Marie Curie: Physicist and Woman and the Penny Press

By Ruth Howes,

Maria Salomea Sklowdowska was born in Warsaw Poland on November 7, 1867. This year we celebrate her 150th birthday.

Most physicists know the outline of Maria’s life. She grew up in a poor Polish family as an academic star. Her mother, who never cuddled her youngest daughter for fear of transmitting tuberculosis to the child, died when Maria was ten. After agreeing with her older sister Bronya to support her medical studies in Paris, Maria took a position as a governess in the country, fell in love with the son of the family, had a wedding called off by his displeased parents, and travelled to Paris to study physical science at the Sorbonne while living with Bronya and her new husband. At the end of a year, she moved out of her sister’s apartment to seek solitude and study time in a series of 6th floor garrets where she nearly starved and froze herself to death before finishing first in her class for the equivalent of a master’s degree in the physical sciences. The next year, she continued her solitary existence studying mathematics with the aid of a scholarship for Polish students and a grant to study the magnetic properties of steels.

She needed laboratory space and asked a talented young physicist, Pierre Curie, if he could provide it. Curie had no space and worked in a corridor at EPCI, a solid but not elite college in Paris. His corridor-based studies of magnetism including the Curie Law and the Curie Temperature would earn him his doctorate. The two young people fell in love and married on June 28, 1895. Afterwards they left for their honeymoon riding bicycles which was very fashionable and rather daring, particularly for women. Their first daughter, Irene was born on September 12, 1897 and Pierre’s mother died on September 27. Pierre’s father, a medical doctor, moved in with the young couple and took care of the baby while Marie attacked the task of investigating the rays recently discovered by Becquerel for her doctoral thesis. She made this choice because she could do laboratory work instead of reading papers on x-rays in the library.

With the help of the piezoelectric electrometer invented and provided by Pierre, Marie confirmed Becquerel’s results on potassium uranyl disulphate in only two weeks. She then experimented with samples of many materials and found that thorium also emitted rays. Through her professor, she reported it to the French Academy of Sciences just 19 days after the thorium result was reported by a German chemist. Marie examined a variety of uranium compounds and found that the intensity of the rays a sample emitted was proportional to the amount of uranium in the sample, a clear indication that the rays came from the atoms of uranium. In February 1898, she found that pitchblende, a uranium ore, emitted far more rays than would be expected based on the uranium it contained. Marie realized that pitchblende must contain a very small amount of a new, highly radioactive element.

With the help of Gustave Bémont, a chemist and laboratory chief at EPCI, Marie and Pierre set about isolating the new element. Their strategy was to chemically separate the ore into compounds and then further separate the compounds more active in emitting rays. Rather quickly, they found not one, but two new elements that more actively emitted rays than uranium. One chemically resembled Barium; the other, Bismuth. By May 25, they had found compounds 300 times more active than uranium. But they were not able to spot the spectral lines that would unambiguously identify a new element. On July 13, Pierre wrote in their lab notebook that Bismuth harbored a new element which they labeled Polonium after Marie’s native land. By December 26, 1898, the Curies and Bémont reported the barium held another related substance, radium, which actually produced new spectral lines although it was present in very tiny concentrations. Marie would have to process 8 tons of pitchblende to isolate a decigram of pure radium. The only free space they could find for this huge labor was a wooden shed at EPCI with a glass roof that leaked when it rained, and heated only by a small stove and very hot in summer. Both the Curies absorbed huge doses of radiation without knowing they were in danger. Even today, scholars who want to see Marie’s notebooks must sign a waiver releasing the Biblioteque Nationale from responsibility for radiation damage. Pitchblende from which the uranium had been extracted was considered waste and was discarded in a pine forest near the uranium extraction plant in Austria. The company gave the waste to the Curies who were able to pay for transportation of the depleted ore with the help of a donation from Baron Rothschild.

In the spring of 1899, Marie started backbreaking work of boiling more than 80 lbs of pitchblende in a metal kettle while stirring it with an iron rod as tall as she was. Then she invented fractional crystallization to further purify the radium. She chose to work with radium since separating it from barium was easier than separating polonium from bismuth. In March 28, 1902, Marie succeeded in determining the atomic weight of radium: 225.93 amu.

Marie always remembered these years as the happiest of her life. The young couple was deeply in love and had no distractions to keep them from concentrating on experimental science. Their daughter was thriving, and they saw only friends about whom they cared. They were both astonished at the properties of the radium they had discovered. They would walk back to the shed after dinner simply to enjoy the light coming from the flasks of radium solutions.

Marie had begun teaching physics at the Ecole Normale Supérieure at Sèvres, the best school for women teachers in France. After a rough first year, she learned to express her concern for her students who responded by adoring her. She was the first teacher in the school’s history to invite students for tea. She added an hour to the physics lectures and introduced hands-on laboratory work, the first time the women had done it.

Marie presented her work on the decigram of radium as her doctoral thesis in June 1903 and invited her female students to attend the defense. She was awarded the doctoral degree with high honors and the thesis was published in at least two journals. There was also tragedy. Marie wrote her father of her discovery of radium on May 8, 1902 and on May 14, he died before Marie could reach his bedside. In August 1903, Marie had a miscarriage in her fifth month of pregnancy and was thrown into a deep depression.

Early in 1903, rumors surfaced that Pierre and Becquerel would receive the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie was left out until Pierre wrote members of the Nobel Selection Committee pointing out how important her role in the discovery had been. The Committee then reactivated a nomination of Marie from 1902 and awarded half of the 1903 Nobel to both Curies ‘for their joint researches on the radiation phenomena’, and the other half to Becquerel. The wording of the citation was carefully chosen when the chemists pointed out the possibility of a second Nobel for the discovery of radium. Marie became the first woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in the Sciences and the only one until Irene won in 1935.

At this time, France had a mass circulation penny press which seems to have corresponded closely to our modern blogosphere. The romance of the Curies with one another as well as with radium became fodder for the masses. The shy couple was nearly driven crazy as reporters invaded their quiet shed and even their home where they interviewed Irene’s cat.

Marie Curie was everybody’s heroine, and did not enjoy the limelight any more than did her very private husband. She received blind praise although many reporters presented her as a privileged assistant to Pierre. She was also attacked. One anonymous writer said, “The woman who works is usually obliged to abandon, to neglect her household, her children…” Neither the praise nor the attacks made life easy for the Curies.

Although radium offered them an opportunity to make significant money, they made it a rule not to patent their discoveries or profit from their research. The money from the Nobel Prize helped although they gave much of it away to Pierre’s brother Jacques and Marie’s sister Bronya. The Nobel Prize at last focused the attention of the French scientific establishment on Pierre’s excellent work in physics, and by an act of Parliament, a chair was created for him at the Sorbonne. He was also elected to the Academy. On December 6, 1905, Marie gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Eve Denise. In the summer of 1905, the family travelled to Brittany and greatly enjoyed peace and quiet as well as ocean swimming and quiet walks on the beach. The Curies even managed to watch a solar eclipse from Mt. San Michel.

On April 17, 1906, Pierre set out to a meeting of his fellow professors. Pierre invited others to lunch at his apartment. He then left to go to his publisher. It was raining hard. Pierre raised his large umbrella and hurried against the rain. As he crossed a busy road leading from the Pont Neuf, he had his head down and he stepped into the path of a heavy wagon. The driver tried to turn and avoid the body, but the rear wheel rolled over his head and killed him instantly.

The grieving Marie wanted to avoid ceremony at the funeral, and Pierre was buried simply, without religious ceremony and before only family and close friends, in the cemetery alongside his mother. Marie did not grieve publicly, but she closed in on herself and from this time became grim and closed up emotionally.

About a month after Pierre’s death, the Faculty of Sciences named Marie to replace him, making her the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. On November 5, 1906, she gave her first lecture which was mobbed by society ladies showing off their jewels and Marie’s class from Sèvres whom she had invited. Marie quietly entered the lecture hall wearing black and began her lecture exactly where Pierre had finished his last lecture.

Lord Kelvin, a friend, picked the summer of 1906 to very publicly declare that radium was not an element but a compound state of lead and helium. Marie rose to Kelvin’s challenge to purify enough radium to isolate the metal and prove beyond a doubt that it was an element. It took her and her team of young workers lead by André Debierne until 1910 to isolate radium in the metallic state. Also in 1910, she allowed herself to be nominated for the Academy. To her surprise, her candidacy broke in newspaper headlines first because she was a woman and secondly because she was not Catholic. The Academy election became fodder for the penny press. Marie was rejected and her young staff quickly hid the flowers they had planned to give her in congratulation.

In 1911, Marie was accused in the popular press of having an affair with the physicist Paul Langevin. The scandal broke in the press on November 5, 1911. On November 7, it was announced that Marie Curie had been awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In a few years, Marie’s portrait in the press had gone from heroic French scientist and courageous widow to foreign hussy bent on destroying a proper French marriage. Marie kept her mouth shut, but on December 10 and 11, 1911, Marie went to Stockholm to receive her prize. For once, she underlined her own work both in “private” formal comments and in her formal Nobel lecture although she gave generous credit to Pierre and others. As she left Stockholm, Marie Curie underwent a total physical collapse.

On August 1, 1914, the French Army mobilized for World War I. Marie set out to make x-ray examination available to wounded soldiers at the front. She approached wealthy women asking for donations of cars. She turned the cars into vans to carry x-ray equipment and a dynamo plus everything else needed for an x-ray examination. She eventually equipped 18 vans, popularly called little Curies, obtained her driver’s license and learned to make simple mechanical repairs as well as to operate the x-ray equipment. She also established 200 permanent x-ray posts in military hospitals near the front.

Marie and Irene, now her chief assistant, found it hard to deal with pain and death among the wounded as well as with the intransigent arrogance of some of the older doctors who had never used x-rays and felt no need for them now and military officers who tried to deny passage to the Little Curies. Their major problem was a lack of skilled x-ray technicians so they trained women in the field.

After the war, Marie attacked the problems of furnishing the labs in the Curie Institute. One morning in May 1920, a friend introduced her to an American reporter Missy Mattingly. Missy was surprised to learn that France had only one gram of radium and that Marie could not afford the $80,000 needed to purchase another. Missy immediately volunteered to launch a fund-raising effort to buy a gram of radium if Marie would come to the US to be honored and pick it up.

In New York, Marie, Irene and Eve were met at the dock by a brass band switching from the Star-Spangled Banner to the Marseillaise to the Polish national anthem, 300 hundred Polish women waiving red and white roses, hordes of girl scouts and reporters shouting questions. On May 20, 1921, President Harding hung around Marie’s neck the key to the lead box containing the precious radium for which she had worked so hard.

After this tour, Marie’s health declined. In January 1934, Marie held a flask of an artificially produced radioactive element and realized that her daughter and her colleague husband would win the Nobel Prize for it. On July 3, 1934 Marie died, probably of anemia.

Selected Resources:

Eve Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography (1937).

Marie Curie, Pierre Curie With Autobiographical Notes (1930).

Françoise Giroud, Marie Curie: A Life (1981).

Susan Quinn, Marie Curie: A Life (1995).

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.