Thursday, July 03, 2008

The 74th Anniversary of the Death of Madame Curie

Marie Curie deep in conversation with Henri Poincare
while Albert Einstein looks on (ca. 1924)

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska, died at 66 of aplastic anemia on July 4, 1934, in the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, France, just a short distance from Mont Blanc. July 4 of this year is thus the 74th anniversary of her death. There are scarcely enough superlatives to do justice to the greatest and most remarkable woman who ever lived, as least so far as we in the west can judge, and so far as we have historical records to consult.

I have written an earlier post about Madame Curie recalling the unmatched highlights of her scientific career: two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 (the same year she received her PhD!) with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for discovering radioactivity, and the other, hers alone, in 1911 in Chemistry for the discoveries of radium and polonium. To this date no other scientist has received two Nobels in the natural sciences. These facts of her life are of course well known.

There are other less well-known but fascinating aspects of her life:

  • In WW I she invented the mobile x-ray lab by outfitting 20 vehicles with x-ray equipment, building 200 stationary x-ray units, training 150 x-ray technicians and taking to the battlefield with her daughter Irene, sometimes driving the mobile x-ray vans herself, and in all making possible the x-ray treatment of over one million soldiers during the course of the war. Here she is at the wheel of one of her Renault mobile x-ray vans:

  • Her native tongue was Polish, her adopted language was French, and altogether she spoke five languages.
  • She suffered from stage fright and was generally terrified when she had to speak in public, which was often.
  • She suffered from tinnitus.
  • She loved to play Scrabble, actually "Letters," an ancestor of Scrabble, similarly involving the drawing of letters from a sack and the formation of words with them.
  • She was an accomplished athlete who did hiking, skiing, skating, cycling and swimming. She was especially proud of her swimming ability and was extremely competitive, forever measuring herself against other swimmers in the group, mostly men, gathered at L'Arcouest in Brittany, the country retreat of much of the faculty of the Sorbonne:
    She implacably counted the distances covered by her adversaries, and, without ever openly proposing a race, she put herself in training to break the records of speed and distance held by the university teaching body...At more than fifty years of age, she was one of the best swimmers of her generation." (from Curie, Eve, Madame Curie 316 (Da Capo Press 2d ed. 2001))
  • She loved fast cars and was proud of her Ford, which she considered to be a sporting vehicle.
  • After the tragic death of her husband Pierre Marie had a notorious love affair with a married man, Paul Langevin, a physicist at the Sorbonne who had done his Ph.D. under Pierre Curie and was the doctoral advisor of Marie's daughter Irene. Their affair was a sensation. Langevin's wife Jeanne discovered the affair and told Marie to leave France or die. Marie threatened suicide if Paul would not leave Jeanne. Jeanne stole Marie's love letters from Paul's desk and released them to the press on the same day that Marie received word she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry! An angry crowd gathered in front of Marie's house and threw stones at her windows. A right-wing journalist insulted Langevin in print and Langevin challenged him to a duel. The duel did not happen because when it came time to square off the journalist refused to fire because he did not want to kill one of France's finest minds. In the wake of the scandal the Nobel committee, severely underestimating who they were dealing with, asked Marie not to come to Sweden to receive the prize. That only made her angry. She wrote back declaring, rightly, that her discovery of radium and polonium had nothing to do with her private life and thereupon embarked for Sweden to receive her prize from King Gustaf. The denouement of this bizarre affair was that Langevin in due course went back to his wife, took yet another mistress but then fathered an illegitimate child by one of his students, Elaine, following which he appealed to Marie to find Elaine a job. And she did. (Goldsmith, Barbara, Obsessive Genius 165-76 (Atlas Books 2005))
Marie Curie's scientific achievements were larger than life and her life itself was almost larger than life. She knew genius, greatness, fame, tragedy, love, pain, humiliation, recognition, athletic achievement, illness, family warmth, universal admiration and the transcendent thrill of making at least three of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of mankind.


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