International Year of Chemistry 2011: Marie Curie’s Struggle against Sexism and Xenophobia

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Marie Sklodowska Curie was a Polish-French physicist-chemist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry. Photo by Tekniska museet via Flickr Creative Commons

By George B. Kauffman

The 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations has proclaimed 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011) under the leadership of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) (http://www.chemistry2011.org). IYC 2011 commemorates the centenaries of the founding of the International Association of Chemical Societies, which later became the IUPAC, and the awarding of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Marie Curie (1867–1934).

The Academies of Science and Chemical Societies of France and Poland joined in honoring Madame Curie under the patronages of Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Borislaw Komorowski. Beginning with the inauguration of IYC 2011 on January 27–28 at UNESCO-Paris, followed by the opening ceremony in Paris on January 29 at the Sorbonne and closing at the Royal Castle in Warsaw on November 25, the yearlong celebration will feature activities globally to celebrate the achievements of chemistry—“the central science”—and its contributions to the well-being of humankind.

With the theme “Chemistry—Our Life, Our Future,” IYC 2011 is intended to increase public appreciation of chemistry in meeting world needs and to arouse the interest of young people and the public in chemistry’s creative future. It offers a wide range of interactive, entertaining and educational activities for persons of all ages with opportunities for public participation at the local, regional and national levels.

Chemical societies around the world are celebrating an anniversary that is of interest not only to scientists but also to the general population. In view of Madame Curie’s battles against sexism and xenophobia, IYC 2011’s special focus on “Women and Chemistry” should energize women and girls in fulfilling their aspirations for careers in science, both in industry and academe, an area in which further advances need to be made.

The American Chemical Society’s Committee on Community Activities is spearheading the society’s outreach efforts for IYC 2011, which seeks to confirm that chemistry is a worldwide science that affects all people positively (www.acs.org/iyc2011). Participants can celebrate throughout the year by hosting events related to the four quarterly outreach themes: environment, energy, materials and health. The first quarter focused on water in the environment. The second quarter introduced the topic of alternative energy as a key aspect of sustainability and coincides with “Chemists Celebrate Earth Day 2011” (portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content).

Marie Curie (she shunned the appellation “Madame,” which she felt reduced her to a “Mrs.,” not a person in her own right [www.mindnexus.com//freeinfo/tch/spring99/articles/curie.html]), was born as Maria Salomea Sklodowska in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. Her mother died when she was only four years old. Her father struggled to support the family as a teacher under the repressive czarist régime that controlled Poland. Maria rejected the religious beliefs of her childhood and became involved with political movements. Because many obstacles prevented girls from attending Polish universities, she joined an underground, unofficial university.

Maria became a governess to earn money to attend a foreign university. In March 1889, she called herself Marie and enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris. In June 1893, she earned her licence degree in physics (first in her class) and in July 1894 her licence degree in mathematics (second in her class). She met Pierre Curie (1859–1906) in 1894. Like Marie, Pierre was shy, introverted and completely devoted to science. They also shared a distrust of traditional religion. In March 1895, Pierre presented his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, and a professorship was created for him at the Ecole Municipale de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles. The couple married on July 26, 1895, in a civil ceremony.

On March 2, 1896, Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) discovered the emission of rays by uranium. In April 1898, Marie found that the uranium mineral pitchblende emitted a more intense radiation than uranium itself. Pierre joined her in searching for the mysterious substances in the ore. Within several months, the couple discovered two new elements, polonium (named for Marie’s homeland; July 18, 1898) and radium (December 26, 1898).

Community Alliance readers are undoubtedly familiar with the romantic tale of the Curies’ quest for radium from Mervyn LeRoy’s 1943 critically acclaimed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson as Marie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre.

The concept of radioactivity (a term coined by Marie) and the new science of radiochemistry were born, and the couple suddenly found themselves famous. On June 13, 1903, at the Sorbonne, Marie defended her thesis, “Researches on radioactive substances,” considered by eminent scientists to contain the most important results ever presented in a doctoral thesis.

It was only after the intervention of scientists familiar with Marie’s leading role in the Curies’ work that a conspiracy to exclude her from the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics was overcome, and one-half of the prize was awarded to Becquerel “for his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity” and the other half to Pierre and Marie “for their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel.”

After Pierre’s tragic accidental death on January 19, 1906, the Faculty of Sciences entrusted Marie with the direction of his laboratory. Pierre’s Chair of Physics at the Sorbonne and his seat at the Académie des Sciences were now vacant. The French academic authorities, strongly upset by Pierre’s sudden death, quickly made the historic decision to sweep aside the tradition of excluding women from high-level education positions and appointed Marie a professor at the Sorbonne. Although newspapers celebrated her first lecture on November 5, 1906, as a victory for feminism, she was a woman of her time, not a militant feminist. She remained a woman scientist in a male-dominated society.

In November 1910, to increase the chances of obtaining funds for her laboratory, Marie offered herself as a candidate for a vacant physics seat in the Académie des Sciences, an exclusively male body. Marie’s rival was 66-year old Edoaurd Branly, professor at the Institut Catholique de Paris, whose claim was championed by many Catholics, because he had been honored by the Pope.

Although a scandal-driven press seems to have reached its apogee with the election of President Barack Obama, it is hardly a recent phenomenon. For generations, French politics had been divided between conservative Catholics and liberal freethinkers like Marie. The right-wing, xenophobic press charged that Marie was not French, that she was Jewish (which was untrue) and claimed that she never did anything alone but was only her husband’s modest collaborator. On January 23, 1911, Marie lost by one vote.

A worse scandal erupted during the summer of 1911. Rumors surfaced of an affair between Marie and physicist Paul Langevin (1872–1946), Pierre’s former student. The French press obtained intimate letters that Marie and Paul had exchanged (or forgeries based on them). Some anti-Semitic, xenophobic newspapers attacked Marie as a foreign Jewish home wrecker. Others claimed that the affair had begun while Pierre was alive, driving him to commit suicide!

Five duels were held between adherents of both sides. Three days before Marie received her second Nobel Prize, Jeanne Langevin sued for legal separation from Paul and custody of their four children, a suit that was settled out of court 10 days after the prize. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to dissuade Marie from going to Stockholm so that the King would not shake hands with an adulteress. She replied that she would attend because she thought that the prize was given for her scientific work, not for her personal life. (Ironically, before Gustav V’s reign had ended he himself was accused of having a homosexual affair with a married man.) Although Marie and Paul never resumed their romantic attachment, Marie’s granddaughter Hélène and Paul’s grandson Michel, both nuclear physicists, eventually married.

Marie received the 1911 Nobel Prize “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” She was the first female Nobel science laureate and is still the only woman to win two Nobel prizes.

On her return to Paris, Marie was exhausted, fell seriously ill and underwent kidney surgery. She did not resume most of her activities until 1913, including the construction of a new laboratory. During World War I, she and her daughter Irène introduced X-ray equipment in the field hospitals behind the front line and organized mobile radiography units, which became known as “petites Curies.” Her reputation after the Langevin affair was not restored until this war work on behalf of France.

Marie and Pierre’s humanitarian decision to forego a patent on radium led Marie, despite her dislike of publicity, to visit the United States twice—once in 1921 and again in 1929, both times in search of funds for her work. She died of aplastic anemia contracted from exposure to radiation on July 4, 1934.

In the annals of “Multiple Nobel Laureates” and “Family Nobel Laureates,” Marie Curie holds several distinctive citations: first woman and first couple laureate in physics (1903); first woman laureate in chemistry (1911); mother and mother-in-law, respectively, of 1935 Nobel chemistry laureates Irène Joliot-Curie and Frédéric Joliot; and mother-in-law of Henry Richardson Labouisse, Jr. (1904–1987), recipient of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The Curies are also immortalized with the element Curium and the international radium standard, “the Curie.” It is most appropriate that she be honored with the International Year of Chemistry 2011.