Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
Personal and Professional Collaboration
Although made famous by her scientific achievements, Marie Curie has also captured imaginations throughout the world for the unique relationship she shared with her husband, Pierre Curie. Eve Curie’s biography elaborates upon their ‘‘unique happiness’’ in a marriage characterized by deep mutual affection and the perfect union of two great minds. She captures the essence of their relationship in a passage describing ‘‘one of the finest bonds that ever united man and woman’’:
Two hearts beat together, two bodies were united, and two minds of genius learned to think together. Marie could have married no other than this great physicist, than this wise and noble man. Pierre could have married no woman other than the fair, tender Polish girl . . . for she was a friend and a wife, a lover and a scientist.
Marie and Pierre were initially introduced on a professional basis, and their personal relationship developed in the context of their scientific interests. They shared a rigorous and exhausting work schedule, motivated by their passion for science and a genuine love of their object of inquiry. Eve Curie states that Marie’s marriage to Pierre fused ‘‘into one single fervor her love of science and her love for a man.’’ Of their scientific collaboration, she observes, ‘‘in the fusion of their two efforts, in this superior alliance of man and woman, the exchange was equal.’’ This perfect union came into the international spotlight when, in 1903, they shared the Nobel Prize for physics (along with Henri Becquerel). Eve Curie emphasizes the internal devastation Marie underwent at the death of her beloved husband in 1906. While she went on with her work for over thirty years, during which she maintained her love of it and experienced great success, she remained a deeply lonely woman. The romance and tragedy of this relationship between two brilliant scientists easily made for a popular film adaptation of Madame Curie.
The Scientific Spirit
The story of Marie Curie is a story of great advances in the study of radiation. Her first great success was the isolation of polonium and radium from pitchblende, four years of diligence culminating in the completion of her doctoral thesis and the winning of the Nobel Prize. Curie’s work had practical applications when it was soon discovered that radiation could be used to treat cancer and other malignant tumors. The publication of this discovery inspired many other scientists throughout the world to build upon her work.
In addition to her own continuing experimentation, Marie Curie was a great teacher, influencing many aspiring scientists through her professorial post. Her influence was instrumental in opening laboratory facilities to other researchers throughout the world, such as the Warsaw Radium Institute and her own Radium Institute in Paris. As a mother, she spawned another Nobel Prize-winning scientist, her elder daughter Irene, who, with her husband Frédéric Joliot, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935 for their discovery that radiation could be artificially produced.
Marie Curie shared with her husband a strong belief in the purity, or ‘‘spirit,’’ of scientific inquiry. She and Pierre consistently turned down opportunities to profit from their work because they felt it was not in the interests of advancing science. For instance, the discovery of a medical use for radium quickly gave it a market value, and the Curies had the opportunity to patent their process for isolating radium, thereby profiting immensely from an international industry that was poised to take flight. Yet, they mutually agreed that to patent their scientific discovery, rather than openly publish the information, as was the custom in their field of inquiry, ‘‘would be contrary to the scientific spirit.’’
Celebrity and Humility
Eve Curie emphasizes throughout this biography the sincere humility maintained by the worldfamous scientist. She says of Marie Curie, ‘‘She did not know how to be famous.’’ Marie and Pierre hated the media attention that they attracted from winning the Nobel Prize in 1903. The unique husband- wife collaboration team was an endless source of curiosity to an international media audience that had little or no interest in science itself.
Marie only consented to travel and make public appearances when she thought that her presence could facilitate further funding of scientific research. For instance, she made a tour of the United States only when offered the gift of a precious quantity of radium necessary to her research. Otherwise, she was nervous and uncomfortable before crowds and audiences and completely uninterested in her own celebrity or the opportunity it brought to meet famous people outside of the field of science.
Marie Curie, although primarily a scientist, had a strong sense of humanism and engaged in humanitarian efforts during several periods of her life. As a young adult in Poland she took it upon herself to teach reading and writing to poor women and children without monetary compensation, although she herself was poor. During World War I, she was tireless in her voluntary mission of providing over two hundred army hospitals with X-ray equipment, which greatly facilitated the surgeons’ efforts to remove shrapnel from the bodies of wounded soldiers. She also outfitted twenty cars with mobile Xray machines that could be brought to the troops in remote battle zones. This spirit of humanism was clearly passed on to her daughter Eve, who later held a post as executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund in Greece.
Throughout this biography, Eve Curie captures the strong family bonds that characterized Marie’s family of origin in Poland, Pierre’s family of origin in France, and the extended family created by their union.
While a teenager and young adult, Marie had a strong sense of love and duty toward her father, a financially devastated widower. At the age of nineM teen, she diligently worked as a governess in order to support her older sister Bronya’s education in medical school in Paris. The effort was returned when Bronya brought Marie to Paris, where she stayed with her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she also grew close.
Pierre’s family was also closely knit. Early on, he and his brother Jacques collaborated in scientific research. When his mother died, his father, Dr. Curie, came to live with Marie and Pierre, where he became a caregiver of their children, with whom he formed strong bonds. Even after Pierre died, Dr. Curie stayed on with Marie and her two daughters until his death. As a teenager, Irene quickly became Marie’s lab assistant, working closely with her mother for many years, during which she was granted an official post under Marie at the Radium Institute. This tightly knit world of family and work was made stronger when Irene married one of Marie’s other lab assistants. The new couple became collaborators in the spirit of Marie and Pierre, even sharing a Nobel Prize for the results of their research. Eve Curie, while sharing neither the passion for science nor the austere sensibilities of her parents and sister, nonetheless sincerely speaks of her family in warm, glowing terms.
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