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The Inner Marie Curie

Mary Jo Nye

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 [1923]). 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.

The young Marya Sklodowski...Click to Enlarge Image

Among those who have written superb studies of the Curies since this material was made public are Susan Quinn (Marie Curie: A Life [1995]), Soraya Boudia (Marie Curie et son laboratoire [2001]), Anna Hurwic (Pierre Curie [1998]) and Loïc Barbo (Curie: Le rêve scientifique [1999]). 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 Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

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 University, Corvallis

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