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Up Close and Personal with Marie Curie

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Marie Curie is one of the most famous scientists in history, rivaling Albert Einstein for sheer name recognition, and there have been countless biographies published about her life over the years. Maybe you think this means that you already know everything there is to know about this extraordinary woman and scientist, but science writer Shelley Emling is betting you don’t.

Her new book is called Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family. For this eminently readable narrative, Emling drew on personal letters and her conversations with Curie’s granddaughter, Helene, to shed light on the chemist’s oft-ignored later life, private grief, and her relationship with her two daughters. Emling was kind enough to respond to a few questions via email about the side of Marie Curie the public never knew. Check it out!

Q: What made you want to write this book? What fascinates you so much about Marie Curie and her daughters?

A: To me, the most incredible thing about Marie Curie is that she searched for something — the elusive radium — for four years without ever being certain it was there. All that time, she refined and purified pitchblende, hoping and believing she would come across what she was looking for. And, of course, she did. But a lot of people thought she was crazy.

Another amazing thing about Marie Curie is that she managed to raise two such incredibly successful daughters. Irene went on to win her own Nobel Prize for discovering artificial radioactivity while Eve went on to become a world-famous war correspondent and author. Although she was often absent, Marie Curie remained intimately involved in every aspect of her daughters’ development — and she did it on her own as Pierre Curie died when the two girls were quite little.

Q: There are numerous biographies of Marie Curie; she is one of the most chronicled scientists of the 20th century. What sets your new book apart?

A: At first, although I was intrigued by this historical figure, I didn’t think there would be anything new to say. I was so wrong! I met with Curie’s granddaughter in Paris and realized that there were more than 200 letters — in French — exchanged between Marie Curie and her two daughters that really hadn’t been explored before. I used those letters to help paint a picture of Marie Curie as a mother.

In addition, I learned that one of Marie Curie’s best friends was an American journalist named Missy Meloney. When Missy found out that Marie was in desperate need of money in order to buy radium — the element she discovered but never patented — Missy organized a nationwide fundraiser and American women, even very small girls, banded together to raise the money for Marie.

Missy was the one who persuaded Marie to leave Europe for the first time and to come to America in 1921. It was here that Missy taught Marie how to leverage the press attention and the public support to her advantage. Before coming to America, Marie hated being interviewed and hated being in the spotlight. She learned a lot about what the press could do for her during her time here with Missy. I found their whole friendship fascinating.

In addition, I realized from the start that the latter part of Marie Curie’s life had never been covered to a great extent. Biographers tend to focus on Marie’s childhood and collaboration with Pierre. I start my book in 1911, when Pierre is already dead.

Q: Most people by now know of Marie Curie’s affair with Paul Langevin following Pierre’s tragic death, but according to your book, while Curie put on a strong public face, privately she fell into a deep depression. What emerges is a portrait of a deeply emotional, sensitive woman, at odds with the popular “myth” of the pioneering, cool, rational scientist. How much of this traditional portrayal of Marie is due to a misguided sense that, in order to celebrate her as a woman scientist, one had to diminish her identity as a woman, complete with moments of weakness and personal foibles?

A: Yes, I believe historians have glossed over Marie Curie’s personal foibles and focused more intensely on her successes as a scientist. But she did fall into a deep depression after her affair was discovered in 1911. Her own daughter, Eve Curie, wrote about this depression in her biography of her mother. Marie had to battle sexism her whole life. When Marie tried to boost the chances of obtaining funds for her laboratory, she offered herself up as a candidate for a seat in the Academy of Sciences in France, an all-male body at the time. She didn’t get enough votes and members said they’d never allow a woman to be a member, not even Marie Curie.

When rumors surfaced of an affair between Marie and physicist Paul Langevin, Marie was nearly run out of France. But Paul wasn’t treated nearly as harshly. Marie was only able to build up her reputation again during World War I, when she crisscrossed France, delivering portable X-ray machines to doctors on the battlefield. Ironically, although Paul and Marie’s affair ended, Paul’s grandson went on to marry Marie’s granddaughter.

Author Shelley Emling with Marie Curie’s granddaughter Helene. Credit: Renaud Huynh..

Q: I wasn’t aware of Curie’s fundraising trip to the US and being presented with a sample of uranium by President Harding, and I suspect many others might not either. Why was such a trip necessary? Could she not get radium in France (despite having discovered it)?

A: Marie, along with Pierre, never patented any of their discoveries, believing that science should belong to the world and not by individuals. As a result, by 1921, Marie didn’t have the $120,000 needed to buy a gram of radium so that she could continue her research — even though she discovered the element. France, decimated by the war, didn’t have any money to put into scientific research.

When Missy came to interview Marie, Marie told her that the very rich United States had over 50 grams of radium, as well as the money to help her do her work. Missy came to the rescue, organized a nationwide fundraising effort, and Marie got the radium she wanted in 1921. She returned to the United States in 1929 to receive even more money and radium. She enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Missy and American women in general.

Q: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Marie Curie while researching and writing this book? How did it influence or change your view of this extraordinary woman?

A: The most surprising thing I learned wasn’t really about Marie but was about Eve and Irene. I had no idea that Irene and Eve went their separate ways as adults. Irene was a Communist sympathizer who refused to leave France during the war while Eve became an American citizen. It was incredible to me how Eve went on to forge her own way as a writer despite being raised in a family of scientists.

I found it interesting how Marie encouraged her daughters’ academic development by mailing them math problems every day when she was away on business. Her own father had done the same with her when she was a little girl. Mostly, Marie simply expected both her daughters to have careers and to go on to do great things — and that’s what they did.

 

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. patrickmehr 10:05 am 09/11/2012

    The biography of Marie Curie by Susan Quinn is now available as an eBook Marie Curie: A Life

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  2. 2. jgrosay 5:27 pm 09/11/2012

    When long time ago I wrote of some reporting monsieur Curie being killed by a streetcar when he run out of his place very upset because of the fact his wife had made him horny, and that some also say that after monsieur Curie’s death his wife produced no relevant science at all, an angry reader send a reply that warned: Don’t say “some say” this or that about madame Curie, you say it. I’m sorry, I can’t speak in first person regarding this subject as I was born in the 50′s, so no chance for me of having personal experiences or information about the Curie husbands. I take advantage of the occasion to point that some do act as if they have some commitment to judge or instruct others without any request from their part, and also to point that I believed inquisition and thought police no longer existed.

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