Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information

Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information

by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén

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Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén

In many ways, Marie Curie represents modern science. Her considerable lifetime achievements—the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the only woman to be awarded the Prize in two fields, and the only person to be awarded Nobel Prizes in multiple sciences—are studied by schoolchildren across the world. When, in 2009, the New Scientist carried out a poll for the “Most Inspirational Female Scientist of All Time,” the result was a foregone conclusion: Marie Curie trounced her closest runner-up, Rosalind Franklin, winning double the number of Franklin’s votes. She is a role model to women embarking on a career in science, the pride of two nations—Poland and France—and, not least of all, a European Union brand for excellence in science.

Making Marie Curie explores what went into the creation of this icon of science. It is not a traditional biography, or one that attempts to uncover the “real” Marie Curie. Rather, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, by tracing a career that spans two centuries and a world war, provides an innovative and historically grounded account of how modern science emerges in tandem with celebrity culture under the influence of intellectual property in a dawning age of information. She explores the emergence of the Curie persona, the information culture of the period that shaped its development, and the strategies Curie used to manage and exploit her intellectual property. How did one create and maintain for oneself the persona of scientist at the beginning of the twentieth century? What special conditions bore upon scientific women, and on married women in particular? How was French identity claimed, established, and subverted? How, and with what consequences, was a scientific reputation secured?

In its exploration of these questions and many more, Making Marie Curie provides a composite picture not only of the making of Marie Curie, but the making of modern science itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226235981
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Series: science.culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Eva Hemmungs Wirtén is professor of mediated culture at Linköping University, Sweden. She is the author of Terms of Use: Negotiating the Jungle of the Intellectual Commons and No Trespassing: Authorship, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Boundaries of Globalization.

Read an Excerpt

Making Marie Curie

Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information

By Eva Hemmungs Wirtén

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Eva Hemmungs Wirtén
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23598-1


Me, Myself, I: In the Interest of Disinterestedness

"In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons." It is precisely the kind of statement you would expect from Marie Curie, one Eve Curie claimed her mother used as a generic retort when dealing with reporters too inquisitive for their own good. Upbraiding journalists for losing sight of what she felt constituted a more appropriate target for their interest, Marie Curie knew better than most that science was nothing if not about persons. So when she was approached in 1920 to write a biography of her late husband Pierre for the book series "Les Grands Hommes de France," years of firsthand experience as an international celebrity had taught her two things. First, she was in the position to ensure Pierre Curie a well-deserved place in the company of immortals such as Descartes, Talleyrand, and Racine. Second, there were real advantages to that quintessential text "about-persons-rather-than-things" that science on the whole did better without. Perhaps reminding the world of her husband's accomplishments was motivation enough to sign the publisher's contract. And yet, because his work and life were so tightly bound to hers, she was also offered—under the most acceptable of forms—the possibility of overseeing her own legacy. Managing their public personas in print was something scientists were increasingly willing to do, and readers were eager to take it all in. Young persons especially needed to appreciate what it meant "to be devoted to science," as Henry Neumann framed his request for Curie's permission to include an excerpt from the U.S. edition of Pierre Curie in his book of readings due from the Atlantic Monthly.

The biography outlined her spouse's personal qualities and followed his early achievements in painstaking detail. And while its author modestly questioned her ability to accurately depict her husband's childhood, few would have entertained the idea that this particular book could have been penned by anyone else. So when the narrative provided her with an opportunity to make one of the few openly programmatic statements about how the famous husband-and-wife team viewed their work, she made the most of it.

Our investigations had started a general scientific movement, and similar work was being undertaken in other countries. Toward these efforts Pierre Curie maintained a most disinterested and liberal attitude. With my agreement he refused to draw any material profit from our discovery. We took no copyright, and published without reserve all the results of our research, as well as the exact processes of the preparation of radium. In addition, we gave to those interested whatever information they asked of us. This was of great benefit to the radium industry, which could thus develop in full freedom, first in France, then in foreign countries, and furnish to scientists and to physicians the products which they needed. This industry still employs today, with scarcely any modifications, the processes indicated by us.

As she enumerated the dos and the don'ts, Curie situated scientific practice within a gift/market dichotomy with two distinct systems of credit and reward. Intellectual property represented an "interested" perspective where you "reserve advantage." Choosing to "publish without reserve" and keeping "no detail secret" instead epitomized the values of disinterestedness. Abstaining from proprietary shackles on radium spurred more innovative activity in both science and industry, and not less. The industry could then develop "in full freedom, first in France, then in foreign countries." This is as close as we get to a will and testament about the discovery of radium and the science of radioactivity, the leitmotif Curie wanted associated with her scientific legacy. Material profit was refused, but on the other hand publishing took place without reserve. No advantage was reserved in industrial application, but no detail was kept secret and information given freely. Diligent readers might find the expression "took no copyright" slightly odd given the circumstances. It could have been a blunder on the part of the American translators, Charlotte and Vernon Kellogg, because even if copyright had to be registered in the United States at the time, the original French text does refer to the more logical brevets (patents).

And what was the result of their action of nonaction? Not the opening up of science's new great unknown, but the blossoming of a radium industry. And all of this because the Curies subscribed to the value of disinterestedness. Scientific discovery does not come about for any ulterior motive than curiosity; it serves no other master than itself and is its own reward; disinterestedness goes together with universalism, communism, and organized skepticism, Robert Merton's classical imperatives of modern science. But look beyond the altruistic surface and you find a remarkably strong claim to radium. Everything—in the science and industry of radium—began and ended with the act of relinquishment, an act that paradoxically ensured the Curies the strongest possible entitlement to the fluorescent new element they had given away.

Taking this quotation as point of departure, this chapter aims to understand something of how this powerful representational dichotomy between patenting and publishing, between the "pure" and the "applied" ended up the way it did in Pierre Curie. I hope to show that Marie Curie's rhetorical choices resulted from a set of claiming strategies that secured control over radium outside formal intellectual property regimes. Both the patent and the article, for instance, the two texts Curie situated on each side of the pure/applied dichotomy, are claim-making texts. Rather than considering how they diverge, I want to think about the space where they converge. Choices were made in respect to the authorship, ownership, and control of radium that hold an important key to a more nuanced understanding of how the Curie persona would evolve. But in order to unpack just how much interest went into scientific disinterestedness, we need to get a few biographical data out of the way first.


Pierre Curie and Marya Sklodowska married on July 26, 1895. With the exception of two bicycles given to them as a gift, neither husband nor wife had any possessions to speak of and no marriage contract was signed. Four years previously, the future Madame Curie had arrived in Paris to study science at the Sorbonne, where she graduated top of her class for the licence ès sciences physiques in 1893 and second the following year for the licence ès mathématiques. Enrolled at a time when the French university system was in the nano-embryonic stages of gender equality, Marya Sklodowska was not merely one of very few females in an overwhelmingly male student population; she was a Polish woman among French men. Initially, such status may have provided an unexpected bonus as far as access to the university was concerned, but as we shall see in the next chapter, later it proved a lethal combination of gender and nationality her enemies claimed precluded her from contributing anything of value to French science or to French society in general.

Fortunately for her, she knew nothing of what lay ahead on that score when she successfully graduated from the Sorbonne in 1894. Thanks to Gabriel Lippman, professor of physics at the same school and friend of both Curies, she received a grant from the Société d'encouragement de l'industrie nationale (SEIN) to study the magnetic properties of steel. During her work for SEIN—since 1801 an important initiator of industry-based research in France—she met her husband-to-be, who defended his thesis at the Sorbonne in the spring of 1895, becoming docteur ès sciences physiques. Their first child, Irène, was born on September 12, 1897.

Only a few months after giving birth, Marie Curie embarked on her thesis, the topic of which caused her some initial hesitation. She could have continued her research on steel, but two recent and sensational events turned her attention elsewhere. First, there was Wilhelm Röntgen's 1895 discovery of what he "for the sake of brevity" called X-rays. Then, Henri Becquerel, professor at the École polytechnique, accidentally forgot a pack of uranium salts in a drawer, only to find that they had emitted an unknown, spontaneous radiation on the photographic plate where he had left them. X-rays produced evocative images capturing the imagination of the broader public, but uranium salts were expensive to acquire, their visual appeal far less spectacular and their practical application uncertain. Becquerel published seven papers on his serendipitous discovery in 1896 but only two in 1897, and the scientific community's interest in it seemed to be waning. Not so Marie Curie's. "The study of this phenomenon seemed to us very attractive," she wrote, "and all the more so because the question was entirely new and nothing yet had been written upon it. I decided to undertake an investigation of it."

The formidable twosome of Pierre Curie materialized during a six-year period beginning in 1897 and ending with the 1903 Nobel Prize. This is when the collaborative "I" and the "we" discovered (1898) and isolated (1902) radium, work that first took place in a small, glassed-in space used as a storage room for machines, and then in an old, abandoned shed. Both makeshift laboratories were located on the premises of the École municipale de physique et de chimie industrielles (EPCI), Pierre Curie's academic home for more than twenty-three years. When EPCI opened its doors in 1882, it was in response to a somewhat brutal French wakeup call following the 1878 Exposition universelle, where the international contributions had proven unexpectedly competitive. As always, France first measured her strengths against Germany. And came up short. The blame for lagging behind, especially in chemistry, was placed on a lack of professional schools and adequate training. Since these concerns were exacerbated by the loss of Alsace to the archenemy, there was some logic to EPCI's being the brainchild of Charles Lauth, an Alsatian chemist. Pierre Curie, about to make a name for himself in the scientific community, was perfectly matched with this new institution outside the traditional grandes écoles. Home-schooled, never attending the elite École normale supérieure or École polytechnique, he was described by his biographers as a bit of a loner and outsider, an image he to some extent appears to have cultivated himself.

The laboratory housed gentlemanly pursuits of disinterested ambition, while simultaneously providing industry with high hopes for a less "pure" and more "applied" future that would benefit the nation in the competitive, international race for industrial supremacy. But the laboratory was also a legal space, one where bodies, laws, and texts clashed and overlapped. As an illustration of how the discovery of radium and the Curies' claims to it had something to do with the law, I want to use the 1804 Code Civil and the 1844 Loi sur les brevets d'invention as a backdrop for this chapter. The Code Civil had set up a detailed, famously patriarchal system that governed the perimeters and rationales, conduct and misconducts relating to family life. The 1844 Loi sur les brevets d'invention captured a different set of relations, one that placed itself in the sphere of innovation and progress, a public and professional sphere separate from that of family life and domestic nitty-gritty. Rather than uphold any artificial distinction between the two spheres of private/public, I prefer to situate the laboratory as a permeable continuum between "pure" and "applied" science, between interest and disinterestedness, between gift and market, but also between the Code Civil's "petit monde" and the "grand monde" suggested by the Loi sur les brevets d'invention.

In the Code Civil enforced at the time of the Curies' life together, article 213 stipulated that "the husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband," an article that was not removed until 1938. Article 1124 of the Code Civil judged Marie Curie incapable, a status married women shared with children and the insane. Eugène Pouillet, author of Traité théorique et pratique des brevets d'invention et de la contrefaçon (1899), a 1000-page standard treatise on patents reprinted several times, explained: "by incapables the law refers to those whose social status, weakness of mind, or presumption of such weakness in effect prevents them from managing their own affairs, and as a consequence, from signing contracts." The clause remained active until 1938. Not until July 13, 1907, did the law recognize married women's right to "the products of their work" and allow them membership in a syndicat and the right to receive a pension. The right to vote, however, was not secured until 1944, ten years too late for Marie Curie to be able to exercise her civic duty.

Nevertheless, we still know something about her feelings on French women's suffrage. On July 7, 1932, when the question went before the Senate—ultimately defeated with an overwhelming 253 votes against 40—Curie's name came up during the debate. There was not much the opposing camps agreed on, except perhaps that only three living women belonged to the French elite: Mme Curie, Mme de Noailles, and Mme Colette. Louis Barthou, who admitted never having broached the subject of the vote with Curie, felt sure that if he had, she would not have pronounced herself favorably on the topic. From several conversations with the other two women, Barthou concluded they were both "hostile to the 'suffrage féminin.'" Très bien! Shouts of acclamation and applause echoed in the Senate. It went without saying that if only three women in France had attained sufficient prominence and sophistication to be trusted with the vote, then it was political suicide to make a blanket extension of the right to all women. In 1932, Curie was a world-famous scientist who rejected all requests that did not meet her benchmark standard of being directly related to "pure science." Here, however, in one of the most controversial of political issues in French society, she did have an opinion. The day after the debate, she wrote to Jules Jeanneney, the president of the Senate, to set the record straight. To say she was unfavorable to women's suffrage was "surely a misunderstanding," and without pronouncing on the modalities of granting political rights to women, she continued, "I think that the principle is essentially just and that it should be recognized." Jeanneney replied that it was impossible for him to notify the Senate of a correction from someone, "however prominent," who did not belong to the Assembly. But, he added with some insight, "you have, I think, obtained the result you wanted in communicating your letter to the press."

More than thirty years earlier, her marriage to Pierre Curie had subsumed all her property rights under her husband's. Marie Curie was on the path of becoming the first female docteur at the Sorbonne, but when it came to holding property she was just like any other married woman during the Third Republic (1870–1940): barred from owning, controlling, and benefiting from either tangible or intangible property. Article 217 of the Code Civil stated: "The wife ... cannot give, transfer, mortgage, acquire whether free of charge or for a consideration, without the presence of the husband or his consent in writing." All the money Marie Curie received for her work—grants, scholarships and salaries—officially fell under the control of Pierre Curie, who also had all rights over their common property, which he was free to alienate at will. On Irène's birth, article 373 gave him another privilege: "la puissance paternelle," or all rights over any children born in marriage.

The negation of patenting in the Pierre Curie narrative becomes a less straightforward proposition when we consider that Marie Curie, wife of Pierre Curie, could not hold property—and I am particularly concerned with the intellectual kind—at the time of their collaboration on radium. This was definitely one aspect of her parents' marriage that Eve Curie never introduced in Madame Curie. Perhaps it somehow risked upsetting the carefully constructed balance associated with the most famous husband-wife scientific partnership of all time, a successful collaborative unit seen as the direct result of an equally ideal marriage. Or perhaps Eve Curie wanted us to believe that marital status was an irrelevant factor as far as disinterested science was concerned, an ideal supposedly above bodily restraints.


Excerpted from Making Marie Curie by Eva Hemmungs Wirtén. Copyright © 2015 Eva Hemmungs Wirtén. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1          Me, Myself, I: In the Interest of Disinterestedness
2          Scandal, Slander, and Science: Surviving 1911
3          The Gift(s) That Kept on Giving: Circulating Radium and Curie
4          Intellectuals of the World, Unite! Curie and the League of Nations
Bibliographic Essay

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