The Private Lives of Science’s First Family
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
256pp, hardback, £16.99
Reviewed by Jessica Mann
Many biographies say far too much about their subject’s childhood, but I have never before come across one that leaves it out almost entirely. It is particularly strange in this case because Marie Curie’s early years were packed with incident and interest. Born in 1867, she was the youngest of five children in a large family of patriotic Poles living in Warsaw at a time when the occupying Russians forbade the speaking or reading of Polish. Her parents, both teachers, defiantly used their native language at home, and bravely committed such subversive acts as teaching their country’s history. Her mother died young and her father lost his job when he was caught teaching Polish. In her teens Manya (as she was called then) worked as a governess and then stayed up half the night to study maths and science. When her elder sister married a medical student and moved to Paris, Marie went too, studying sciences at the Sorbonne where she met and married another scientist, Pierre Curie. Working together they discovered radium. In 1906 Pierre was killed in a traffic accident and Marie took over his job as director of the Sorbonne Physics Laboratory, the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She founded centres of medical research in Paris and in Warsaw, working, fundraising and teaching until she died in 1934, the first victim of radiation poisoning.
If one is not a scientist – and perhaps even if one is – Mme Curie’s life story seems almost unbelievable. She made unique, world-changing discoveries, identifying two elements, radium and polonium, and she developed a theory of radioactivity. Wherever she went in her professional life, she was the first woman to do so. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903, jointly withPierre, and in 1911, a second one, for chemistry. Her daughter Irene also became a research chemist and she and her husband also became Nobel Prize winners.
It is Curie’s uniquely successful, unimaginably hard-working adult life that Shelley Emling describes, concentrating on the years from 1921, when Marie Curie, already world-famous, embarked on her first visit to the United States, till her death in 1934. Those were the years in which she made repeated visits to America, often with Irene or her younger daughter Eve, a foreign correspondent, humanitarian and author. Her friend and guide to American life was a journalist, Missy Meloney. Shelley Emling has had access to her unpublished correspondence describing Marie Curie’s triumphs, as she visited the White House, received honorary degrees, dedicated laboratories, toured chemical companies and attended many ceremonial occasions. This exhausting programme of public appearances raised money for the cause: research into radium and its uses.
No book about such a remarkable trio of women as the three Curies could fail to be interesting, but doubts about Emling’s accuracy creep in when one reads, for example, that Missy Meloney was nervous when she first met Mme Curie despite the fact that ‘in the past the accomplished journalist had won an audience with the likes of Benito Mussolini – on four separate occasions – as well as with Adolf Hitler.’ The year is 1920, several years before Mussolini came to power and thirteen years before Hitler did. Equally anachronistic is the suggestion that in 1921 anyone in America was struggling for ‘women’s liberation’. The carefully demotic style jars too, for nothing dates so quickly as language. Does anyone still put the ‘kibosh’ on anything?
Many details of the Curies’ story have stayed in my mind ever since my mother pressed Eve Curie’s life of her mother Madame Curie upon me in the (vain) hope that I would see the famous scientist as a role model. Shelley Emling also hopes that her readers – ‘Young women everywhere’ – will do the same.
(£1 from the sale of each copy of this book will be donated to Marie Curie Cancer Care.)