Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Undeniable Greatness of Marie Curie and Her Family

Eve Curie Labouisse

The death earlier this week of Eve Curie Labouisse in New York at the extraordinary age of 102 merits a look back at Marie Curie, Eve's mother, and the remarkable Curie family -- a family so much larger than life it is almost mythical.

No less that five members of Marie Curie's family, all within two generations, received a total of four Nobel Prizes, one in Physics, two in Chemistry and the Peace Prize:

  • Marie, together with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel (not a family member) received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for their discovery of radioactivity;
  • Marie, alone, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium (the radioactive element used by the Russians to fatally poison Alexander Litvinenko in London last year);
  • Marie's eldest daughter Irene, together with her husband Frederic Joliot, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their synthesis of new radioactive elements (in particular, they made a strip of aluminum radioactive by bombarding it with alpha particles from a lump of polonium); and
  • Eve Curie, though she did not herself receive a Nobel Prize, nevertheless married a man, Henry Labouisse, who as executive director of UNICEF received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
A greater concentration of Nobel Prizes in such a short time within a single family has not been seen before or since.

To appreciate the singularity of Marie Curie's achievements, one only needs to note that her Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 was the first Nobel Prize ever to go to a woman. The next award in physics to a woman did not occur until 1963 -- 60 years later! Similarly, her Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 was also the first in chemistry to go to a woman, and the next did not occur until 24 years later, in 1935, and it went to her daughter Irene! To this day, only Marie Curie has won two Nobel Prizes in science. An achievement matched by no man. (Linus Pauling later won two Nobel prizes, one in chemistry and one for peace, the latter worthy in its own way, but not comparable to a prize in the natural sciences.)

Please recall that Marie accomplished all of this in France, which makes her achievements and recognition all the more remarkable. In the first place, she was not French -- she was Polish. She was born and raised in Poland. And, in the second place, France is hardly the most egalitarian country in the world when it comes to the rights of women -- women did not even acquire the right to vote in France until 1945. And for all the stunning achievements of Marie and Irene, neither was ever admitted to the French Academy of Science although both of their husbands were admitted, even though their personal achievements were equal to or less than those of their wives.

Much of what we know about Marie Curie and her family we know through the classic biography, Madame Curie, written by Eve Curie in 1937. She won no Nobel Prize for Literature for the book, but she did win a National Book Award. It is a timeless masterpiece -- equally because it is so well done and because of the great story it tells. I worry that it is today almost forgotten and too little appreciated.

[to be continued]


Anonymous said...

David Berg, who once taught organizational psychology at Yale (and now in Wharton’s executive education), describes Curie’s emergence from a “laborer in the shadow”, as a general phenomenon. “…And, in the United States, Vice Presidents are known for disappearing right after the election for approximately three and a half years. In some cases, these followers emerge from this relative obscurity upon the death or retirement of the leader…”.

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