Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science's First Family

by Shelley Emling


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Published to widespread acclaim, in Marie Curie and Her Daughters, science writer Shelley Emling shows that far from a shy introvert toiling away in her laboratory, the famed scientist and two-time Nobel prize winner was nothing short of an iconoclast. Emling draws on personal letters released by Curie's only granddaughter to show how Marie influenced her daughters yet let them blaze their own paths: Irene followed her mother's footsteps into science and was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission; Eve traveled the world as a foreign correspondent and then moved on to humanitarian missions. Emling also shows how Curie, following World War I, turned to America for help. Few people know about Curie's close friendship with American journalist Missy Meloney, who arranged speaking tours across the country for Marie, Eve, and Irene. Months on the road, charming audiences both large and small, endeared the Curies to American women and established a lifelong relationship with the United States that formed one of the strongest connections of Marie's life. Factually rich, personal, and original, this is an engrossing story about the most famous woman in science that rips the cover off the myth and reveals the real person, friend, and mother behind it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137278364
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 549,020
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Shelley Emling has written for the The New York Times, USA Today, Fortune, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London), The Huffington Post,,, The Christian Science Monitor, and the International Herald Tribune. She launched one of the first blogs for the International Herald Tribune, called Raising the Roof. She is the author of the highly acclaimed The Fossil Hunter and lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

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Marie Curie and Her Daughters

The Private Lives of Science's First Family

By Shelley Emling

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Shelley Emling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-10261-4


An Absolutely Miserable Year

Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie had come to Brussels in the first few days of November 1911 to talk physics with her peers — and also to escape. She was the only woman among twenty-three men attending a gathering of some of the world's greatest minds that included Albert Einstein and Max Planck. When they weren't debating the challenge to modern physics presented by the discovery of radioactivity, the scientists surely talked among themselves about the rumors of illicit romance swirling around the forty-three-year-old widow. In one photograph of the delegation, Marie can be seen sitting at a table in the front, with her head down over some paperwork, while her former professor, the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré, looks on. Behind them stands her married lover, Paul Langevin, thirty-eight, a dashing father of four and an expert on molecular and kinetic theory.

The wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Ernest Solvay had organized the all-expenses-paid week-long conference to focus on "the theory of radiation and quanta." He had invited Marie and the others in June — just as her life was starting to unravel. Indeed, his invitation couldn't have come at a better time. After all she had discovered, after all she had achieved, Marie's presence was no longer welcomed in France even by some who had once been among her greatest admirers. Photos resembling mug shots appeared in newspapers in an anti-Semitic broadside. Adversaries showed up at her home, hurling rocks at the windows. Fellow professors at the Sorbonne wanted the university's first female teacher out. The mother of two was close to a nervous breakdown, on the brink of madness. The Solvay Conference was a welcome diversion.

Almost all of those invited had played a prominent part in the advancement of major scientific theories. And perhaps no one more so than Marie, who had discovered two important elements, polonium and radium. A few, such as the prominent Sorbonne professor Jean Perrin, Marie had known quite well and for many years. Others, such as Einstein, she was meeting for the first time.

Complaining of nagging headaches, she walked out of several committee meetings before they were over. But her obvious distress didn't stop her from discussing with other scientists the creation of an international standard — called the Curie, in memory of Pierre Curie — that could be used to compare radium preparations from different countries. Preparation of the radium standard, which is still in use today, had been assigned to Marie, who argued in the face of some opposition that a Curie must correspond to more than just an infinitesimal amount of radium.

Worn down with worry, Marie was handed a telegram midway through the conference. The modest woman who hated attention was almost afraid to open it. But the news was not what she expected: "Nobel Prize for chemistry awarded to you. Letter follows." It could just as easily have been talking about the weather for all its simplicity. But this message from Carl Aurivillius, head of the Swedish Committee on Prizes, confirmed her place in history. Marie was about to become the first person — man or woman — to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. To this day she remains the only person to have been awarded two Nobel science prizes in different subjects. (Linus Pauling is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes — the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.)

As news of the second Nobel Prize circulated, some at the meeting grumbled to themselves that, in essence, Marie had been awarded the same prize twice, since both were related to her work on radioactivity. But praise for her years of research also flowed forth, and many of the gentlemen in attendance were gracious enough to offer their heartfelt congratulations. And yet the realization remained that despite being awarded a second Nobel Prize — an unprecedented feat for anyone but especially for a woman in a field that remained the bastion of men — 1911 was a year of humiliation, depression, and defeat for Marie. Despite so many accomplishments, her star had been falling fast during the last several months and she'd become a woman on the edge, close to losing it all.

Her life's downward spiral had begun almost a year before when, in December 1910, she had decided to emulate her late husband, Pierre, by competing for a single open seat in the French Academy of Sciences, an institution that held sway over the support and direction of French science. Although the prestigious organization boasted only 68 members, the idea of a woman trying to break into the male stronghold sparked so much attention that all 163 members of the French Institute — the umbrella organization representing five different academies — showed up to have their say. Despite the ringing endorsement of the respected newspaper Le Figaro which had named her the nation's most famous physicist the election on January 24, 1911 did not go as Marie had hoped. There were all sorts of reasons for this, but not one of them made sense. Driven by the country's growing xenophobia, some members circulated a bizarre charge that Marie's application for membership had actually been contrived by a Jewish cabal to block the honor from going to an equally talented but more Catholic candidate. Next, a conservative periodical fanned the flames by claiming that, with her Polish heritage and a maiden name like Sklodowska, Marie almost certainly was a Jew herself. (She wasn't: her mother was Catholic and her father an atheist.) Another publication splashed two photos of her on its cover that looked like police mug shots, making it seem as though she were a criminal on the run. In the weeks leading up to the vote, an all-out smear campaign took on a life of its own while willfully ignoring Marie's impeccable résumé. No doubt sexism was a major culprit. In the end, Marie lost by only two votes to radio pioneer Édouard Branly, an inventor who had been honored by the pope and backed by French Catholics. The vote was so close that the academy held a second vote as to whether women in general should ever be admitted. That vote was 90 to 52 against the idea. Indeed, the academy wouldn't admit a woman until 1979.

But that was only the beginning. The worst was still to come.

A short time after the vote, in the spring of 1911, Henri Bourgeois — a newspaper editor as well as the brother-in-law of a woman named Jeanne Langevin, the wife of Marie's lover Paul Langevin — called on Marie with some disturbing news. Jeanne had discovered a trove of intimate correspondence between Marie and Paul Langevin — and she had no qualms about making the letters public.

From most accounts, the revelation was true. Somewhere along the way Marie's close friendship and working relationship with Langevin had blossomed into a full-blown love affair, as their letters attested. In one particularly affectionate note, published by biographer Susan Quinn among others, Marie wrote him that, "It would be so good to gain the freedom to see each other as much as our various occupations permit, to work together, to walk or to travel together, when conditions lend themselves. What couldn't come out of this feeling? I believe that we could derive everything from it: good work in common, a good solid friendship, courage for life, and even beautiful children of love in the most beautiful meaning of the word."

When Langevin in turn poured out his heart about his marital difficulties, Marie shot off a sharp reply displaying an uncharacteristic possessiveness: "But when I know that you are with her, my nights are atrocious, I can't sleep, I manage with great difficulty to sleep two or three hours; I wake up with a sensation of fever and can't work." At least a few circulated letters were even more dramatic. In one, a distraught Marie intimated she might commit suicide if their relationship didn't work out. Irene and Eve "could become orphans between one day and the next if we don't arrive at a stable solution," she wrote. In another, Marie closed by saying, "My Paul, I embrace you with all my tenderness. ... I will try to return to work even though it is difficult, when the nervous system is so strongly stirred up." When it came to letters written by Paul, fewer exist, although Langevin once wrote that he was drawn to Marie "as to a light ... and I began to seek from her a little of the tenderness which I missed at home."

It's no surprise that the two were attracted to each other. Langevin had been one of Pierre Curie's star students, and admired the man enormously. Building on Pierre's early work with crystals, Langevin later would develop an invention that used sonar signals to help Allied military forces detect submerged submarines during World War I. In addition, Marie and Paul had both taught at the Sèvres school for women teachers-in-training. It also hadn't hurt that Langevin, five years her junior, was both handsome and charming.

In scientific circles, it was well known that Paul's marriage to Jeanne Langevin was an unhappy union. Fights between the two were legendary and often involved her abusing him physically. One day he turned up at his lab with bruises; he told his concerned coworkers that his wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law had attacked him. On various occasions, Langevin had promised his wife that he would stop seeing Marie. But now Jeanne Langevin possessed the letters proving that their romance was only deepening. And so the warning from Jeanne's brother-in-law was clear: Jeanne was capable of anything, which meant that Marie's life was in danger.

With that, the year turned into one of histrionics, with Jeanne Langevin flying into rages and vowing to rid her family of Marie, whatever it took. One night, when the two women bumped into each other on the street, Jeanne told Marie she'd murder her if she didn't leave France — now. Marie's friend Henriette Perrin later said she'd never forget the image of this illustrious researcher "wandering like a beast being hunted." Yet there were more letters back and forth between the two scientists. By the summer of 1911, Marie and Paul, unable to part ways, were meeting in the Paris apartment Langevin had rented the year before. By this point, he had made a habit of escaping the family home and staying in the apartment for weeks at a time. Eventually he always returned for the sake of the children. The days brought more brawls between Paul and his wife with Jeanne eventually filing charges of abandonment. Soon enough, the French press had gotten hold of intimate letters — or forgeries based on them — and many were published.

Although Marie's daughter Eve, at age six, was too young to understand what was going on, the drama was starting to take its toll on thirteen-year-old Irene, so Marie sent both girls to Poland for the summer. It was their first visit to Marie's homeland. As she had hoped, they loved it. For all that Marie had going on in her personal and professional life, the writings of Marie and her girls released by Hélène Langevin-Joliot reveal no abdication of her parental duties. No matter how tumultuous the times, Marie always took a few moments to record observations about her daughters' development in her notebook. She recorded when Irene first got her period, stating that "she doesn't lose much blood and scarcely suffers." She recorded personality traits as well. When it came to little Eve, Marie described her as a very sensitive child in tune with the feelings of others, recalling how once when she had "reproached Irene for I don't know what. ... Eve dissolved into tears." In her letters to her girls, Marie was no gushing mother. But even when the turmoil was at its worst, Marie never lowered the high standards she set for her children. And she always kept a watchful eye. In August 1911, when both girls were in Poland staying with Marie's sister Bronya, Marie wrote to express worry that she hadn't heard from them for a few days. She asked that they write her immediately. In conjunction with her sister, Marie made certain that they enjoyed a lot of time outdoors and also that their intellectual progress was closely monitored. Irene was assigned a half-hour German lesson as well as trigonometry lessons every day of her holiday. Their academic training was evidently rigorous. There's a letter from a defensive Irene even pushing back after being criticized by Marie for her handwriting: "Furthermore, I find that my writing is prettier straight than slanted."

But no matter how busy they were kept, the girls longed for their mother. They often ended their letters to Marie with tender farewells such as: "I kiss you with all my heart on your beautiful tired forehead." Once that summer, when Irene wasn't feeling well, she wrote her mother: "Oh, how I would have liked to have you here while I was sick."

Fortunately, by September, Marie was able to join her daughters in Poland for a happy hiatus — taking the girls on long hiking trips through the mountains — before she had to head off to Brussels and the Solvay Conference in late October.

Almost immediately after receiving that first telegram with news of the Nobel Prize, a second telegram showed up at the conference confirming what Marie had heard earlier. Jeanne Langevin was prepared to release letters to the press proving that her husband was having an affair with Marie. In a politically charged atmosphere that was increasingly intolerant of foreigners — the national elections in 1910 had resulted in a considerable shift to the right in France's Chamber of Deputies — right-wing newspapers stepped up their attacks on Marie even more, tearing apart the legend they had helped create only a few years before. Indeed, many publications took notice of Marie's second Nobel Prize with only a few words on an inside page. As time went on, newspaper after newspaper kept hammering away at the story of Marie's affair but none more so than the ultra-nationalistic La Libre Presse, with its chauvinistic catchphrase "France for the French."

Most egregious in the collective mind of the French press was Marie's warning to Langevin in one particularly emotional letter that he not get his wife pregnant during a time of reconciliation. Despite the hardened persona she had always cultivated, Marie showed off her insecurities by telling Langevin that if he resumed sexual relations with his wife — and if she then became pregnant —"it would mean a definite separation between us. ... I can risk my life and my position for you, but I could not accept this dishonor." Many in France found this tantamount to treason at a time when the country needed all the offspring it could get to ward off a German threat. As one newspaper worded it, nobody in France should be concerned that Marie might leave the country because of the scandal, but rather everybody should be worried for the "French mother, who ... wants only to keep her children. ... It is with this mother, not with the foreign woman, that the public sympathizes. ... All French mothers are on the side of the victim and against her persecutors."

A humiliated Marie left the Solvay Conference early and returned to France, where by now the public's animosity toward her was palpable. What should have been a glorious moment — the winning of a second Nobel Prize — had come at one of the worst periods of her life. For the hardworking scientist, the love affair had stymied any celebration and had led, by November 1911, to a quick but ignominious toppling from grace for the world's most famous woman.

Most hurtful was her arrival back at her house near Paris, where she came face-to-face with an angry mob hurling stones at her windows amid shouts of "Go home to Poland," which spoke to the intensity of the public's malice toward her. Marie had no choice but to sweep up her two horrified daughters and seek refuge at the home of her good friends Marguerite and Emile Borel. Earlier, the young Irene, who so idolized her mother, was at school when a friend pointed to a newspaper headline about the Langevin affair. The stunned girl skimmed the story and reportedly burst into tears.

As Eve later wrote in her biography of her mother, people began referring to Marie as a Russian, a German, a Pole, a Jew, or some combination of all four. Mostly, though, she was simply called that "foreign woman" who had come to Paris like a usurper to conquer a high position improperly. Ironically, in earlier years, it was the same scurrilous right-wing tabloid press that had done Marie an inadvertent favor by promoting and thus elevating the public's view of the Nobel Prize, which previously had been scarcely noticed in the field of science. But now, despite their failure to verify the innuendos, hungry reporters seemed determined to topple the icon they had helped build up.


Excerpted from Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling. Copyright © 2012 Shelley Emling. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue America: A Fresh Point of Departure for the World's Greatest Scientist xiii

Chapter 1 An Absolutely Miserable Year 1

Chapter 2 Moving On 15

Chapter 3 Meeting Missy 31

Chapter 4 Finally, America 45

Chapter 5 The White House 59

Chapter 6 New and Improved 73

Chapter 7 Another Dynamic Duo 87

Chapter 8 Turning to America-Again 101

Chapter 9 Into the Spotlight 117

Chapter 10 The End of a Quest 133

Chapter 11 Tributes and New Causes 147

Chapter 12 All about Eve 161

Chapter 13 The Ravages of Another World War 175

Chapter 14 Rough Waters 189

Chapter 15 The Legacy 203

Selected Bibliography 213

Index 215

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