The Inner Marie Curie
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. Barbara
Goldsmith. 256 pp. W. W. Norton, 2005. $23.95.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) is surely the best-known woman scientist.
Many biographies have been written about her, including one by her
younger daughter, Eve. Marie Curie appended "Autobiographical
Notes" to a book that she wrote about her husband long after
his death (Pierre Curie ). However, scholars did not
have access to the private papers of Marie and Pierre Curie until
the 1990s, when the family arranged to place them with the
Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Some of the documents were
still so radioactive at that point that they had to undergo two
years of decontamination before they could be handled.
Among those who have written superb studies of the Curies since this
material was made public are Susan Quinn (Marie Curie: A
Life ), Soraya Boudia (Marie Curie et son
laboratoire ), Anna Hurwic (Pierre Curie )
and Loïc Barbo (Curie: Le rêve scientifique
). The latest biography using the papers is Barbara
Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie
Curie. Goldsmith is not the first to describe Marie Curie as
"obsessive": In Grand Obsession: Marie Curie and Her
World (1989), Rosalynd Pflaum used the term to characterize the
determination and drive of two generations of Curies: Marie and
Pierre, and their daughter and son-in-law, Irène and
Goldsmith's book, which draws on many published and archival
sources, is a fast-moving, easily read popular biography, which
focuses principally on Marie Curie's family and social interactions,
her psychological states of mind and obstacles she faced in her
education and career. Her scientific work and the Parisian milieu
are described, but readers in search of detailed and authoritative
accounts of scientific investigations and the French scientific
community during this period will have to look elsewhere.
The first few chapters of Obsessive Genius are devoted to
Marie's childhood in Poland (her given name was Marya Sklodowski),
her arrival in Paris to study physics and mathematics at the
Sorbonne, and her decision to marry the physicist Pierre Curie in
1895. She chose as a topic for her doctoral thesis the radioactive
properties of uranium, which were discovered by Henri Becquerel in
1896. Gradually she enlisted the help of her husband in identifying
the source of radiation in pitchblende ore from which uranium
already had been extracted. Their daughter Irène was born in
1897, just as Marie Curie was beginning intensive laboratory work.
Eve was born in 1904, soon after Becquerel and the Curies shared the
1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies of spontaneous
radioactivity, which included the discoveries of the radioactive
elements polonium and radium.
Tragedy struck in early 1906, when Pierre was killed at age 49 by a
horse-drawn truck in a Paris intersection. After refusing a widow's
pension, Marie took over Pierre's teaching duties at the Sorbonne.
Two years later she was officially put in charge of the chair of
physics that had been created for her husband. Thus she became the
first woman in the history of the University of Paris to become a
professor. She continued to direct laboratory work.
In 1911 Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her earlier
discovery of polonium and radium and for studies of their
properties. The occasion in Stockholm was nearly destroyed by a
scandal. A weekly newspaper published letters that were said to
prove that Marie Curie and the physicist Paul Langevin, who was
married, were having an affair. In her reply to a letter from Nobel
Committee member Svante Arrhenius asking her not to attend the award
ceremony, Curie pointed out, as a man might have, that "there
is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private
life." The trauma of this scandal came on the heels of an
indignity she had endured earlier in the year, when she failed to
gain election to the French Academy of Sciences in a close ballot
against the physicist Édouard Branly. She would never put
herself forward as a candidate again.
After the Nobel ceremony in 1911, Curie suffered a physical and
mental collapse. She regained her drive to work only after the
outbreak of World War I, when, assisted by Irène, she
organized a squad of mobile x-ray units for use on the battlefields.
The Curie Institut du Radium was established in 1914 at the
University of Paris, and after the war it became a leading center
for the study of radioactivity and nuclear physics, employing many
women. Irène became director of the laboratory in 1932, and
in 1934 Irène and Frédéric triumphantly showed
Marie a test tube containing a radioactive isotope of phosphorus
that confirmed their production of artificial radioactivity in
aluminum. Marie died a few months later, shortly before her daughter
and son-in-law received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Her
death was attributed to aplastic pernicious anemia, which was
presumed to be related to radiation injury to her bone marrow.
Throughout the book, when Marie Curie encounters difficulties in her
education, career, laboratory work and personal life, Goldsmith
describes her state of mind as obsession coupled with depression.
Goldsmith ventures early on that what Marie Curie and her family
called fatigue or exhaustion or nervous troubles would today be
diagnosed as a recurring major depressive disorder that began in her
childhood with the deaths of one of her sisters and her mother.
Goldsmith emphasizes Marie's unaffectionate, distant and overly
disciplined behavior with family and friends, and wonders whether
Eve and Irène suffered from their mother's obsessive devotion
to her work and empirical approaches to child rearing. (Given
Goldsmith's characterization, it is ironic that on the day Pierre
died, Marie decided to take an outing with Irène, rather than
going to the laboratory with Pierre as he wanted her to do.) Marie
Curie contributed to the stereotypical image of herself as darkly
melancholy and laboriously struggling, as Goldsmith demonstrates in
chapter 19, "The Making of a Myth," which includes an
account of Marie's 1921 trip to the United States and other efforts
to raise money for the Institut du Radium.
Depressed or not, Marie Curie accomplished an extraordinary record
of novel and important scientific work throughout her
lifetime—as did her husband, whether or not he was dyslexic,
as Goldsmith suggests. Their daughters became accomplished women in
their own right, as did their grandchildren.
This biography aims to illuminate for a general audience obstacles that
women have had to overcome in establishing their right and ability to do
the things that men do. But the message imparted is ambiguous. The
example of Marie Curie's "obsession," which appears to have
constrained her from taking joy in her work and family, may deter more
women than it inspires.—Mary Jo Nye, History, Oregon State