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 1903, Curie became the first woman in France to earn a PhD in physics. Professors who reviewed her doctoral thesis, which was about radiation, declared that it was the greatest single contribution to science ever written.

Rumors of a Nobel Prize began to circulate, but some members of the French Academy of Sciences attributed the brilliance of the work not to Marie, but to her co-workers. These skeptics began to lobby quietly for the prize to be split between Becquerel and Pierre. But Pierre insisted to influential people on the Nobel committee that Marie had originated their research, conceived experiments and generated theories about the nature of radioactivity.

Both Curies shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Becquerel in 1903. It was the first Nobel to be awarded to a woman.

At the awards ceremony, the president of the Swedish Academy, which administered the prize, quoted the Bible in his remarks about the Curies’ research: “It is not good that man should be alone, I will make a helpmeet for him.”

Whether Marie Curie took the remark as an insult is not known—it surely rankles today—but it must be among the most grudging comments ever said to a laureate. Moreover, the notion that Marie was a mere helpmeet to Pierre—one of the more persistent myths about her—was an opinion widely held, judging from published and unpublished comments by other scientists and observers.

“Errors are notoriously hard to kill,” observed her friend, the British physicist Hertha Ayrton, “but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.”

At the Sorbonne, it was Pierre who got the plum job, a full professorship. Marie was not promoted. Pierre hired more assistants and made Marie the official head of the laboratory, freeing her to conduct experiments and for the first time, be paid for it.

The most successful collaboration between a husband and wife in the history of science ended suddenly on April 19, 1906, when Pierre, apparently lost in thought, walked into traffic on the rue Dauphine and was killed instantly by an onrushing carriage.

Instead of accepting a widow’s pension, Marie took over Pierre’s position at the Sorbonne, becoming the first woman to teach there. Hundreds of people—students, artists, photographers, celebrities—lined up outside the university on November 5, 1906, hoping to attend her first lecture. She gave no outward sign of mourning. She began by summarizing the recent breakthroughs in physics research. “When one considers the progress of physics in the last decade,” she said, “one is surprised by the changes it has produced in our ideas about electricity and about matter.”

She wrote a diary during this time, addressed to her late husband, about continuing their research. “I am working in the laboratory all day long, it is all I can do: I am better off there than anywhere else,” she wrote. In 1910, she published a 971-page treatise on radioactivity. Some men in the scientific establishment still didn’t consider her an equal, however; she applied for membership in the French Academy of Sciences in 1910, and although Pierre had been a member, she was denied by two votes. One Academy member, the physicist Emile Amagat, claimed that “women cannot be part of the Institute of France.”


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