I could have been Marie Curie's friend

Posted on Apr 9, 2012 in Everyday Life, Science, Technology & Society

When I was a girl I thought I would grow up to be a scientist. I spent hours at my workbench, patiently cutting cross-sections with a razor blade and drawing liquids into a pipette before placing my specimens on the glass slides and gently dropping the cover slips over them. I painstakingly labelled each one, and dutifully took notes on what I saw through my microscope. There was a comforting carefulness to the work, and the very idea that cells existed was magical to me. I even went through a phase of collecting samples from my own body, marveling at the reality that I was an assemblage of so many different forms of life. I loved what I was doing, and felt as though my love was rewarded with the knowledge I gained.

As a child, the only female scientist I had ever heard of was Marie Curie. My teachers always held her up as a hero, but in retrospect, never as a person. The only thing I knew at the time was that she was brilliant and her work eventually killed her–which I assumed had been worth it because of how beautiful it all was. (For some reason, I thought that was the heroic bit.)

“Certain bodies . . . become luminous when heated. Their luminosity disappears after some time, but the capacity of becoming luminous afresh through heat is restored to them by the action of a spark, and also by the action of radium.

The compounds of radium are spontaneously luminous. The chloride and bromide, freshly prepared and free from water, emit a light which resembles that of a glow-worm. This light diminishes rapidly in moist air . . . but . . . never completely disappears.

These gleamings, which seemed suspended in darkness, stirred us with new emotion and enchantment . . . The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”

~ Marie Curie, as cited in Radioactive

But of course it was not so simple, and people do not live on research alone. Marya Sklodowska changed her name just so she could go to the Sorbonne and study physics. She became the first female doctorate in France and despite being the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize (with her husband Pierre), she was too ill to travel to Stockholm for the ceremony because she had recently suffered a miscarriage. Although she eventually had two daughters, she also noted that reconciling family life with a scientific career was not easy. Marie suffered horrible depression, and even though she was named the first woman professor in the Sorbonne’s 650 year history, it took the death of her husband to achieve that status. Several years later, she fell in love again and became the first person–man or woman–to win a second Nobel Prize. However, her lover and fellow scientist Paul Langevin was married, and his wife made their affair public after he refused to give her money and custody of the children. Marie suffered terribly as a result. At a time when it was not uncommon for her male colleagues to openly have mistresses, she was insulted and ridiculed by the press for her actions.

Fellow scientists wrote to the Swedish Academy, and directly to Marie, suggesting that her behaviour would taint the ceremonies, if not the award itself, and asking her not to accept it in person. To her credit, Marie responded that she would attend the Nobel ceremony because she saw “no connection between [her] scientific work and the facts of private life” and she successfully collected her award in 1911. However, the public scandal effectively ended her romance with Langevin and she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to leave Paris for some time. Marie returned to France to help in the war effort, bringing X-ray units directly to the battlefields for the first time. Without Pierre or Paul at her side, Marie started working with her daughter Irène, and she gained positive public attention for their work. (In 1935, Irène, with her husband Frédéric Joliot, became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize; she later died of leukemia, also brought on by her research.) But the new found fame proved difficult, and Marie became more and more withdrawn. By the early 1930s, it was clear that she was ill with radiation sickness and only getting worse. She kept track of doctors’ visits and her bodily deterioration like any other experiment, and her last months were spent feeling her way around the lab, as cataracts robbed her of her sight. On 4 July, 1934 Marie’s final words began, “I am absent… I can no longer express myself… ”

Power (excerpt)

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test tube or pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

~ Adrienne Rich, 1974

I understand why Marie Curie is held up as a romantic intellectual hero, and I think it’s a mistake.

Because when I think of her as a person, I know we could have been friends.

And maybe, just maybe, I would have become a life scientist.