Curie as Celebrity

By Buehler, Emily | American Scientist, January/February 2013 | Go to article overview

Curie as Celebrity


Buehler, Emily, American Scientist


HISTORY OF SCIENCE Curie As Celebrity MARIE CURIE AND HER DAUGHTERS: The Private Lives of Science's First Family. Shelley Emling. xx + 219 pp. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. $26.

Celebrities in the United States have included sports heroes, singers and movie stars. These days we also count supermodels, YouTube sensations and, occasionally, people who are simply badly behaved enough to make the news. Shelley Emling's Marie Curie ana Her Daughters is a reminder that, once upon a time, scientists were commonly celebrities too. This biography, based in large part on letters released to the author by Marie Curie's granddaughter, the nuclear physicist Hélène Langevin-Joliot, and focusing on the period of Curie's life after the death of her husband, Pierre, in 1906, gives a fascinating glimpse into the family's story, and their relationship with the American public, amid the upheaval of both World Wars. The book's first chapter is written in a dramatic style that some readers may find distasteful, but the remainder of the book, especially the later chapters, is worth holding out for.

The book's beginning details Marie Curie's affair with fellow scientist Paul Langevin. (Hélène married Paul Langevin's grandson, Michel.) Langevin's wife finds letters from the couple and threatens to publish them, exposing the affair. Other scientists denounce Curie and suggest she return from France, her adopted country, to her birthplace of Poland - even as she is awarded her second Nobel prize. The story is a complex one, and I found the narration a bit confusing. Emling quotes Curie's love letters to Langevin but then refers to the letters the French press acquires as "intimate letters - or forgeries based on them." Curie calls the newspaper's words "libel and slander" and Langevin says the letters were altered, but Emling does not share what the papers published. She later refers to Curie's "alleged actions," even though she has told us that Curie was having an affair. She dismisses Langevin's wife as abusive and tells us that "eventually he always returned [to her] for the sake of the children." Perhaps the author's relationship with Curie's granddaughter made it tricky to write about these incidents. Whatever the case, I wished Emling had placed greater emphasis on what seems to me to be the crux of the matter - that, as she writes, "none of this would have happened if Marie were a man."

The affair and its attendant drama thankfully disappear with the beginning of World War I, in chapter 2. Curie and her daughter Irene crisscross the country, setting up x-ray stations for army doctors. After the war, Curie's attention turns back to opening research institutes, but she has little funding and only one gram of radium. She and Pierre had spent years sifting through tons of ore to isolate it. The Curies had refused to patent their process because they believed that "pure research should be carried out for its own sake and must not become tangled up with industry's profit motives. Researchers . . . should selflessly make their findings available to anyone and everyone." In 1920, to purchase another gram would cost between $100,000 and $120,000.

In a fortuitous coincidence, shy Curie meets an American journalist, Marie Mattingly Meloney (known by her nickname, "Missy"), who convinces her to travel to America on a fundraising campaign. Meloney arranges the trip, marketing Curie in slightly dishonest ways to increase her appeal to American women: "She told her readers that it had pained Marie enormously to spend so much time away from her daughters when, in fact, Marie had made her work a priority and didn't seem to feel conflicted by her choice," writes Emling. Meloney also presents Marie as poor and writes that Marie will be using the radium to find a cure for cancer, although Curie has made it clear that she'll be using the radium for scientific purposes. The Marie Curie Radium Campaign quickly gathers over $150,000 in small donations, enough to buy the radium, which is symbolically presented to Curie by President Warren G. …

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