The Scientific and Cultural Legacy of Marie Curie
By Matt Ventimiglia*
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (Character Maxwell Scott in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
A biographical encyclopedia of science entry for Marie Skłodowska-Curie (1867-1934) — perhaps the most famous of all women scientists in history — might read like this: “Larger than life, Promethean/Faustian figure of modern science whose long shadow of mythic proportions looms large in the history of science. She was the first and only woman (so far) to win two Nobel Prizes, and the first person to win these honors in two different fields: Physics (shared with husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906) and Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) for discovery and studies of radioactivity), and Chemistry (unshared) for isolation of two new elements (polonium and radium). Marie Curie contributed towards and was witness to some of the most monumental advances in the formative years of modern science, helping to reformulate a greater unification between two framework edifices within the ‘exact sciences’ of physics and chemistry. She also pioneered the nascent field of biophysics, both in X-ray imaging and for applications of radioactive phenomena in cancer treatment therapy. Marie Curie personally knew or corresponded with Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907), Wilhelm Röntgen (1854-1923), William Thomson (Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907), Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942), Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), Louis de Broglie (1892-1987), Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), Hendrik Lorentz (1853-1928), Paul Dirac (1902-1984), Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) — among the most important figures of science in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.”
For more nuanced assessments of Marie Curie’s life and work we must consult our primary and secondary sources. Marie Curie’s ‘official biography’, Madame Curie (1938, by Marie’s second daughter Eve), along with Marie’s biography of husband Pierre (1932, with 50 added pages of “Autobiographical Notes,” the only semblance of memoir written in Marie’s own hand), comprise the published primary sources ― significant as much for what they left out as for what they reveal. Personal letters, diaries and notebooks, some still tainted with radioactive contamination, provide insights into Marie Curie’s fruitful professional yet sorrowful personal life. Mention of these are found in secondary sources including Marie Curie (Robert W. Reid, 1944, 1974), Marie Curie: A Life (Susan Quinn, 1995), Marie Curie: A Life (Francoise Giroud, 1981, English translation by Lydian Davis), The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science (Denis Brian, 2005), Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Barbara Goldsmith, 2005), and Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family (Shelley Emling, 2012) — all recommended. The last three biographers enjoyed the advantage of reviewing letters and other documents formerly sealed for more than 70 years before being released to ‘public domain’. Additionally, a DVD lecture on Marie Curie’s life and work: The Scientific Genius of Marie Curie (part of a “One Day University” series given by Susan Lindee, University of Pennsylvania Professor of History and Sociology of Science, and perhaps others in a seminar was made available in April, 2021. (More about this source in coming sections.)
Children’s literature is brimming with short biographies of Marie Curie written for young readers, often illustrated or accompanied by historic photographs. I will mention only a few here. The earliest I could find is Clare H. Abrahall’s The Young Marie Curie (1961, Max Parrish/Roy Publishers), a highly sought-after out-of-print collectable. The book is sparsely illustrated with line drawings and covers the early life of ‘Manya’ Skłodowska in Poland (with brief mention of her later adult scientific career in France as Marie Curie). Rosalynd Pflaum’s Marie Curie and Her Daughter Irène (1993, Lerner Publications) covers the life of Marie Curie and her scientifically-minded first daughter, both of whom became Nobel Laureates. Naomi Pasachoff’s Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity (1996, Oxford University Press) is a thorough biography written by a scholarly historian of science, educator and author of several books for young readers, both texts and biographical literature. Connie Colwell Miller’s Marie Curie and Radioactivity (2007, Graphic Library/Capstone Press) is a short biography in comic book form, well-Illustrated by Scott Larson and Mark Heike. Vicki Cobb’s Marie Curie (2008, DK Publishing) is a fine un-sanitized review of Marie Curie’s scientific and social life, well-illustrated with art and historic photographs. Finally, Amy M. O’Quinn’s Marie Curie for Kids: Her Life and Scientific Discoveries (with 21 Activities and Experiments) (2017, Chicago Review Press) is an engaging large-format paperbound book with superb photo-reproductions, artwork, and diagrams to guide activities for the home-schooled.
to be continued…
*MATT VENTIMIGLIA, Griffith Observatory, April, 2021