The Inner World of Marie Curie.
By Barbara Goldsmith. Norton. 320 pp. $23.95
Marie Curie’s family donated her workbooks, diaries, journals, and other papers to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris at the end of the 20th century. In what may have been a cataloging first, the library initially had to sort the collection into three groups based on level of radioactivity.
Barbara Goldsmith’s new biography uses these literally and figuratively hot resources (and others) to take a fresh look at the past century’s most famous woman scientist. Goldsmith, the author of Little Gloria . . . Happy At Last (1980) and other books, portrays Marie Curie (1867–1934) as a blend of brilliance, resolve, passion (for work and at least three men), recurring depression, obsession (this is not the first biography of Curie to include that trait in its title), achievement, and pragmatism.
Most scientists make only incremental contributions to the corpus of scientific knowledge. Curie’s accomplishments were numerous, monumental, and, like the elements she discovered, radiant. She won two Nobel Prizes—one in 1903 with her husband, Pierre, and another colleague, and a second, solo prize in 1911—and her scientific heirs, her daughter and son-in-law, won their own Nobel in 1935.
Of course, Curie couldn’t have foreseen that the papers documenting her life would intimidate archivists many decades after her death. Her discoveries were anti-ecclesiastical. In 1898, she found something entirely new under the sun, the highly radioactive element radium. The mysterious, invisible, silent substance did, though, share one important property with the sun itself: It emitted energetic rays (hence the name Curie gave it) that could activate and burn living cells. Although Curie called radium “my child,” it was an ungrateful offspring, contaminating not just her papers but her body—she died at 67 of radiation poisoning.
Curie understood that radium, like the sun, could have both therapeutic and destructive uses. Her interest resided exclusively in the salubrious applications. For example, she designed mobile x-ray units during World War I, when other chemists and physicists were adapting the new chemical elements to novel weaponry. Curie and her daughter drove “Les Petites Curies” to hospitals at the front, x-rayed wounded soldiers, and made calculations to help surgeons locate shrapnel and bullets in tissue.
Curie plumbed the unseen and the unknown. Outside the laboratory, she frequented séances in hopes of communicating with Pierre, who had been knocked down, crushed, and killed in 1906 by a horse and dray. Inside the laboratory, her ghostly lures were radium and another of her discoveries, polonium (named for Poland, her homeland). Curie extracted both elements from pitchblende—a dark, complex mineral—by fractionation, a tedious separation process. Pitchblende could be a symbol for Curie’s dark and complex life: Embedded in both were elements of extraordinary brilliance and intensity. Disjunctions between the ethereal world of the spiritualist and the data-bound world of the scientist seem not to have troubled Curie. Or perhaps her brain simply fractionated them.
What did plague and sometimes hinder her were relentless prejudices—against women in the world of science, against women generally in the wider society, against immigrants, against people battling depression. Goldsmith’s account of the persistent injustices Curie encountered has a contemporary ring. Today as then, social and political factors block women from fully participating in certain areas of science. How sad that these senseless barriers to human betterment and equity seem as enduring as the sun.
—Ruth Levy Guyer