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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Curie, who disliked travel and attention, agreed to come to thank Meloney and those who had contributed to the cause. But, she wrote Meloney, “you know how careful I am to avoid all publicity referring to my name. And how I should be very grateful to arrange for my voyage with the minimum of publicity.”

Curie sailed with Irène, 23, and Eve, 16, and within hours of disembarking in New York embarked on a whirlwind tour that took her as far west as the Grand Canyon. As it wore on, Curie became exhausted and asked to cancel events, or at least not have to speak at them. She appeared aloof and sometimes refused to shake hands with admirers. She did not appear to be the kindly maternal figure that Meloney had made her out to be. Clearly, Curie’s strength and patience were wearing thin.

She carried the gram of radium home to Paris in a vial handed to her by President Harding at the White House. She worked in her laboratory until her death.

When Curie died, at age 66 in 1934, journalists echoed the image popularized by Meloney. The New York Times called her a “martyr to science” who “contributed more to the general welfare of mankind” as a “modest, self-effacing woman.” The physicist Robert Millikan, president of the California Institute of Technology, issued a public statement: “In spite of her continuous absorption in her scientific work, she has devoted much time to the cause of peace....She embodied in her person all the simpler, homelier and yet most perfect virtues of womanhood.”

In the years after her death, scientists, historians, artists and others have grappled with her story, often highlighting qualities or imputing traits to her that reflected contemporary social values more than biographical truths. Curie’s portrayal in books and movies tended to emphasize her roles as wife, mother and humanitarian at the expense of her importance as a brilliant physicist. Most memorably, MGM’s Madame Curie (1943) featured Greer Garson as a devoted wife rather than a sometimes prickly, independent scientist.

With the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Curie’s reputation as a remarkable scientist came to the fore. The physicist Rosalyn Yalow, in an essay she wrote at the time of winning her own Nobel Prize in 1977 for research involving radioactive compounds, said that Curie was her inspiration. Biographers attempted to depict the brilliance and complexity of this outsize character. A new play, Radiance, written by the actor and director Alan Alda, focuses on her relationships with Pierre and Langevin as well as her science. A new graphic novel, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, examines Curie’s life in the context of radioactivity’s impact on history. It has a glow-in-the-dark cover.

It’s taken a century, but we can finally appreciate her as a multifaceted woman of uncommon intensity, intelligence and will—a woman of courage, conviction and yes, contradictions. After a century we see her not as a caricature, but as one of the 20th century’s most important scientists, who was, at the same time, unmistakably, reassuringly human.

Julie Des Jardins, of Baruch College, wrote The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science.


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