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A test of courage: Marie Curie and the 1911 Nobel Prize.

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice: in physics in 1903 and in chemistry in 1911. The 1903 prize, which she shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, captivated the world press. The mysterious glowing substance, radium, was endowed in popular commentary with the ability not only to cure cancer but also to improve the complexion and power high-speed travel. Even more sensational than the glowing substance was the idea that a man and a woman had made the discovery together; many were astounded that a couple could have a loving and a working relationship. "An idyll in a physics laboratory," observed the newspaper les Dimanches, "that's something that's never before been seen." (1)

By the time she won a second Nobel Prize, eight years later, Marie Curie had lost her "excellent companion" Pierre in a tragic accident in the streets of Paris. She was left alone to pursue the scientific dream they had vowed to realize together. And yet, despite her initial devastation, Marie Curie had managed to succeed, without her husband, in running a well-funded laboratory engaged in internationally recognized research. By the time of the second Nobel Prize, however, Marie Curie had also become the target of a vicious campaign in the French press. In a life filled with struggle, Marie Curie's decision to come to Stockholm to accept the 1911 prize, in spite of the controversy, may have been the bravest and most difficult she ever made.

Marie Curie was born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867 during a period when the Polish nation was subsumed under of the repressive regime of the Russian czars. The Polish language was strictly prohibited, as was any talk of an independent Poland. Maria's family, however, was deeply committed to the Polish cause. Relatives on both sides had been involved in the two nineteenth-century uprisings against the czar. Her parents, both educators, schooled their son and three daughters in patriotic--and subversive--Polish poetry in the evenings and taught them what one described as "a hatred for the invaders of Poland." (2) When young Maria walked to school, she and her friend made a point of spitting on an obelisk erected to glorify the czar's victory in the January Uprising of 1863. The resistance to Russian rule continued when she arrived at her private school. Young Maria and the other girls understood that they were to have a double curriculum: one that included Polish language and subjects for regular days and another, without Polish, for the day the Russian inspector came to visit. It was a training in defiance that would serve Maria well as she fought to overcome the barriers she faced as an aspiring Polish woman.

All the Sklodowski children were good students, but Maria was probably the best. Her sister Helena complained that Maria could memorize a long poemin German, which had taken her several hours, in the two 10-minute breaks between classes. (3) Maria, like her sister Bronia and brother Jozef before her, graduated first in her class from gymnasium. But there was almost no opportunity for higher education in Poland, especially for young women, and Maria's parents, though well educated, couldn't afford to send their daughters to France or Russia, where they would be allowed to study. For a time, Maria participated in something called the Flying University--a clandestine academy of women who met secretly in private apartments to learn from prominent Warsaw intellectuals. Maria and her sister Bronia understood, however, that they wouldn't be able to acquire a complete education piecemeal. So the sisters hatched a plan: Maria would go to work as a governess to support Bronia, who would travel to Paris to study medicine at the Sorbonne. Once Bronia finished, she would send for Maria.

Maria was only 18 when she set out from Warsaw to fulfill her part of the bargain, living and teaching the children of an estate manager in a manor house, many hours away from Warsaw by train, then horse and buggy. She enjoyed living in the country. "I eagerly followed the growth of the plants," she wrote later, "and in the stables I knew the horses." (4) She also managed to continue her own solitary studies, turning more and more toward mathematics and physics. It was during those years, she later wrote, that she "acquired the habit of independent work," (5) a habit that was to assume great importance later on.

In addition to tutoring her own charges, Maria continued her work for the cause of Poland by teaching illiterate peasant children the Polish language. It was a daring thing to do: "All initiative of this kind," she later explained, "was forbidden by the government and might bring imprisonment or deportation to Siberia." (6) Maria also encountered a painful rejection during these years: she and the oldest son in her employer's family, Kazimierz, fell in love and might have married. But Kazimierz' parents considered Maria, the daughter of impoverished Warsaw gentry, unworthy of their son. After the rejection, Maria wrote to a friend that the "fever called love ... absolutely does not enter into my plans." (7)


Released from the "fever of love," Maria was free, after a five-year wait, to fulfill her part of the plan and travel to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. For a time, she lived with Bronia, now a doctor, and Bronia's new husband in a lively "little Poland" on the outskirts of the city. But she soon moved on to a series of sixth-floor garrets nearer the Sorbonne, where she could pursue her studies without interruption. She later described this "period of solitary years exclusively devoted to the studies for which I had waited so long" as "one of the best memories of my life." (8)

In a foreign city, surrounded almost entirely by male students, Maria Sklodowska succeeded in spectacular fashion. In 1893, Marie, as she now called herself, was one of two female degree recipients among 9000, and ranked first among those taking the licence es sciences exam. The following year, she took the exam for the licence es mathematiques and placed second; only four other women received degrees from the Sorbonne that year. Marie's plan had always been to return to Poland after her graduation to teach and further the Polish cause, all while keeping her widowed father company. But sometime in the spring of 1894, Marie Sklodowska was introduced to Pierre Curie. Very soon, everything changed. "It would be a beautiful thing," Pierre Curie wrote to Marie, "if we could spend our life near each other, hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream." (9) Marie, who had once chided a friend for deserting Poland for Germany, now found herself explaining to the same friend that she was marrying a Frenchman. "It is a sorrow to me," she wrote, "to have to stay forever in Paris, but what am I to do? Fate has made us deeply attached to each other and we cannot endure the idea of separating." (10)

At 35, Pierre Curie was eight years older than Marie and had already done work that should have been well known in scientific circles: His study of crystals had led him to postulate important laws of symmetry, and he had been conducting experiments in magnetism that would produce enduring laws. Furthermore, he had invented a number of measuring instruments, one of which had won the praise of Lord Kelvin himself. But Pierre refused to accept the honors and cultivate the connections that were necessary to success in French science at the time. As a result, he was not a member of the French Academie des sciences nor on the faculty of the Sorbonne. Instead, he taught at a lesser school called the Ecole de Physique et Chimie. It was there that he and Marie Curie began to collaborate on the work that produced a series of completely unexpected results.

Marie planned, for her PhD thesis, to build on the recent discovery of Henri Becquerel that uranium had the ability to turn air into a conductor of electricity. She set out to measure the energy given off by uranium, and to look for the same phenomenon in a whole host of other elements and compounds. Pierre helped to set up the experiment, using his delicate measuring instruments. Then he went back to his own work on crystals. But on February 17, 1898, Marie tested a sample of the heavy, black pitchy mineral compound known as pitchblende, which produced a current far stronger than that produced by uranium. Suddenly, there was a new and riveting mystery to solve.

Pierre abandoned his work on crystals to join Marie in her quest, scribbling his nearly indecipherable observations alongside her clearer entries in the notebook. The assumption by that time was that pitchblende's dramatic ionizing power was caused by a new, heretofore unknown element. By April, the Curies were able to send the Academy a paper (read by Gabriel Lippmann, since they were not members) positing "a much more active element than uranium." (11) By mid-May the notebooks reflected that the Curies were hunting for not one but two new elements in pitchblende. The first one they were able to isolate they named Polonium, after, as they explained to the Academy, "the name of the country of origin of one of us." (12) In December of 1898, Pierre scrawled, in the middle of a notebook page in heavy ink, the name they had come up with for a second new element: Radium.

For the next eight years, the Curies worked to solidify their findings. Pierre focused on understanding the phenomenon of radioactivity. Marie meanwhile took on the herculean task of isolating radium from pitchblende. Their workplace was inadequate in many ways: they were given the use of a cavernous hangar at the Ecole de Physique et Chimie--a wooden shed with a glass roof that didn't keep out the rain. "It was exhausting work to move containers about," Marie Curie later wrote, "to transfer the liquids, and to stir for hours at a time, with an iron bar, the boiling material in the castiron basin." (13) Both the Curies longed for a better place to work, as well as more funds and personnel.

Then came the 1903 Nobel Prize. The Nobel in physics had first been given to Wilhelm Roentgen in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, but it wasn't until the Curies won it in 1903 that the Nobel Prize acquired importance in the eyes of the world. (14) Henri Becquerel, the scion of a renowned French scientific family, was a familiar type in the eyes of the public, but the Curie couple and their glowing discovery were new and intriguing. The effect of all the excitement on the life of Marie and Pierre was double-edged.

Before the prize, they had led a quiet life, taking long summer vacations in the country, enjoying evenings in the society of colleagues, and delighting in their young daughter Irene, born in 1897. After the Nobel Prize, the press wouldn't leave the Curies alone. "One would like to dig into the ground somewhere to find a little peace," Marie wrote her brother Jozef in Poland. (15) Pierre was even more unhappy, complaining to his friend Georges Gouy that "they have gone so far as to reproduce the conversation of my daughter with her maid and to describe the black and white cat who lives with us." (16) The other side of the double-edged sword of celebrity was that the Curies finally got the recognition they deserved. "All this noise will not perhaps have been useless," Pierre wrote Gouy, "if it gets me a chair and a laboratory." (17)

That is exactly what happened. In the wake of all the excitement over the Nobel, Pierre was given a teaching appointment at the Sorbonne and was voted into the Academy of Science. "As for the Academy," Pierre Curie wrote Gouy, "I find I am in it without wanting to be and without the Academy wanting to have me." (18) Marie, of course, was not even considered for membership. Yet both the Curies knew that membership in the Academy was essential to gaining financial support for their work. Funding, and the promise of laboratory space, soon followed. The Curies' scientific future looked promising.


Then on April 19, 1906, a terrible accident changed everything. The rain and the traffic were heavy that day as Pierre Curie approached rue Dauphine, just a block from the Institut library along the Seine where he planned to do some reading. As he attempted to cross the street, he collided with one of two large Percherons pulling a 30-foot wagon and fell to the pavement. His skull was crushed under a rear wheel of the heavy wagon, and he died instantly.

Marie Curie's devastation was complete. For a month, she couldn't return to the laboratory. When she was asked to teach in Pierre's place at the Sorbonne, it caused another sensation in the press, since no woman had ever done it before. But in her diary, addressing the dead Pierre, Marie wrote, "You would have been happy to see me as a professor at the Sorbonne, and I myself would have so willingly done it for you--But to do it in your place, my Pierre, could one dream of a thing more cruel?" (19) On the one-year anniversary of his death, Marie wrote in her diary that she lived only for the children--Irene and Eve, born in 1905--and for Pierre's father. "The burden is heavy on my shoulders. How sweet it would be to go to sleep and not wake up." (20)


Marie's friends and family worried about her. Pierre's brother Jacques urged her to "rally a little, if it is only for your children who need for you to last a long time still!" (21) Everyone, according to her friend Marguerite Borel, had come to the conclusion that "M me. Curie is dead to the world. She is a scientist walled in behind her grief." (22) Then, in the spring of 1910, some four years after Pierre's death, Marie Curie appeared at the house of friends wearing white instead of her usual black, with a rose at her waist. "She sat down, quiet as always," Marguerite Borel reported, "but something signaled her resurrection, just as springtime succeeding an icy winter announces itself subtly, in the details." (23)

In retrospect, it became clear that the difference had been brought about by Marie Curie's developing love affair with her fellow scientist Paul Langevin. Langevin was a man of "extraordinary vitality" (24) who had been Pierre Curie's close friend and fervent admirer. He was an unhappily married father of four, whose physical battles with his wife were common knowledge among his circle of scientific friends, including Marie Curie. At some point in the summer of 1910, mutual sympathy between Marie Curie and Langevin turned into passion. They rented a small apartment together near the Sorbonne; when they were apart, they exchanged letters. Soon, Langevin's wife got wind of the affair and began to make threats of physical violence against Marie Curie. She also threatened to go to the papers and create public scandal. Marie and Paul Langevin's good friend Jean Perrin tried to calm her down, but, in the process, began to understand "how difficult the marriage was and how the friendship ofa woman like Madame Curie would have been a comfort and a support for my friend." (25)

It would be another year before the explosive Langevin household finally blew apart, with disastrous effects for all concerned. But in the meantime, Marie Curie was placed in greater jeopardy by the decision she made, with the encouragement of colleagues, to apply for membership in the AcademyofScience. The idea of a woman in the Academy sent the press into a frenzy. Advocates for women and some on the left applauded, but many of the most vociferous right-wing papers ridiculed the idea. After she lost her bid, to a physicist named Edouard Branly, her opponents exulted. "In posing her candidacy herself, in protesting to the newspapers that she was indeed a candidate," wrote one editor, "she has displayed a lack of reserve that was not of her own sex....Astothegeneral public, one must say also that they have become hostile to the candidate....They have applauded the lesson in patience and modesty that the Institute has just inflicted." (26) There were harsher lessons to come.

In October of 1911 Marie Curie attended the historic Solvay Conference in Brussels, along with 20 other illustrious scientists, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Jean Perrin, and, of course, Paul Langevin. When she returned to Paris, in early November, one of Paris' largest-circulation dailies, Le Journal, carried a front page story with a photograph of her under the headline: A STORY OF LOVE: MADAME CURIE AND PROFESSOR LANGEVIN. (27) Thus began nightmarish days of escalating accusations in the vitriolic French press, which turned it into a story of a foreign woman who was destroying a French home.

Someone, probably at the behest of Langevin, broke into Marie Curie and Paul Langevin's pieda-terre and stole intimate letters, and when Paul Langevin's wife instituted legal action, she threatened to use the letters as part of her case in court. Although the court case was eventually dropped, an extremely disreputable, anti-Semitic scandal sheet got hold of and published excerpts from the letters anyway. In the beginning, many scientific friends rallied to Marie Curie's defense. Albert Einstein wrote that he was "incensed over the way in which the rabble dares to react to you," adding she should "simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for." (28) But after the letters were published, even some of Marie Curie's colleagues were scandalized. The dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne planned to ask her to leave France. (29)

In an uncanny coincidence, on November 7, 1911, just two days after the scandal broke in the French press, Reuters sent out a bulletin announcing that Marie Curie had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work in establishing the atomic weight of radium and isolating it in a metallic state. The Nobel Committee had made inquiries and concluded that the scandal was much ado about nothing. A member of the committee dismissed the allegations as "chicanery" and "lies." (30) But then the letters were published. And what's more, following common French practices of the time, Paul Langevin felt it necessary to challenge the editor of l'Oeuvre, who published the letters and called him a coward, to a duel. The duel turned out to be a nonevent because the editor refused to fire his weapon--for the sake of the future of French science. But the spectacle proved too much for some members of the Nobel Committee. Citing the letters, and the "ridiculous duel of M. Langevin," the scientist Svante Arrhenius wrote to Marie Curie, urging her not to come and accept the prize until she had cleared her name. (31)

Marie Curie was deeply hurt that Arrhenius, whom she had considered to be a friend, had deserted her. But her reply to him was defiant: "The action you advise would appear to be a grave error on my part," she wrote. "In fact the prize has been awarded for the discovery of Radium and Polonium. I believe there is no connection between myscientific workand the facts of my private life." (32)

On December 10 and 11, Marie Curie attended the Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, accompanied by her sister Bronia and her daughter Irene. Notwithstanding the fears of some members of the Swedish Academy that it would be embarrassing for Madame Curie to "receive the prize personally from King Gustaf," (33) she performed with her usual dignity. The ordeal she had been through seemed to make her more assertive in her formal remarks, and more expressive in her informal ones. At the banquet with King Gustaf, she spoke proudly of her own work. "Radioactivity is a very young science," she told the gathering. "It is an infant that I saw being born, and I have contributed to raising with all my strength....One could not have wished for a more perfect blessing on it than the Swedish Academy of Sciences has given in conferring three Nobel prizes, one in physics and two in chemistry to the four names of Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford." (34) It was perhaps Marie Curie's bravest moment.

But the trip to Stockholm exacted a toll. Even before she left France, Marie's friends had worried about her health. When she returned, her condition worsened, and she had to be rushed to a hospital. For the next two years, she suffered from the effects of a severe kidney ailment, probably a result of her work with toxic substances but exacerbated no doubt by the pain of the scandal. For the next two years, she was unable to work. Indeed, she seems never to have felt robust again for the rest of her life. And although they remained good friends, Marie Curie and Paul Langevin's love affair was over.

In her remaining years, Marie Curie became internationally respected and often revered. Head of a large laboratory in Paris that bore the Curie name, she was the world's leading expert on the industrial production of radium. Her laboratory nurtured a new generation of scientists from all over the world. When World War I came, Marie Curie developed and oversaw the use of a fleet of radiology cars, passenger cars equipped with X-ray equipment that travelled to the front lines and enabled doctors to save thousands of lives. In the months before her death, Marie Curie had one final moment of great satisfaction, when her daughter Irene, now a scientist working in the field alongside her husband, Frederic Joliot, discovered a means for producing artificial radioactivity. "I will never forget," Frederic Joliot wrote, "the expression of intense joy which overtook her when Irene and I showed her the first [artificially produced] radioactive element in a little glass tube." (35) The following year, Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie were themselves awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Marie Curie did not live to enjoy that moment. She died of aplastic pernicious anemia, no doubt brought on by her work with radioactive elements but also by her exposure to X-rays, in the summer of 1934. Her coffin was lowered over Pierre Curie's in the small cemetery in Sceaux, outside of Paris, where she had visited so faithfully over the years. Her sister Bronia and brother Jozef came from Warsaw to attend the small graveside ceremony. They brought from Poland, unbeknownst to one another, the tribute they knew would please their sister most. Over the coffin, they each sprinkled a handful of Polish soil.

(1.) les Dimanches, 20 December 1903.

(2.) From memoir of Helena Sktodowska Szalay, National Library, Warsaw.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Curie, Marie, Pierre Curie. With Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan, 1923. 164-5.

(5.) Ibid. 165-6.

(6.) Idem.

(7.) Eve Curie, Madame Curie. New York: Doubleday, 1937. 72-3.

(8.) Pierre Curie, 171.

(9.) Letter from Pierre Curie to Marie Curie, 10 August 1894, Bibliotheque Nationale.

(10.) Madame Curie, 136. 14 July 1895.

(11.) Note de Mme. Sktodowska Curie, Comptes Rendus 126 (1898).

(12.) Note de M. P. Curie et de Mme. S. Curie, "Sur une substance nouvelle radio-active, contenue dans la pechblende," Comptes Rendus 127 (1898). 175-8.

(13.) Pierre Curie, 101.

(14.) See Elisabeth Crawford, The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

(15.) Marie Curie to Jozef, 11 December 1903.

(16.) Pierre Curie to Georges Gouy, 22 January 1904, Bibliotheque Nationale.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Pierre Curie to Georges Gouy, 24 July 1905, Bibliotheque Nationale.

(19.) Mourning Journal of Marie Curie.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Jacques Curie to Marie Curie, Bibliotheque Nationale.

(22.) Marguerite Borel, A travers deux siecles, 1883-1967. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1968.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Charles Thomas Rees Wilson, "Reminiscences of My Early Years," Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol 14. No. 2 (June 1960), 169.

(25.) Jean Perrin testimonial, Ecole de Physique et Chimie.

(26.) L'Intransigeant, 25 January 1911.

(27.) Le Journal, 4 November 1911.

(28.) Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, in German, from Prague, 23 November 1911. Countway Library, Harvard University.

(29.) Marguerite Borel, A travers deux siecles.

(30.) Cables from "Correspondance concerning the Nobel prize in chemistry of Marie Curie, 1911," in the manuscript collection of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Center for History of Science, Stockholm, Sweden.

(31.) Svante Arrhenius to Marie Curie, 1 December 1911. Mittag-Leffler Institute, Djursholm, Sweden.

(32.) Marie Curie to Arrhenius, 5 December 1911, Royal Academy of Sciences, Center for History of Science, Stockholm, Sweden.

(33.) Draft of a letter from G. Retzius to Charles Bouchard, 14 November, 1911.

(34.) Rough draft written in Bronia's hand on Grand Hotel, Stockholm, stationery, 10 December 1911.

(35.) Frederic Joliot Curie, "Les grandes decouvertes de la radioactivity," La Pensee, 1957.

Cosponsored by Department of Laboratory Medicine, Children's Hospital Boston, Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles, Paris, France

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2011.162172

<ADD> Susan Quinn * Author of Marie Curie: A Life (Simon and Schuster, Brookline, MA, 1995). </ADD>

* Address correspondence to the author at: Simon and Schuster, 64 Williston, Brookline, MA 02445. Fax 617-232-6022; e-mail

Received January 12, 2011; accepted January 17, 2011.
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Title Annotation:the Clinical Chemist: International Year of Chemistry 2011
Author:Quinn, Susan
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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