Madame Curie’s Passion

The pioneering physicist’s dedication to science made it difficult for outsiders to understand her, but a century after her second Nobel prize, she gets a second look

Marie Curie, in Paris in 1925, was awarded a then-unprecedented second Nobel Prize 100 years ago this month. (AFP / Getty Images)
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In 1911, rumors spread that Curie was having an affair with the prominent physicist Paul Langevin, a man five years her junior who had been Pierre’s student and had worked closely with Albert Einstein. Langevin’s estranged wife discovered apparent love letters from Curie to her husband and gave them to a tabloid newspaper. It and other publications ran stories with headlines such as “A Romance in a Laboratory.” Although a widower under similar circumstances would likely not have suffered any consequences, Curie found her reputation tarnished. Neither Curie nor Langevin discussed their relationship with outsiders. “I believe there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life,” she wrote to a critic.

The front-page coverage of the scandal threatened to overshadow another news story later that year: her second Nobel Prize.

This one, in chemistry, was for the discovery of polonium and radium. In her acceptance speech in Stockholm, she paid tribute to her husband but also made clear that her work was independent from his, spelling out their separate contributions and describing the discoveries she had made after his death.

At the end of 1911, Curie became very ill. She had an operation to remove lesions from her uterus and kidney, followed by a long recovery. In 1913, she began to travel again and return to science. In March of that year, Einstein paid her an extended visit, and later she opened and headed a new research facility in Warsaw. As she was setting up a second institute, in Paris, World War I broke out. She outfitted 18 portable X-ray stations that could treat wounded soldiers on the front lines. She sometimes operated and repaired the machines herself, and established 200 more permanent X-ray posts during the war.

Eve became a journalist and wrote the definitive biography, Madame Curie, published in 1937. Irène studied at her mother’s institute in Paris and married her mother’s assistant, the charismatic physicist Frédéric Joliot, with whom she bore two children. Irène maintained a strong presence in the lab, and in 1935, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie were awarded a Nobel Prize for synthesizing new radioactive elements. It was another record: the first time both a parent and child had separately won the Nobel Prize.

After Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize and her subsequent research, she was rarely dismissed as a helpmeet. And once the tabloids moved on from the Langevin scandal, her image as a homewrecker faded. But there were deliberate efforts to shape her story. A case in point was Curie’s first trip to America, in 1921.

The tour was largely the work of a New York City journalist named Missy Meloney, who had interviewed Curie in 1920 in Paris for the women’s magazine the Delineator, which Meloney edited. Meloney learned that the Curies had never patented the process for purifying radium. As a result, other scientists and U.S. chemical companies were processing radium, then selling it for cancer treatments and military research for $100,000 per gram. Curie was now unable to afford the element she had discovered. Sensing a human-interest story, Meloney created the Marie Curie Radium Fund to raise money to purchase radium for Curie’s continuing research.

American women would be inspired to give to Curie, Meloney figured, only if her image as a scientist—which stereotypically suggested someone dispassionate, even severe—could be softened. So Meloney’s articles presented Curie as a benevolent healer, intent on using radium to treat cancer. Meloney also persuaded editor friends at other newspapers and magazines to emphasize the same image. Curie understood that radium might be useful in the clinic, but she had no direct role in using it for medical treatments. Nevertheless, Curie’s motivation for discovering radium, according to a headline in the Delineator, was “That Millions Shall Not Die.” Writers described her as the “Jeanne D’Arc of the laboratory,” with a face of “suffering and patience.”

Curie disapproved of the publicity campaign. In lectures, she reminded her audience that her discovery of radium was the work “of pure science...done for itself” rather than with “direct usefulness” in mind.

And yet Meloney’s efforts succeeded: She raised more than $100,000 on Curie’s behalf within months, enough to buy a gram of radium for the Curie Institute in Paris. Meloney invited Curie to the United States.


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