Historical Context

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The Sorbonne Spanning two centuries, the Curie family was affiliated with the Sorbonne, a college of the University of Paris. The University of Paris was founded in 1170, and the Sorbonne was founded in 1257. In 1793, as a result of the French Revolution, the University of Paris became one...

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The Sorbonne
Spanning two centuries, the Curie family was affiliated with the Sorbonne, a college of the University of Paris. The University of Paris was founded in 1170, and the Sorbonne was founded in 1257. In 1793, as a result of the French Revolution, the University of Paris became one of the academies of the newly created University of France. In 1878, at the age of eighteen, Pierre Curie became a laboratory assistant at the Sorbonne. In 1891, Marie Curie moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, from which she eventually earned two master’s degrees and a doctoral degree. In 1900, Pierre was made a lecturer at the Sorbonne, and in 1904, he was given a post as professor. Upon his death, Pierre’s professorship was handed over to Marie, making her the first woman on the faculty of the Sorbonne. Decades after the death of Marie Curie, the Sorbonne gained international attention when, in 1968, radical leftist students occupied the college in a massive protest that sparked strikes by workers throughout France. Although this student uprising was quelled before long, it is considered to have had a significant effect on French politics, as well as on the role of students in the university system of France.

The Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prize is highly regarded as the most prestigious international award in the categories it honors. The Nobel Prize was established in accordance with the will of the Swedish inventor Alfred Bernard Nobel and originally funded by his endowment. Nobel specified that the award should be given annually to those whose efforts most bene- fited mankind in the following five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Nobel died in 1895, and the first set of Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. In 1903, Marie Curie shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. In 1911, Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And in 1935, Marie’s elder daughter Irene Curie- Joliot shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot. In 1969, a sixth category, economics, was added to the annual Nobel Prizes.

Scientific Achievement in the Nineteenth Century
Marie Curie’s early successes in the international scientific community came in the final years of the nineteenth century. Many significant scientific advances by an international community of scientists paralleled her own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845–1923) discovered the X-ray, so-named to indicate the unknown quantity of his discovery. In 1901, Roentgen was the first ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics. Marie Curie was particularly taken with Roentgen’s work and was instrumental in disseminating X-ray machines for medical purposes in French military hospitals during World War I.

The French scientific community during the nineteenth century was particularly fertile. At the Sorbonne, Curie was a student under Gabriel Lippmann (1845–1921), the French physicist who first invented a process of color photography, for which he received a Nobel Prize in 1908. In 1896, Henri Becquerel (1852–1908), building upon Roentgen’s research on the X-ray, discovered radiation. Although Becquerel’s work preceded that of the Curies, it was their discoveries of new radioactive materials that made the work of Becquerel signifi- cant and brought it to the attention of the scientific community. Becquerel, in turn, made an important discovery when he found that a sample of the Curie’s radium, which he was carrying, burned through his pocket and into his skin. The presentation of a professional paper on this phenomenon quickly led other scientists to the development of radioactive materials for treating cancer. For their combined efforts, the Curies and Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. Marie Curie later became acquainted with the young German physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921 for his development of the theory of relativity.

Form and Content

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Eve Curie’s Madame Curie: A Biography describes the life of her mother, a woman who faced a constant uphill struggle against odds that most people would find overwhelming. The Poland into which Marie Skodowska was born, in 1867, existed only in the mind of her patriots. In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the nation of Poland was absorbed into its neighbors, chiefly Russia, and had ceased to exist. Yet the dream of nationhood did not die. The underlying theme of Curie’s discoveries, in addition to the betterment of humankind, became a contribution to the intellectual life of Poland.

Madame Curie is divided into twenty-seven chapters, arranged in three major parts. Curie initially chronicles her mother’s childhood and early schooling. Marie Curie was the youngest of five children born to Vladislav Skodowska, a physics teacher in Warsaw. She dealt early with tragedy, as first her sister and then her mother died before Curie was twelve years old. Forced from his job by an autocratic system, her father had to struggle to rear the family. From necessity, Curie spent six years as a governess, learning science in her spare time from books.

The narrative then passes into her years of success. Curie’s life brought her to Paris, where she entered the Sorbonne and earned degrees both in physics and in mathematics. It is also there that she met and married Pierre Curie. Through letters, the reader follows their courtship, their struggles against privation, and ultimately their crowning achievement: She and her husband determined the nature of radioactivity and, in the process, discovered two new elements of nature (one of which, polonium, is named after her native land). The narrative is then completed as the world showers its acclaim on a scientist who wanted nothing more than to be allowed to continue her work.

In a larger sense, however, the biography is also divided into two major periods: the years before Pierre Curie and the years after him. When Pierre died in a tragic accident in 1906, Marie lost not only a husband but also a colleague and friend. Using Marie Curie’s letters to friends and family, Eve Curie describes the struggles that her mother faced. Indeed, much of the book is a compilation of such letters. Curie is portrayed as a tragic figure. She becomes the epitome of success through hard work, but her numerous letters reveal the underlying loneliness that she suffered through much of her life.

The author has also included an appendix, listing the numerous awards and titles conferred upon her subject. These honors include the Nobel Prize in Physics, which she shared with her husband in 1903, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, which she was awarded in 1911 for her work alone. No illustrations are provided.

Setting

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The biography begins with Marie Curie's birth in 1867, in Warsaw. Poland has been dominated by the Russian Empire for over one hundred years, and young Marie witnesses the czar's continual attempts to Russianize Poland. As a youth, she is traumatized by the political execution of her friend's brother, and she is personally humiliated and frightened by a government inspector's interrogations. The political situation causes family hardship when her father, M. Sklodovski, is demoted, resulting in a reduction of salary and a loss of title and housing.

Marie remains loyal to Poland. As a young adult, she participates in an illegal "Floating University," a Polish school that operates outside the Russian system, and she later risks arrest by creating a school for peasant children in the village of Szczuki. As an adult, Marie plans to return to Poland to teach but decides to many the Frenchman Pierre Curie instead. She remains dedicated to Poland, however, and names the first new element she discovers "polonium." One of the highlights of her life occurs when she establishes the Radium Institute Center for Scientific Research in Warsaw in 1925.

Marie Curie lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when women do not have the same educational opportunities as men. Because women are not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw, Marie exhibits great determination and effort in pursuing her scientific studies. After struggling to save enough money, she moves to Paris, where she receives master's degrees in physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne University and becomes the first woman to receive a doctorate of physical science from the University of Paris.

Marie also becomes the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics (1903) and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry (1911). But France is slow to honor the Curies' work and does not provide them with adequate laboratory space or equipment, or offer official rights, rank, and salary to Marie until November 1904. This is not unusual treatment for French women at the time. Although many French women work outside the home, most do not hold positions of great responsibility. Women's salaries are much lower than men's, and the law requires wives to turn their wages over to their husbands.

Madame Curie takes place during a time of extensive scientific advancement, with great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Louis Pasteur discovering new laws and questioning existing knowledge. These scientists support one another with their ideas, and many are not overly concerned with competition or financial reward. Under this system of free exchange of information, it is not surprising that significant scientific progress is made or that the Curies do not demand exclusive rights to their discoveries.

The onset of World War I plays an important role in Marie Curie's life. Unable to continue her research and eager to serve her adopted country, Marie creates "radiological cars," oversees the installation of x-ray equipment in hospitals, and trains 150 technicians to provide x-ray services for the wounded. She also invests the money from her second Nobel Prize in war loans that are never repaid. Following the war, Marie works with the League of Nations on the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and is active in the cause of disarmament and peace.

Literary Style

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Genre: Biography of a Great Woman in History
Madame Curie is written in the genre (or literary category) of biography. It can be further categorized among biographies of great women in history. Stylistically, a biography of this type not only tells the story of the life of an accomplished person but reminds the reader in a variety of ways of the accomplishments of the biographical subject specifically as a woman—triumphing against the great odds imposed upon her due to her status as a woman in a field or endeavor in which society has not traditionally welcomed women. Thus, in Madame Curie, Eve Curie intermittently points out to the reader the particular status of Marie Curie not just as a world-famous scientist but as a woman scientist pioneering in a field that has traditionally excluded women.

The story of Marie Curie’s life and work is of particular interest in part because of her early accomplishments as a woman in a field not traditionally receptive to women. In 1906, she became the first woman on the faculty of the Sorbonne and, in fact, the first woman in France ever to occupy a professorship. In 1922, she was the first woman to be elected to the distinguished Academy of Medicine of Paris, as well as being the first woman to become a member of any of the French Academies. In 1995, when her ashes were enshrined in the Panthéon in Paris, she was the first woman to be granted this honor on the basis of her own work. Eve describes the added burden of traditional domestic duties as wife and mother to Marie’s scientific pursuits, although, she notes, there was no question in the mind of Marie Curie that there need be any conflict between her scientific career and her family life. Within a three-month period, for instance, she gave birth to her first child as well as completing her first scientific publication. Eve Curie captures the impression Marie Curie made upon the public in the early years of her career in a description of her as ‘‘this rarest of animals, this phenomenon: a woman physicist!’’ In this capacity, Marie held ‘‘a scientific reputation without precedence for a woman,’’ and yet, as a wife and mother, as well as a scientist, ‘‘she had not one second of time available for playing the part of the celebrated woman.’’ However, women’s organizations throughout the world recognized Marie Curie as a role model for other women.

Authorial Voice
Authorial voice refers to the characteristic narrative style in which an author inserts her or himself as a presence in the narrative. Madame Curie is a biography of a world-famous woman, written by her youngest daughter. The author, Eve Curie, could have chosen among several approaches to narrating a story in which she herself figures only peripherally. She chose to place herself within this story of the life of her mother through two different narrative techniques.

In describing her own presence as a child and young adult throughout most of the story, Eve Curie refers to herself in the third person, as ‘‘Eve.’’ In other words, she describes Marie Curie’s younger daughter, Eve (herself), as if she (as the author of this biography) were an objective narrator of the events of the book. At other points in the narrative, however, Eve Curie speaks in the first person using the pronoun ‘‘I.’’ She speaks from her own personal perspective, however, not as the little girl or young woman of the time in which the narrative takes place, but from her present-day perspective as a grown woman reflecting upon her family and her childhood.

Throughout the narrative, Eve Curie skillfully and economically intersperses passages in which her own authorial voice becomes a presence. So, for instance, after describing the childhood of Marie Curie’s daughters in the third person, in such statements as ‘‘Irene and Eve did not see anybody other than indulgent and affectionate friends,’’ she goes on several paragraphs later to make the statement, ‘‘in spite of the help my mother tried to give me, my young years were not happy ones.’’ In the hands of a less skillful writer, this intermingling of third- and first- person authorial address could have seemed clumsy or inconsistent.

Literary Qualities

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A carefully researched, factually exact biography, Madame Curie portrays the warmth of a daughter's love and respect for her mother. The author's compassionate and approving tone does not detract from her dignified and generally objective style. Curie maintains a distance from the story and frequently writes in the third person, more as a commentator than as a major character. Great attention is paid to accuracy, and no events or conversations are fictionalized. Curie uses dialogue only when it can be quoted exactly.

Written in chronological order, the book begins with Marie's childhood and concludes with her death. The chapters and sections are carefully delineated; their titles alone provide a succinct summary of her life. The book lacks a bibliography of sources and contains few footnotes, but it does include an extensive appendix listing Marie Curie's prizes, medals, and honorary titles.

Curie's highly descriptive writing provides details of clothing, room furnishings, and even sounds and smells. She offers intimate anecdotes and glimpses into family life and habits, and shows the emotions of her mother, including her sense of duty, her feelings of shame, and her experience of sorrow and loneliness. Curie also includes substantial quotations from letters and diaries, thus presenting firsthand descriptions of the characters' thoughts and feelings. Her account is not mere "eulogy"; it acknowledges and illustrates Marie's faults and idiosyncrasies—such as stubbornness, bitterness, irritability, and depression—while tactfully avoiding sensitive areas of her private life and relationships. The author provides information about Marie's professional life as well as her personal life, explaining significant scientific terms and concepts with respect and understanding for nonscientific readers.

Social Sensitivity

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Madame Curie exhibits a degree of national prejudice. Marie's childhood experiences lead her to distrust and despise Russia, a hatred she illustrates by spitting on a monument to the czar in Saxony Square. The Curies also feel a bitterness towards France, leading Eve to call that nation ungrateful and stingy. France is one of the last nations to recognize and honor Marie and Pierre, and the nation's educational hierarchy is slow to offer them important positions and adequate working facilities. Eventually, however, Marie is elected to the country's Academy of Medicine in 1922, and in the following year, Parliament unanimously votes to give her an annual pension of forty thousand francs as a "national recompense."

The biography also suggests a measure of intellectual arrogance. Marie expresses astonishment and revulsion toward stupidity, and Pierre defends his earlier bachelorhood by writing in his diary that "women of genius are rare" and therefore few women are worthy of his companionship. Eve says her father's major disadvantage is his "genius, which arouses secret, implacable bitterness in the competitions of personalities." The Curies' disdain for wealth and awards indicates that they feel above such desires, and the extent of their intellectual ambitions and their tendency towards self-sacrifice might be interpreted as obsessive.

Compare and Contrast

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1867: Marie Curie is born in Warsaw, Vistula Land (Poland).

1870: A massive migration of Poles to the United States begins in 1870, lasting into 1914, during which some three and a half million Poles emigrate to the United States.

1890: Marie Curie moves from Warsaw to Paris, France. Her father stays behind in Warsaw.

1893: The National League of Poland, an underground movement promoting Polish nationalism, is based in Warsaw.

1905: Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Polish citizens of Congress Poland rise up against Tsarist Russia. This uprising, however, is crushed.

1914–1918: The course of events of World War I lead eventually to the formation of an independent Poland, ending one hundred and twentythree years of occupation and partition. In 1918, the newly formed Polish government controls the former Congress Poland and Galicia.

1932: The Warsaw Radium Institute is inaugurated by the Curie Foundation of Paris, in accordance with a longtime dream of Marie Curie to foster scientific research in her native Warsaw.

1939–1945: During World War II, Germany and Russia invade Poland, agreeing on an approximately equal partition of the nation between German and Russian rule. Three million Polish Jews are killed in the Holocaust by Nazi Germany.

1945–1989: Poland is ruled under the communist forces of the USSR. In 1952, Poland is renamed the Polish People’s Republic.

1989: A history of Polish resistance to Soviet rule, expressed through demonstrations and worker strikes dating back to the 1950s and gaining momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, culminates in the end of Soviet rule in 1989. This accompanies the collapse of the communist rule of the USSR. In relatively free elections in 1989, the leading resistance party, Solidarity, wins a sweeping victory in Poland.

1992: Soviet troops are evacuated from Poland.

1870: In France, after Napoleon III is captured and held prisoner in a foreign war, citizens stage a non-violent uprising in which they demand the formation of a Third Republic.

1871: A communist revolution led by the Paris Commune is violently repressed. A new constitution is adopted for the Third Republic.

1894–1899: The Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish military officer is falsely accused of espionage, deeply divides French politics.

1914–1918: During World War I, French and German forces engage in trench warfare.

1939–1945: In 1939, France declares war on Germany. In 1940, France agrees to occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the Vichy government. The French Resistance movement, Free France, works to undermine German rule and the Vichy cooperation. Eve Curie is active in the French Resistance Movement.

1945–1958: The end of the war leads to the formation of a Fourth Republic. Women in France are granted the right to vote.

1959: A military coup in French colonial Algiers leads to the end of the Fourth Republic. The Fifth Republic is headed by General Charles de Gaulle.

1968–1969: A national crisis is caused in May 1968, with the occupation of the Sorbonne in Paris by student radicals, which inspires a surge of wildcat strikes among workers throughout France. De Gaulle, whose national standing never quite recovers from the incident, resigns in 1969.

1981–1995: The election of François Mitterrand ushers in a Socialist presidency in France, which lasts through two terms. In 1995, Jacques Chirac is elected president of France, ending the fourteen- year period of Socialist rule.

Media Adaptations

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Madame Curie was adapted to the screen in a 1943 production by M.G.M. studios, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Greer Garson as Marie Curie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre Curie.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman’s Life, Ballantine Books, 1988.

Quinn, Susan, Marie Curie: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Further Reading
Adams, Steve, Frontiers: Twentieth Century Physics, Taylor & Francis, 2000. Frontiers is a history of developments in the field of physics in the twentieth century.

Folsing, Albrecht, Albert Einstein: A Biography, Viking, 1997. This is a biography of Albert Einstein, the famous physicist who put forth the theory of relativity. Marie Curie was acquainted with Einstein.

Michette, Alan, and Slawka Pfauntsch, eds., X-Rays: The First Hundred Years, John Wiley & Sons, 1996. This is a history of the scientific developments and practical uses of the X-ray in the century since it was invented by Wilhelm Roentgen.

Strathern, Paul, Curie and Radioactivity, Anchor Books, 1999. This history focuses on the important research and discoveries of Marie and Pierre Curie in the study of radioactivity.

Winkler, Kathy, Radiology, Benchmark Books, 1996. This book gives an introduction to and history of, radioactive imaging techniques for medical purposes, beginning with the discovery of the X-ray in the nineteenth century, with a focus on medical and other uses of radiology in the twentieth century.

For Further Reference

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Giroud, Francoise. Marie Curie: A Life. Translated by Lydia Davis. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1986. This biography was originally published in French as Une Femme Honorable by the Librairie Artheme Fayard in 1981. The book offers a well-researched, but not academic, interpretation of Marie's life. Unique in the way she introduces Curie's friends, Giroud ties in other historical characters and happenings. She also includes an entire section not found in Madame Curie relating to the scandal over Marie's relationship to physicist Paul Langevin.

Keller, Mollie. Marie Curie. Impact Biography Series. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982. Written for young readers, this book provides an excellent analysis of Marie Curie's contributions and explains scientific and political details. Keller also attempts to examine Curie's personal qualities, asking, "What would make her act that way?" The book is well indexed and contains full-page photographs.

Reid, Robert. Marie Curie. New York: Dutton, 1974. This biography was one of the first to include documented information concerning Curie's relationship to British physicist Ernest Rutherford and Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann.

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