By RONALD BACHMAN
The European Division hosted an evening program on May 4, featuring Susan Quinn, author of Marie Curie, A Life, to mark the centenary of the discovery of radium and polonium. The biography has been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Fawcett Book Prize.
Unlike previous Curie scholars, Ms. Quinn emphasizes Curie's formative years in Poland. Although her family was not wealthy, both parents were well educated and instilled in their children a love of learning and a deep patriotism. "Marie was faithful to her national memory and the Polish cause throughout her life," she said.
Curie worked several years as a governess to finance her older sister's studies at the Sorbonne. In 1891 it was her turn to pursue a university degree in Paris, where she defied convention by living alone. Ms. Quinn read from Curie's diary: "It was a life which gave me a very precious sense of liberty and independence." One of two women in a graduating class of several thousand, Curie ranked first in physics.
Although she returned to Poland, intending to work there and care for her father, she was persuaded by fellow scientist Pierre Curie to return to Paris. Pierre wrote, "It would be a beautiful thing if we could spend our lives near each other. Hypnotized by our dreams -- your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream."
Pierre and Marie married and began their historic collaboration on the nature of radioactivity at a small institute out of the mainstream of the scientific establishment. "Marie had an independence she might not have had at the Sorbonne, where she probably would have been expected to elaborate some superior's work," Ms. Quinn suggested. By July 1903, they had isolated a new element, and they wrote, "We propose to call it polonium after the name of the country of origin of one of us." Soon they had isolated another new element, radium. "It is not an exaggeration to say that this couple working in their makeshift laboratory had changed the face of the world," Ms. Quinn said. Their discoveries brought the Curies international fame with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1903.
Following Pierre's death in 1906, Marie's status changed again. "Now she was a celebrated woman of accomplishment without a husband to make the celebrity acceptable," Ms. Quinn said. Her application for membership in the Academy of Sciences in 1910 was rejected. "There can be little doubt she was refused because she was a woman," she said.
After this humiliation, Marie became romantically involved with a married old friend, Paul Langevin. Just as the scandal was breaking Marie received her second Nobel in 1911. Despite public outrage and the objections of some members of the Swedish Academy, Marie traveled to Stockholm to receive the award, after which she collapsed with a serious illness. Ms. Quinn examined this usually overlooked chapter of Marie's life for two reasons: "It illustrates the extreme peril of being a highly visible successful woman in the early 20th century, and it shows Marie in her bravest hour."
The lecture was organized in cooperation with the Embassy of Poland as part of the celebration of Polish Constitution Day. Following the lecture, Ambassador Jerzy Kozminski hosted a reception featuring traditional Polish dishes.
Mr. Bachman is the Polish specialist in the European Division.