Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family
Updated: Jan 3, 2019
By Shelley Emling
While having a faint recollection of the Curie’s scientific accomplishments from my high school chemistry class, I didn’t realize the enormity of Marie’s work until I happened upon Shelley Emling’s wonderfully engaging book.
Marie Curie was a woman of firsts: the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. In 1903, she and her husband Pierre were awarded half of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their study into the spontaneous radiation discovered by Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize. After Pierre was killed in an accident in 1906, Marie received her second Nobel Prize in 1911, in Chemistry, in recognition of her work in radioactivity.
In this engrossing, factually-rich and personal story based on personal letters, Emling shows us the woman behind the icon during the second half of her life, after Pierre’s death. Marie was a devoted mother to her two daughters, Iréne and Éve, encouraging them to forge their unique paths. Irene pursued a career in science. Both she and her husband, Frédéric were instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission. Éve traveled the world as a foreign war correspondent during WWII. While on tour in the US in mid-1941, she gave speech after speech about Nazi atrocities being committed in both Poland and France. Éve realized how important it was to have the US not only supporting, but fighting alongside the allies.
Emling details how Marie, born in Poland, loved her native country as much as her adopted country – France. Shortly before receiving her second Nobel Prize, Marie succeeded in isolating radium. She also defined an international standard for radioactive emissions; the curie, named in honor of both she and Pierre. Despite her successes, she faced opposition at that time by a nationalistic press who labeled her a foreigner and an atheist. When Marie began a short-lived affair with Paul Langevin, a former student of Pierre’s, who also happened to be a married man, a press scandal erupted giving fuel to her academic opponents. Marie, undaunted, buried herself in her work and her daughters. It’s also interesting to note that Albert Einstein remained a true friend to Marie during this time through the rest of her life.
During WWI, Marie recognized a need for field radiology centers near the battlefield front lines to assist the surgeons. After studying radiology, anatomy and automotive mechanics, she procured X-ray equipment, vehicles, generators and created mobile radiography units. These were popularly known as Petites Curies (“Little Curies.”)
Following World War I, Marie turned to America for help in raising funds to procure a gram of radium, worth an estimated $100,000. Few people know about Curie’s close friendship with American journalist, Mrs. William Brown (Missy) Meloney, who arranged a speaking tour across the country for Marie, Éve, and Iréne to help with that purchase. Missy created the Marie Curie Radium Fund. She painstakingly arranged the long tour, with months on the road, where Marie and her daughters charmed audiences both large and small. The Curie women endeared themselves to American women and established a lifelong relationship with the United States. Her friendship with Missy formed one of the strongest connections of Marie’s life. She visited Poland and her Radium Institute for the last time in early 1934. After returning, she fell ill and died on July 4th from aplastic anemia, likely due to her long-term exposure to radiation.
Her institutional legacies include her beloved Institut du Radium, founded in 1909 by the University of Paris and Institut Pasteur. The Institut du Radium had two sections. The Curie laboratory, directed by Marie, dedicated itself to physics and chemistry research. The Pasteur laboratory, headed by Dr. Claudius Regaud, studied the biological and medical effects of radioactivity. She also founded the Radium Institute in Warsaw, Poland. Marie was also was a member of the French Academy of Medicine and the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.
Add to these her long list of awards, and it’s clear to see why, as late as 2009, she was voted the “most inspirational woman in science.”
Both of Marie’s daughters left their endearing legacies. Iréne and her husband Frédéric were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Éve, a French and American writer, journalist and pianist authored her mother’s widely-acclaimed biography, Madame Curie. She also penned a book of her time as a WWII journalist titled Journey Among Warriors.