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The Curies: The Very Model of Modern Spousal Collaboration

Radioactivity may have given us our prime example of a woman scientist in Marie Curie, but it also gave many women scientists an example of successful spousal collaboration, according to Helena Pycior, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She has analyzed the Curies specifically as a research team, whose strengths and limits in the study of radioactivity were due to a complex complementarily, involving differing modes of thought, personalities, scientific styles and levels of commitment to physics and chemistry.

Whereas Pierre was a slow thinker who framed his scientific conclusions soberly and cared little for priority and fame, Marie moved quickly from experiments to bold published hypotheses, Pycior found. Pierre was non-competitive, which may have inhibited his rise to scientific eminence, but at the same time freed him to collaborate with Marie on equal terms, sharing both work and credit. Pierre was intellectually restless; Marie was intellectually broad, but persistent and capable of immersing herself in the study of radioactivity from 1897 through her death. "I think that without Marie, Pierre would not have been a great scientist," said Pycior. "Similarly, without Pierre, Marie would not have been a great scientist. It was their complementarity that enabled them to do so much in the field of radioactivity."

Of greater interest to Pycior was how the pair ensured that Marie received credit for her work, a major problem historically for women who are part of scientific couples. She discovered that the Curies had a unique publication policy, involving having Marie publish independent papers as well as joint ones, as well as recognizing her independent contributions in their joint work. "This made it very hard for the French and even English scientists to miss the fact that Marie was a significant entity in the research team," said Pycior.

The Curies' unique characteristics, both singly and as a couple, may also have influenced their choice of scientific research, according to Susan Quinn, author of a new biography of Marie Curie. In contrast to Henri Becquerel, who was very much part of the French establishment, the Curies were outsiders. Marie was Polish and a woman, while Pierre was largely educated at home by his politically radical father, and thus didn't have access to many privileges of French society. Thus, Quinn finds it unsurprising that the couple would choose to focus on investigating uranium rays, at a time when most of the French scientific establishment was focusing on X rays.