APS News

June 1996 (Volume 5, Number 6)

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.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

June 1996 (Volume 5, Number 6)

APS News Home

Issue Table of Contents

APS News Archives

Contact APS News Editor

Articles in this Issue
Metallic Hydrogen, Magnetic Surgery Mark 1996 March Meeting
Journal Embargo Policies Spark Controversy
Livermore Scientists Achieve Metallic Hydrogen
U.S. Science Policy Shifting in Era of Political Change
TV Series Documents Changing Face of Science in America
Magnetic System Promises to Improve Brain Surgery
Information Theory Provide Unified Framework for Neuroscience
Stochastic Resonance Can Help Improve Signal Detection
Scientists Seek Further Improvements to Quantum Measurements and Standards
Biosensors Provide Near-Single-Molecule Sensitivity
Women in Physics Make Modest Gains, While Minorities Remain Level
Session Marks Centenary Of Discovery Of Radioactivity
The Curies: The Very Model of Modern Spousal Collaboration
UNESCO Meeting Outlines Current and Future Practices
Physics of High and Low Level Waste Management Explored
Scientists Simulate Vortices Flowing Through Superconductor
STM Key to Positioning Individual Molecules at Room Temperature
In Brief
APS Views
Questioning Affirmative Action
Going Against the Flow: A Sabbatical in Russia
The Back Page