The biography of Marie Curie continues with Irene's career in
physics, women scientists at the Institute, and the Curie tradition.
Raising the Girls Alone
After the scandal, Marie underwent a kidney operation during which she almost
died on the table. Her kidneys had been scarred from exposure to TB, and
they became infected years later. Her convalesence took about a year, and
she rarely saw her daughters, Irene and Eve. Marie's critics have charged
that she neglected her children while they were young; and it's true that
in the early years of research, Irene and Eve saw very little of their parents.
Marie and Pierre were always teaching or working in the lab. But the blame
for this must fall equally on both Pierre and Marie. According to most childcare
experts, Grand Pere, being a close family member, was the next best substitute
for the parents. Irene was very close to him, and much of his anti-religion
and socialist philosophy rubbed off on her. Everyone in the family agreed,
however, that Irene took after Pierre. She had his features, and her thinking
processes were focused and non-verbal like his. Marie started to groom Irene
for a scientific career. Eve, on the other hand, was very gifted in music,
picking out many tunes on the piano by the age of three.
After Pierre and Grand Pere died and the scandal subsided, the girls and
their mother formed a very tight knit family, emotionally insulated from
a hostile world. Irene took over Pierre's role in many ways, working with
Marie in physics. Eve handled the domestic side of things, running the household.
During World War I, Marie and Irene volunteered to X-ray wounded soldiers
on the front. Together, they visited over 300 hospitals in France and Belgium,
trying to educate military surgeons how to locate bullets and shrapnel in
soldier's wounds. They trained x-ray technicians and supervised over one
million x-rays. Traveling in the "Petit Curie" (a van with all
their equipment) out in the field, Irene and Marie lived like soldiers.
They formed a closeness which went beyond the friendship of adult children
and their parents. Irene was exposed to a huge amount of radiation from
the x-rays. This ruined her health in later years and caused her death from
leukemia at age 59.
Throughout their childhoods, Marie emphasized that the girls should become
independent and able to support themselves. Eve did not have much interest
in math, but Marie taught Irene advanced mathematics and physics. She encouraged
them in outdoor activities and sports. Irene loved dancing, swimming, backpacking
in the mountains, and skiing. Irene was also very sensitive to the discrimination
her mother experienced. At a young age, she became an ardent feminist. When,
in 1925, she obtained her doctorate in physics, Irene gave an interview
to the The New York Times, saying: "I believe that men's and
women's scientific aptitudes are exactly the same...A woman of science should
renounce all worldly obligations."
Women at the Radium Institute
Irene was so advanced in math and atomic physics, that she threatened some
of the staff at The Radium Institute. When Marie found research money for
Irene to study the radioactivity of polonium, of course there were some
people who resented the "Crown Princess." Irene, however, did
not always act like a princess, and she could be blunt with those whom she
thought wasted her time. Marie's health was deteriorating as she got older,
and she brought into the lab younger scientists to continue the atomic research
she had pioneered. While other labs investigated the structure of the atom,
Marie continued with a search for more radioactive substances. She hired
a number of talented women physicists like Ellen Gleditsch, May Leslie,
and Marguerite Perey. Perey started at the lab as a test tube washer, and
later she discovered a new radioactive element she named francium. Marie
was especially sympathetic with and inclined to hire young scientists who
had suffered discrimination by the male scientific establishment.
In her fifties and sixties, Marie Curie was in a very unique position among
women scientists. She had a full professorship at a time when most universities
would not hire women. She was the director of her own multi-million dollar
research institute. Other women researchers like Lise Meitner were not paid
even a salary. Marie had won two Nobel Prizes while other women scientists
like Meitner, Noether, Wu, Bell, and the list goes on, were passed over
completely for the Nobel Prize. Marie also had a monopoly, on radioactive
materials like radium and polonium necessary for atomic research. Lastly,
there never has been a mother-daughter team of physicists in the history
of science except Marie and Irene. When Irene was 28, she married a young
physicist by the name of Frederick Joliot. The two began a lifetime of physics
research together much like Marie and Pierre hoped for when they first were
married. The Curie-Joliots won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for their discovery
of artificial radioactivity. After World War II, Joliot became the architect
of France's nuclear power program which now supplies 80% of the power in
The atmosphere at Marie's Radium Institute was relaxed and informal, and
she thought of the staff as her extended family. Even though she was in
considerable pain, she reserved whatever warmth and encouragment she could
muster for her researchers. She would visit each one making her rounds every
day. She would check on their progress and give them advice. When they made
a break-through, her face would brighten with a smile. To the rest of the
world, she presented an icy, cold reserve. She developed cataracts on her
eyes requiring surgery. She suffered from tintinitus, a constant ringing
and humming in her ears. She came down with the severe pains that Pierre
and other researchers had suffered as the radiation poisoning got worse.
Marie had been exposed to more radiation than anyone else in the lab. Despite
all this, she made two fund-raising trips to the United States. On the last
trip in 1932 , two years before her death, she and the girls visited the
Grand Canyon and took the mule train down to the bottom. Irene captured
a raccoon which she kept in her room. Marie, who never owned jewelry, not
even a wedding ring, bought some Native American jewelry. She was still
interested in dispossessed people and their problems.
Marie Curie traveled a great distance over her 67 years: from teenage girl
to wife and mother; from science student to college professor; from anonymous
student idealist to a world famous celebrity. From a healthy, robust gibson
girl in her youth to a woman in constant pain with cataracts, tintinitus,
and finally leukemia. In 1995, Marie's travels ended. The woman who was
never at rest found a final resting place when her ashes were buried in
a crypt in the Pantheon, France's great monument to its heros and now, heroines.
Copyright Allison Nies 2001
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1. A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity,
by Marlene & Geoffrey Rayner-Canham, 1998
2. Marie Curie, A Life, by Susan Quinn, Addison Wesley, 1995
3. Grand Obsession, Madame Curie and Her World, by Rosalynd Pflaum,
4. "Irene Joliot-Curie," in Nobel Prize Women in Science,
by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne P.117-143
5. Marie Curie, The Polish Scientist Who Discovered Radium and Its Life-saving
Properties, by Beverly Birch, 1988
6. "Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium,"
lecture by Nanny Froman, The Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden,
February 28, 1996 (on the internet).