Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2008

Obsessive Genius, The Inner World of Marie Curie, by Barbara Goldsmith

marie-curieThis was a most interesting book.  Like everyone else of  my generation I learned at school about Marie Curie as the discoverer of radioactivity , and I was impressed by the fact that in 1903 she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Science, (jointly with her husband), going on to win it again in her own right in 1911 for her discovery of polonium and radium.   This was at a time when women were denied opportunity to vote, to study and to attend university, and Curie made her remarkable discoveries after marriage and having children.  She died, aged 67 in 1934, refusing to believe that years of exposure to radioactivity in the laboratory had contributed to her death…

This book explores the woman behind the scant lines in the school text-book, revealing that Curie was Polish, not French, and that she suffered from depressive episodes throughout her life.  Until her early death, her mother was emotionally and physically distant because she had TB, and her schoolteacher father drove her insistently to achieve academically at school.  Despite the prohibition on women studying at Warsaw University, Marie Curie attended a clandestine academy of higher education for women while she worked as a governess to raise enough money to pay for her sister and herself to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.  There was a passionate attachment to a young man whose family rejected her because she was of the wrong social class, but at 23 she set off for Paris to join 22 other women enrolled in the School of Sciences. 

She was clearly a genius, but her success against all odds was equally due to her obsessive efforts.  Throughout her career she had to struggle for funds for her research, to make do with a shabby laboratory in a shed, to put up with patronising and jealous rivals, and to ignore men who credited her much-loved French husband, Pierre, with her achievements.  She drove herself relentlessly with long hours at the laboratory, compromising her health and family life in pursuit of her ambition.

The explanations of complex scientific ideas are easy to understand, and Goldsmith portrays Professor Curie as a determined woman who remained true to her ideals throughout her life.  She was gravely concerned about the misuse of radioactive materials (as well she might be) and – aided by her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, who also went on to win a Nobel Prize in Science – spent the war years providing mobile X-ray units for the troops in the trenches.  Her grand-daughter, Helene Langevin-Joliot, continued this scientific dynasty through further work in developing peaceful purposes for atomic power by helping to create the French a nuclear power industry.

Marie Curie was no saint, however, and she was as distant with her daughters as her own mother had been with her.  She was unimpressed by Eva’s interest in fashion and fun, and thoughtless about Irene’s psychological needs.  When Pierre died prematurely, due to radiation damage, she was distraught – even hoping to communicate with him through spiritualism. (This is not as odd as it may seem for a scientist…Goldsmith makes the point that discoveries in nuclear physics at the time were all about powerful invisible phenomena  (electricity, magnetism, radio waves, X-rays and radioactivity) and so telepathy was thought to be a possibility too.)  Irene’s plaintive letters to her mother give some indication of the emotional deprivation the girl suffered, and although it’s not explicit, it seems as if Irene’s determination to achieve in the same field was in part fuelled by a desire to win her mother’s approval.

This is a well-researched and very readable account of the life of one of the great women of history.

Update July 28, 2010

Barbara Goldsmith is a most interesting person too.  See the entry in Wikipedia!


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