The biography of Marie Curie continues with the death of Pierre
Curie, widowhood, and the Langevin affair.
Competition and Cooperation
After the discovery of radium, the stories in the press emphasized the romance
of doing physics. The Curies found themselves becoming role models for the
next generation of physicists. Young women especially were inspired to follow
in Marie's footsteps. In Germany, for example, Lise Meitner and Ida Tacke
began their careers in atomic physics. The Curie's main competition was
the team of New Zealander Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy in England.
Rutherford discovered that alpha particle radiation was actually a stream
of helium nucleii. More important, he proposed that radioactive substances
"decayed" into different elements in a process the alchemists
called "transmutation." The Curies complained that other scientists
were rushing to conclusions, but the race was definitely on to discover
the structure of the atom and its internal workings.
Comic Drawing in an English Magazine
Marie and Pierre Curie were still the world's leading experts on radioactivity;
in fact, it was Marie who invented the term "radioactivity." Public
pressure in France prompted the government to give the Curies money for
research. They continued to produce radium using Marie's process for chemical
extraction. For awhile they had the only supply of this rare element. Generously,
the Curies gave away samples to other physicists like Rutherford and Soddy.
Soon private chemical manufacturers wrote to the Curies asking for more
information about how to produce radium. The Curies decided not to patent
their extraction process, but to give it to the private sector for free.
If they had sold it, they would have been millionaires many times over.
Radium was in great demand.
The Death of Pierre Curie
In 1906, after many years of daily contact with radioactive substances,
Pierre was slowing down from radiation poisoning. He had been suffering
severe pains in his back and in his legs. He confided to Marie that he didn't
think he could come into work at the lab any more. Marie was not as sick
as Pierre, but she had the constitution of a horse. She was also spending
less time at the lab, taking care of her second child, Eve. On one rainy
afternoon, Pierre was walking alone in the Latin Quarter near rue Dauphine.
With his vision limited by his open umbrella, he stepped off the curb near
the busy intersection of pont neuf, and walked right into an on-coming,
horse-drawn wagon. He was instantly trampled to death. Marie was devastated;
she had lost not only a husband but a research partner. The University appointed
Marie to take Pierre's place as professor of Physics at the Sorbonne. She
becomes the first woman in France to hold this high position. In 1909, she
began construction on a new lab that had been promised to Pierre: The Radium
In the years following Pierre's death, Marie Curie was pre-occupied with
many things besides her research. Like many single mothers in today's world,
she had to stop everything when Eve became sick and went into the hospital
with some mysterious ailment. Then Pierre's father, who was living with
them, required constant care at home as he weakened and eventually died.
Irene and Eve suffered a great loss at his passing. Marie then had to make
other childcare arrangements after Grand Pere was gone. She found a young,
Polish woman to live with them as their governess. But like many parents
today, she was worried about her children's education. She didn't like the
French school system especially for Irene who was like Pierre in temperment.
So she organized a school for some of the professor's children. Each professor
taught informally in their living rooms at home, very much like the Flying
The Langevin Affair
In the summer of 1910, Marie Curie began a love affair with fellow physicist
Paul Langevin. Today, their "youthful indiscretion" is all but
forgotten by the general public, but it nearly destroyed Marie's career
and her public standing. Marie and Paul's lives intersected at several points.
Langevin had been a former student of Pierre's, and he admired him tremendously.
He would later develop the basic concept of sonar from Pierre's earlier
work with crystals. Marie and Paul also taught science at the same private
girls' school outside Paris. It was well known that Paul's marriage to Jeanne
Langevin was at times a volitile one. Shortly after they married, Jeanne
threatened him with divorce. Apparently, Paul was very sexist and a philanderer.
One day he arrived at his lab with welts and bruises all over his face;
his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law had beat him up. During the peaceful
periods, the Langevins managed to produce four children.
Marie was a woman who needed male companionship, and Paul Langevin filled
this empty void in her life. Marie wrote to Paul, suggesting that he separate
from his wife. Jeanne was already suspicious and jealous of Marie. She intercepted
this letter and others from Marie. Jeanne's brother was an editor of a newspaper
in Paris. During the following year, Jeanne's family blackmailed Marie and
Paul threatening to publish her letters. Marie "loaned" about
5,000 francs to Paul Langevin. Eventually, portions of the letters were
published, and angry mobs gathered around Marie's house and the lab. In
France at that time, certain political factions were very xenophobic (against
foreigners), and some conservative newspapers launched a campaign to destroy
Marie Curie and run her out of the country. Paul Langevin challenged the
editor of one newspaper to a duel with pistols. No one fired their weapons
and no one was hurt.
"I believe that there is no connection between my scientific
work and the facts
When the scandal broke, the physics community did not rush in to support
Marie. They could have defended her by pointing out that the reaction to
the affair was much too extreme and way out of proportion to whatever had
taken place. Instead, they kept silent. Only the engineer Hertha Aryton
in England gave Marie a place to stay to avoid the reporters and the mobs.
Earlier in the year, the Swedish Academy informed Marie that she would again
be the recipient of the Nobel Prize, this time for the discovery of the
radium and polonium. After the letters were published, however, they notified
her that they did not want her to come to the public ceremony in Stockholm.
Marie defied the Academy's wishes, and she attended the ceremony anyway.
This was her most courageous act. If she had retreated from the public spectacle
at Stockholm, her career would have been over. She did not leave France,
and eventually, her reputation and her honor would be restored.
of private life . . . I cannot accept the idea in principle that the appreciation
of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander
concerning private life." Marie Curie, 1911
Raising the Girls Alone / More Women at the Lab / The Curie Tradition