagues viewed putting work before maternal nurturing and child-rearing as reprehensible.
Madame Curie needed to come up with names for two daughters—Eve and Irene—as well as the two substances she discovered: radium, named for the rays it emitted, and polonium, named in tribute to Poland. Working as always until the small hours of the night, she once collapsed in front of Eve from exhaustion. Neither she nor her husband suspected—nor wished to—that radioactivity carried harmful side effects. Radium, as with fire and water, proved a two-edged sword.
In 1903, the year Madame Curie defended her doctoral position, she and Pierre received the Nobel Prize in physics, thereby making her the first woman to be so honored. In an era when the male-dominated scientific establishment made it clear that females were not welcome, Marie was at the vanguard of her field and changed the world’s perceptions about the nature of atoms, cancer treatments, and nuclear power; her theories also aided in the birth of the atomic bomb. The President of the Swedish Academy introduced the laureates with a biblical quotation, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helpmeet for him.”
Only Monsieur Curie delivered the acceptance speech (as the podium was the province of males alone), and thus he garnered the glory. Pierre was generous with spousal credit and took the opportunity to praise his wife and to clarify she was far more than his “helpmeet.”
The most successful collaboration and love affair in the history of science ended in 1906 when Pierre died as he crossed a rain-slicked street and a horse-drawn wagon ran into him on the Pont Neuf. The thirty-eight year old widow wrote, “I lost my beloved Pierre, and with him all hope and all support for the rest of my life.” The single mother took over her husband’s Sorbonne faculty position, an act that made headlines in the Paris newspapers. Artists, journalists, and society ladies joined students to hear the first woman on the Sorbonne faculty deliver a lecture.
In 1913, Albert Einstein and his son joined Marie Curie and her daughters in a hike in the Swiss Alps. Although he held his colleague in the utmost esteem, he wrote Elsa Lowenthal, his cousin who became his second wife, “Madame Curie is very intelligent, but has the soul of a herring [‘haringseele’] meaning that she is lacking
in all feelings of joy and sorrow. Almost the only way in which she expresses her feeling is to rail at things she doesn’t like. And Irene is even worse—like a Grenadier [an infantryman]. The daughter is also very gifted…”
Einstein was also with Marie when they attended a conference in Brussels focused on “The Theory of Radiation and Quanta.” At forty-three years of age, she was the only woman among twenty-three men when informed she had won a second Nobel Prize, making her the only person to have achieved such an accomplishment. The news should have been a glorious moment, but it came when her personal and professional life was in shambles. She had recently been denied a seat in the French Academy of Sciences, as much for being born a Pole as for being a woman. Einstein stood in her corner and called her detractors reptiles.
In addition to the sexist slight, she had another hydra head to slay—apparently Madame liked sex as well as science. Einstein erred when he called Marie “cold as a herring.” Marie fell for a married scientist, Paul Langevin, and they rendezvoused in their apartment near the Sorbonne. The obvious drawback was his wife, the mother of his four young children. She was incensed when she discovered their love letters, ones in which Marie demanded he marry her—and the Mrs. Scorned dished the dirt to the press. While an eminent man with a mistress may have been given a pass, society branded Marie with the letter A and labelled her a home-wrecking Polish adulteress. Langevin felt honor-bound to fight a duel against the journalist of the exposé; neither was hurt. France was scandalized by the affair, and Sweden was likewise not impressed. From Stockholm arrived the polite suggestion that Madame Curie not receive the Nobel Prize in person as they did not want an adulteress to shake hands with King Gustaf V. She responded in a letter, “I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and my private life.” Madame Curie attended the ceremony and shook hands with King Gustaf; shortly afterward, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Redemption arrived with the outbreak of World War I when Marie closed the Institut Curie to establish the first military field radiological centers utilizing mobile units to x-ray soldiers to locate bullets and shrapnel. She worked alongside her seventeen-year-old daughter Irene, who contributed to another of Madame Curie’s firsts. In 1934, Irene became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize, along with her husband, Frederic Joliot-Curie, for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. The award made Marie and Irene the first parent and child to win the gold standard of prizes. A quip Eve gave an interviewer showed she possessed the humor her mother and sister lacked, “You are not mixing me up with my sister by any chance? You see, I am the only one of my family not to have won a Nobel Prize.”
Marie was proud of her two accomplished daughters, but it was her third child, radium—which she kept by her bed to watch its glow—that had contaminated her body for more than thirty years. At age sixty-six, her fingers were blackened and cracked, she was nearly blind, and lesions covered her body. The martyr to science died from the substance that had conferred upon her immortality, a price Madame willingly paid as she felt science took ascendancy over all else. Although her life was one filled with high honors, the self-effacing genius summed up her biography in twenty-one words, “I was born in Poland.
“I married Pierre Curie, and I have two daughters. I have done my work in France.”
In 1995, Marie achieved another first when President Francois Mitterrand ordered the ashes of the Curies to be transferred from a small-town cemetery to the Pantheon. The memorial is dedicated to the “great men of France” and serves as the final resting place of historical figures such as Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Voltaire. The interment made the celebrity scientist the first woman enshrined in the august mausoleum based on her own achievements. In attendance at the ceremony was President Lech Walesa of Poland.
Part of understanding the secret of the soul of Marie Curie lies in her own words, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
This story was excerpted from Fabulous Female Firsts by Marlene Wagman-Geller. To read about other amazing women trailblazers, purchase Marlene’s book here.