The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science

The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science

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by Denis Brian

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Awarded a combined total of six Nobel Prizes, the celebrated Curie family's collective work and momentous achievements alone make their lives fascinating. But the lesser-known side of their story includes the controversy, the drama, the scandal, and the tragedy that surrounded them. Now, the first full-scale biography of the Curies provides a well-rounded, honest look


Awarded a combined total of six Nobel Prizes, the celebrated Curie family's collective work and momentous achievements alone make their lives fascinating. But the lesser-known side of their story includes the controversy, the drama, the scandal, and the tragedy that surrounded them. Now, the first full-scale biography of the Curies provides a well-rounded, honest look at both the private and professional lives of the world's most gifted scientific family.

Drawing upon years of research, interviews, and correspondence with friends, family, and associates of the Curies, biographer Denis Brian provides intriguing insights into the entire Curie clan, including Pierre Curie's father and grandfather, both gifted doctors who made their own considerable contributions in the field of science.

You'll learn how the brilliant though personally unambitious Pierre dealt with his fear of failure on the heels of his first major scientific breakthrough; why the deeply patriotic, driven, and highly intelligent Marie worked for years as a governess; and how the Nobel Prize money alleviated Marie and Pierre's financial worries but created a new problem—the shattering of the couple's privacy.

You'll also read about the scandal that erupted over Marie's affair with one of Pierre's students and how it nearly drove her to commit suicide, and about reports that son-in-law and lifelong pacifist Frederic Joliot-Curie helped the Soviet Union build its atom bomb. You'll discover why daughter Eve was the only family member to eschew a life of science—and why daughter Irène followed in her mother's footsteps, but feared always living in her mother's shadow.

The Curies also unravels the mysteries surrounding this intensely private family, including Pierre's disdain for public recognition and how it stymied his professional advancement; the couple's decision not to benefit financially from their discovery of radium; the Machiavellian plot devised to exclude Marie from being nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1903; the illnesses that plagued Pierre, Marie, and Irène as a result of their research; and Marie's ongoing battle with France's chauvinistic science community.

Passionate, enlightening, and engaging, The Curies reveals a family as deeply devoted to their work as they were to each other, risking their lives to improve the lives of countless others.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Although there have been numerous biographies of Pierre and Marie Curie, Brian (Einstein: A Life) breaks with tradition by following two generations of the family to 2004, which finds Eve Curie, the younger daughter of Marie and Pierre, still living. His work also differs from earlier ones in that it references those previous studies-e.g., Eve's own biography of her mother, Rosalynd Pflaum's Grand Obsession, and Barbara Goldsmith's Obsessive Genius-both at points of agreement and disagreement. Taking a chronological viewpoint, Brian traces the family's personal and political lives with clear and comprehensive coverage of the various members' scientific research. A large portion of the book's last third focuses on daughter Irene and her husband Frederick Joliot, who joined the Communist Party during World War II, and Eve, who traveled around the world as a war correspondent. Brian pays considerable attention to the many problems that Marie and Irene encountered as females in the male world of physics research. Like her mother, Irene won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and died of leukemia, attributed to her work with radioactive materials. For most biography and science history collections.-Hilary Burton, formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Brian, author of works on Einstein and Pulitzer, fills a significant gap in the Curie bookshelf with this engaging book that follows five generations of the Sklodowska-Curie-Joliot family. Beginning before Marie Sklodowska and Pierre Curie meet, Brian details their courtship and 11-year marriage, bringing the reader to the Curie dinner table and into the converted garden shed (replete with a leaking roof) where the Curies' work on polonium and radium transformed physics and won them two Nobel prizes. After Pierre's early death, Marie soldiered on for their children, Irene and Eve, and for their work, organizing X-ray equipment distribution during World War I and training numerous women to work at the Radium Institute. Irene, a nurse and wartime ambulance driver, began work in the laboratory with her mother after the war, later joining fellow assistant Frederic Joliot in a marital and career partnership similar to that of her parents'. Their joint Nobel came in 1935, a year after Marie's death. Eve, a journalist, wrote a best-selling biography of her mother and, during WWII, became a battlefield reporter. The fifth generation of this extraordinary family, Helene and Pierre Joliot-Curie, became eminent scientists, and the scientific tradition continues into the sixth generation. Brian's book illuminates 100 years of scientific history in its political and social contexts through the lives of this remarkable family. Extremely well-done and highly recommended. 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
  From Booklist
*Starred Review* Marie Curie is the only Nobel Prize winner who was ever discouraged by the awards committee from attending the ceremony. Both the revolutionary science and the public scandal that filled the life of Marie Curie receive illuminating scrutiny from Brian, a seasoned biographer of Nobel laureates. And in Marie Curie, Brian recognizes not an isolated genius but rather the stellar center of a fascinating constellation. By her side for years of dangerous research stood Pierre Curie, who shared with his wife a Nobel Prize for exploring the physics of radioactivity but who then perished beneath the wheels of a carriage, leaving his bereaved spouse to carry on without him. In his account of Marie's later life, Brian details the rare perseverance that put radium and polonium in the chemistry books. But he also highlights the personal heedlessness that exposed her to public censure for a romantic entanglement with a married colleague who ended up fighting a duel for her sake. ?And in the lives of Marie's two daughters, Brian again limns the distinctive Curie conjunction of genius and recklessness. One daughter recapitulated her mother's career by winning a Nobel Prize with her husband, but that husband renewed the family's dubious legacy of controversy through his aggressively Communist politics. The second daughter, Eve, won plaudits for her brilliant biography of her mother, Madame Curie (1937). This composite life study belongs on the same shelf as that acclaimed work. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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The Curies

By Denis Brian

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-27391-0

Chapter One

Pierre Curie


City workers in Paris removed a tree obscuring a view of Victor Hugo's home, placed baskets of flowers in front of it, decked the street with flags, and sanded it to prepare for a million marching feet. It was the writer's eightieth birthday in February 1881. Members of guilds carrying their banners gathered at the Arc de Triomphe before joining the enormous parade. The entire Sorbonne turned out, faculty and students. And each time the white-haired author appeared at his window he was greeted with a roar of approval.

In May of that same year, scientist and fellow Parisian Louis Pasteur achieved immortality and changed the course of medical history with a daring experiment on fifty sheep infected with the deadly anthrax. His successful work led to the birth of the sciences of immunology and bacteriology, whose advances have saved the lives of millions. Experiments were also under way in the Parisian art world. Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir, among others, tried to capture the effect of light on their subjects with short brush strokes and bright colors. Although critics dismissed their efforts as childish or myopic impressions of reality, the small band of artists pressed on to make the slur "impressionist" an accolade. No musician caused more of a stir in Paris at the time than Camille Saint-Saens, a short, ill-tempered dandy who spoke with a lisp and looked like a parrot. He composed operas, concertos, and symphonies, conducted orchestras, and gave piano and organ concerts. In his spare time he penned plays and poetry, and also studied astronomy, archaeology, and the occult.

Living in the same city as Hugo, Pasteur, Renoir, Monet, and Saint-Saens was a twenty-two-year-old physicist at the start of his career. Though Pierre Curie's achievements would eventually rival those of his remarkable compatriots in his own field, at that time he wondered if he could keep his modest job as a lab assistant. It seemed unlikely, judging by an entry in his diary. And, if it was a clue to his character, he was certainly in the wrong profession. He sounded more like a poet in distress heading for a breakdown than an experimental scientist on the way up. "What shall I become?" he wrote. "Very rarely have I (complete) command of myself; ordinarily a part of me sleeps. My poor spirit, are you then so weak that you cannot control my body? Oh, my thoughts, you count indeed for very little! It seems to me that my mind gets clumsier every day. Before, I flung myself into scientific or other [diversions]; today they don't hold my interest. And I have so many, many things to do! Is my poor mind then so feeble that it cannot act upon my body? And Pride, Ambition-couldn't they at least propel me, or will they let me live like this? I should have the greatest confidence in the power of my imagination to pull myself out of this rut, but I greatly fear that my imagination is dead."

In her brief biography of Pierre, his widow, Marie, tried to explain this diary entry. She believed that when not fully engaged in scientific research he felt himself incomplete and became depressed. It was during such a time, she implied, that he made the diary entry. Yet his devastating self-analysis was recorded soon after he and his brother, Jacques, had made a scientific breakthrough. They had discovered that pressure on certain crystals produced electricity-later known as piezoelectricity. And their modus operandi had been reported by Jacques's teacher Charles Friedel at an Academy of Sciences meeting on August 2, 1880. Meanwhile the brothers were pursuing further research in piezoelectricity, which resulted in the publication of eight more papers on the subject. Yet it was during this time, while fully engaged in his work, that Pierre had expressed his fear of failure.

What a glaring contrast in confidence and spirit to both his father and his grandfather. His grandfather, Dr. Paul Francois Curie, had been a surgeon in the Military Hospital of Paris until he realized that conventional medicine killed as many as it cured-prompting him to leave France for England to pioneer a daring new system of healing, called homeopathy, in a London hospital. Homeopathy was a natural pharmaceutical science that made use of plants and minerals to stimulate the sick person's natural defenses. He gave his patients small doses of a medicine that in large doses would cause symptoms similar to those they were experiencing. Dr. Curie taught an Irishman, Joseph Kidd, to use the same method of healing. Kidd returned to Ireland during the potato famine of 1847 to give homeopathic treatment to those suffering from the fever and dysentery associated with starvation. "During 676 days he treated 111 cases with 108 cured, 1 dismissed, and 2 deaths-a mortality rate of 1.8% compared to the 13.8% mortality rate in the local hospital." Later, for several years Kidd was British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli's doctor.

A fervent practitioner, Dr. Paul Curie dedicated his book Practice of Homeopathy to fellow physicians and appealed to their scientific integrity to test the new treatment.

Pierre apparently had inherited none of his grandfather's enterprise, self-confidence, and commitment, nor did he inherit any of his father's drive and audacity. His quick-tempered, somewhat autocratic father, Eugene, was a man of action, with a scar to show for it. A bullet had shattered his jaw when, as a medical student at the Hopital de la Pitie in Paris, during France's revolution of 1848, he took care of wounded rebels. He eagerly supported this successful insurrection against King Louis-Philippe, whose government of mostly noblemen had ignored the appalling conditions of the poor. The new republican government gave Eugene a medal for his honorable and courageous conduct. He again showed his mettle as a young doctor when a cholera epidemic broke out in Paris. Other doctors fled in panic, but Curie risked his life to go to the dreaded area and treat the victims.

His wife, Sophie Claire Depouilly, five years his junior, was the daughter of a once wealthy cloth manufacturer in Puteaux. When she was a teenager her father lost his fortune in a financial crisis brought on by the 1848 revolution. But she remained cheerful and optimistic, a loving wife and mother.

The Curies already had a three-year-old son, Jacques, when Pierre was born in Paris on May 15, 1859. Their house on the rue Cuvier overlooked the Jardin des Plantes, a sixty-acre complex of botanical gardens, a zoo, and the National Museum of Natural History, where for a time Dr. Curie worked in the laboratories. Jacques welcomed the newcomer to the family-and the brothers would become close, affectionate friends for life.

Convinced that Pierre was too sensitive and introspective for the rigid, highly structured atmosphere of a French classroom, his parents, and later his brother, taught him at home. Throughout the elementary and high school years they gave him a grounding in biology, chemistry, physics, and geometry. He made up for his lack of schooling in literature and history by reading many of the books in his father's large library. In her biography of her husband, Marie Curie explained why it would have been hopeless to send Pierre away to school: he could only learn a subject thoroughly by intense concentration, which he found impossible in a disturbing environment. "It is clear," she wrote, "that a mind of this kind can hold great future possibilities. But it is no less clear that no system of education can be especially provided by the public school for persons of this intellectual type. If, then, Pierre's earliest instruction was irregular and incomplete, it had the advantage of [freeing his mind from] dogmas, prejudices or preconceived ideas. And he was always grateful to his parents for this liberal attitude." Pierre called himself a slow thinker. Years later, Marie would be more generous. She believed that "Pierre's intellectual capacities were not those that would permit the rapid assimilation of a prescribed course of studies. His dreamer's spirit would not submit itself to the ordering of the intellectual effort imposed by the school." In other words, he would resist being told what to do and when to do it.

When Pierre was twelve, his father again supported the workers, this time in the uprising at the end of the Franco-German War (1870-1871), which Napoleon III had launched to boost his fading popularity. During the siege of Paris by the Germans, the desperate French government had reluctantly allowed Parisians to form a national guard to defend their surrounded city-reluctantly, because the government justifiably feared the independent spirit of Parisians. In February 1871 the French army, led by corrupt and inefficient officers, surrendered to German troops-who then planned what would have been to most Parisians a humiliating triumphant march down the Champs-Elysees. News of the proposed march strengthened the will of the national guard. They refused to surrender and resolved to discourage the march with some two hundred cannon. But, having made peace with the Germans, the French government now regarded its own national guard as the enemy and set out to disarm them. Government troops sent to Paris to retrieve the cannon-and forestall a revolution-were driven off by the guards, who were joined by an enraged crowd that killed two generals.

The government retreated to Versailles, while many affluent residents fled to the country and the ailing emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenie, sought sanctuary in England. The rebels then took over most of Paris, erecting barricades in the main streets in anticipation of a government counterattack. At the Hotel de Ville on March 28, 1871, they proclaimed a revolutionary republican government known as the Paris Commune. During its brief regime, its supporters, Communards, canceled rents for the period of the fighting, created unemployment exchanges, allowed workers to reopen and run all factories deserted by their owners, and established day nurseries near the factories. Men who had pawned their tools to avoid starvation during the siege-when they had been reduced to eating rats-were allowed to retrieve their tools without charge. The rebels also instituted free education for all, including women.

Two months later government troops entered the city to take it back, and began a bloodbath unique in French history. In a week of savage fighting they butchered at least 30,000 Parisians and possibly as many as 100,000 for a loss of only 750 soldiers. They executed men, women, and children in groups of fifty or one hundred in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Champ de Mars, and the Parc Monceau, and burned some six hundred Communards trapped in the Hotel de Ville. They massacred rebels manning the street barricades and buried some alive in a ditch. The rebels also committed atrocities, shooting sixty-seven hostages, including the archbishop of Paris. They demolished entire streets of houses and torched the Louvre, the Palais de Justice, and the royal residence, the Tuileries Palace.

Although Pierre's father had not joined in the fighting, his heart was with the rebels. He converted the family apartment-they were now living on place de la Visitation-into an emergency hospital and sent his sons, Jacques, now sixteen, and Pierre, twelve, into the streets to bring back the most seriously wounded for him to treat. Despite the horrors the boys witnessed and the deadly risk they took by helping the rebels, for the next two years after the defeat of the Communards the Curies continued to live in a city under martial law and from which thousands were shipped to penal colonies, including Devil's Island. Some who had supported the revolt became informers to save their own lives. Archibald Forbes, a London Daily News correspondent, saw such turncoats in action. "Yesterday," he reported, Parisians "had cried, 'Vive la Commune.' Today they rubbed their hands with livid currish joy to have it in their power to denounce a Communist and reveal his hiding place. They have found him, a tall, pale hatless man with something not ignoble in his carriage. The crowd yells-"Shoot him; shoot him!' An arm goes in the air, and there is a stick in the fist. The stick falls on the head of the man in black. Men club their rifles, and bring them down on that head, or slash them in splinters in their lust for murder. A certain British impulse prompts me to run forward. But it is useless. They are firing into the flaccid carcass now. His brains spurt on my foot and splash into the gutter, whither the carrion is bodily chucked, presently to be trodden on and rolled on by the feet of multitudes and wheels of gun carriages."

Even if twelve-year-old Pierre Curie had never witnessed such killings in the streets, knowledge of them must have affected the ultrasensitive youngster. It explains in part why, in 1883, Dr. Curie moved with his family to Fontenay-aux-roses, and finally, about two kilometers away, to a small, old house on the rue des Sablons in Sceaux, a peaceful, leafy spot southeast of Paris, a paradise for bird lovers, with a range of ponds several miles long. But the move to the country did not improve Dr. Curie's finances. As an outspoken radical he could hardly expect to attract wealthy patients even had he wished to, which is doubtful. Instead, he held poorly paid jobs, first as a medical inspector for an organization protecting children and later as a school doctor. Fortunately, none of his family had expensive tastes. His sons' idea of a great vacation was to spend entire days at nearby Draveil on the Seine, where they walked for hours along the riverbank, cooling off with a dip in the river. At home they explored the country outside Paris. Sometimes Pierre went alone, becoming so enthralled by his surroundings that he lost all sense of time and arrived home late at night exhilarated but physically exhausted.

When Pierre was fourteen, his father realized that he was exceptional at math, especially spatial geometry, and hired Professor Albert Bazille to teach him advanced mathematics. Bazille inspired him to such intense effort that despite his early casual home schooling, he matriculated at the prestigious Sorbonne at sixteen. There, in just two years, he got a degree in physics. Then, at eighteen, because his financial help was needed at home, instead of pursuing a doctorate, he began to work as a physics lab assistant at the Sorbonne. It didn't hurt that his brother, Jacques, was already employed as an assistant in the mineralogy department. As a pacifist, having seen the horrors of war, Pierre avoided military service, otherwise mandatory for eighteen-year-old Frenchmen, by agreeing to spend ten years working in public education-something he had already started to do as a lab assistant.

At this time he was deeply in love with a young woman he had known since childhood, but he was reticent, even guarded, about their relationship. In fact her identity has never been revealed. She may have become the mistress he obliquely referred to in his diary when he noted that the least distraction could seriously disturb him-such as when his mother kissed him. Though, strangely, he wrote that the kiss of a mistress was less "dangerous, because [it] can answer a purely physical need." Dangerous? Perhaps a less sensitive and introspective young scientist would have lightheartedly remarked that he welcomed his mistress's kisses more than his mother's. But to the easily distracted Pierre, apparently neither was welcome when he was engrossed in scientific speculation.

He explained this "weakness" in his diary, writing that to prevent his mind from flying away "on every wind that blows, yielding to the slightest breath it encounters," everything had to be motionless around him, or else, to overcome his surroundings, his mind had to be like "a humming top, the movement itself making me insensible to what is happening around me." He complained that his mother never seemed to understand this, adding, "Whenever, rotating slowly, I attempt to speed up [my mind], the merest nothing-a word, a story, a newspaper, a visit-stops me from becoming a gyroscope or top, and can postpone or forever delay the time when, with enough speed I might be able to concentrate despite my surroundings."

One welcome distraction was reading novels, and he was especially taken with Emile Zola's recent assertion in The Experimental Novel that novelists should adopt a scientific approach and become biologists of society. Zola had tried this by spending a few days in Lourdes on a fact-finding mission. He incorporated the facts and his impressions in a novel, Lourdes. In it he concluded that miracles, as such, did not exist, but that many people needed to believe in them-a rationalist view Pierre shared.

Yet it seemed something of a miracle that despite distractions and his despondency Pierre was able to marshal his "flying thoughts" to produce his first original work, in partnership with lab director Professor Paul Desains. They found a new, simple, and effective way to measure the wavelengths of heat waves, using a metallic wire grating and a thermoelectric element.


Excerpted from The Curies by Denis Brian Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

DENIS BRIAN is the author of Einstein: A Life and Pulitzer: A Life, both published by Wiley. His other books include The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him and Genius Talk: Conversations with Nobel Scientists and Other Luminaries.

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