Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn - review by Wendy Holden

Wendy Holden

Managed to Keep her Feet on the Ground

Marie Curie: A Life


Heinemann 320pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

‘If the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for.’ Charles to Camilla? John Major to Jonathan Aitken? Bill to Hillary (or vice versa)? Well, Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, actually.

Marie Curie, great scientist, discoverer of radium and glowing midwife at the birth of nuclear physics, was also one of the first to discover tabloid meltdown. At the same time that she received her second Nobel prize and was on the verge of being the first woman ever to enter the French Academy of Sciences, Marie Curie was being dragged through the mud by a Parisian popular press determined to portray her as a marriage-breaker and a threat to the sanctity of the French home. That a woman who lived her entire life among test tubes, alembics and measuring instruments should ever have come to this is only one of the ironies of Curie’s wildly eventful life, as presented in this marvellous, sympathetic and exhaustively researched book.

As children, the young Marie and her siblings lost their mother and elder sisters, and were brought up by their father, a school-teacher to whom each moment was a pedagogical opportunity. Wladyslaw Sklodowski would use the school labs at night to teach his children biology. Watching the sun go down was an excuse to explain the movement of the planets. After Marie left home he would work out maths problem with her by mail. To relax, he lined the family up for physical jerks or translated David Copperfield into Polish. Even the family dog was called Lancet.

Money was lacking to develop the scientific careers that Marie and her sister Bronia felt, even then, to be their vocation. The sisters Sklodowska became governesses after leaving school, a situation they hated but managed to turn to their own advantage. In pursuit of further education, Bronia and Marie worked as a relay team. Bronia went to study in Paris while her sister, working as a governess, supported her and looked after their father. Once Bronia had a profession, Marie followed.

Once at the Sorbonne, Marie, predictably enough, became the most outstanding student of her year. While – excruciatingly aptly – researching a project on magnetism with him, she fell in love with and married the brilliant Pierre Curie. After the wedding in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, guests played boules in the meadow (one imagines all those scientists getting out their instruments to measure imagined trajectories and disputed distances), and then the happy couple went off into the sunset, Marie in her bloomers, Pierre in his boater, on their brand-new wedding present: state-of-the-art ‘safety’ bicycles. The Curies were enthusiastic cyclists – the summer after their wedding they cycled round the volcanic mountain ranges of the Auvergne, often at night. Eight months into her first pregnancy, Marie accompanied Pierre on a cycling tour of Brittany. The couple were devoted. Pierre, said Marie, was ‘the best husband one could dream of. I could never have imagined finding one like him, he is the gift of heaven and the more we live together the more we love each other.’ The perfect partnership in the lab as in life, the Curies assisted each other in making some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the age with their experiments in radioactivity (rivetingly related here, even to non-scientists) and the discovery of radium.

Marie Curie discovered radium and the world discovered her. By 1905, scarcely a person in the civilised world was unfamiliar with the name of the element, or that of its finder. Fashionable hostesses provided lectures about it with afternoon tea, to which guests turned up sporting the latest accessory – a scientific measuring instrument. A revue, mind-bogglingly entitled Medusa’s Radium swept Montmartre, while San Francisco thrilled to ‘fancy unison movements by invisible girls, tripping about in a darkened theatre, lit only by the glowing spots painted in chemical mixture upon their costumes’. In New York, a musical comedy featuring radium dances called itself Piff!Paff!!Pouf!!! ‘The world’, commented George Bernard Shaw, ‘has run raving mad on the subject of radium, which has excited our credulity precisely as the apparitions at Lourdes excited the credulity of Roman Catholics.’ Irritated beyond measure by all the attention, the Curies managed to keep their feet on the ground to the extent of using the Nobel money to hire a lab assistant, paper a room of their flat and install a modern bath.

Then the bomb fell. The strange whim that made Pierre Curie make the profoundly unscientific decision to step out into the street without looking and get killed by a car started a chain of events every bit as spectacular and dangerous as the Curies’ work on radioactivity. From here on, the life of one of the world’s greatest scientists reads like a penny-dreadful. Marie, the famous, brilliant scientist steeped in grief, tries to forget her anguish. She provides a sympathetic ear for a friend, Paul Langevin, unhappily married to Jeanne, a potent mix of mad jealousy, extreme violence and close family ties to the editor of a scurrilous Paris scandal sheet. Marie and Langevin fall in love. Jeanne breaks into their secret meeting place. They have left love letters in a drawer. The letters appear in the scandal sheet.

For the rest of her life, despite achieving through her work honour and fame all over the world, Marie Curie never really got over the trauma and was never robust again. She died in 1934 after a long illness, one of whose causes was undoubtedly radiation poisoning (many of the personal documents Quinn required for research had to be decontaminated). ‘In criminal hands’, Pierre Curie had said, accepting the Nobel prize in 1903, ‘radium could become very dangerous and here one can ask if humanity is at an advantage of knowing nature’s secrets. Powerful explosives have allowed men to do admirable work. They are also a terrible means of destruction in the hands of great criminals.’ Marie’s letters, in the hands of Jeanne, were more than dynamite, and humanity, in the shape of the chattering classes of Paris, felt it had every right to drag one of the greatest scientists of all time through the dirt. Eight decades before the Sun in splendour, it is the destructive power of hype and the tabloids, rather than of nuclear physics, that really strikes the reader of this remarkable book.

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