A European scientist – On the 150th birthday of Marie Curie

Right between the universally acclaimed 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 28th of the fall of the Berlin Wall we finda somewhat less celebrated jubilee: the 150th birthday of one of the most important science personalities in history. Marie Curie, born on November 6, 1867, would be given insufficient justice by calling her „one of the most important female scientists“, for like barely any other person she stands out in the entire maledominated bastion of science.

She was not only the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize (1903 in physics, the third ever), she was also the first person to win the highest award in science twice and is still the only person to have received it in two different scientific disciplines (physics and chemistry). And she is the only mother whose child (daughter Irene 1935) also received the Nobel Prize. Last but not least she was the first woman to be honored a grave in the French Hall of Fame, the Panthéon.

During her lifetime, however, the French have not always been well-disposed to her. She was never accepted into the venerable Académie des sciences. Her application was voted down in 1911 by anti-women and xenophobic slogans in the right-wing press (which included Le Figaro, still today one of France’s leading daily newspapers). The worst hit for her, however, was a smear campaign of the French press less than a year later. The occasion had been a love affair of the widow (her husband Pierre had died from an accident five years earlier). Curie had fallen in love with the (married) mathematician Paul Langevin. As a consequence she was insulted in defaming ways, as a „foreigner“ (from Poland) destroying a French home, and a „Jewess“ (which, not that it mattered, she was not, the reactionary and anti-Semitic paper L’Oeuvre hardly cared). It took many years for Curie to somewhat recover from these hostilities (she never did entirely). Not without irony, in the midst of this campaign came the news of Marie Curie being awarded her second Nobel Prize.

Marie Curie’s passion was the research into the phenomenon of radioactivity, the name of which she coined. Quite literally she devoted her life to this passion. She died of leukemia in 1934. But already in the beginning of 1903, her and Pierre’s first health problems began. Again and again, she suffered from physical weaknesses that were most likely due to radiation (which, among other things, prevented her from personally travelling to Stockholm and receiving her first Nobel Prize). Nevertheless, she reachedthe astounding age of 66 years, as even today her estate – records, clothes, furniture, pretty much everything she left -is so contaminated that it can only be touched with protective clothing, plus one has to sign a legal waiver for doing so (her second daughter, Eve, who never handled radioactive substances, reached an age 103 years).

The fact that she had come to Paris in the first place, she „owed“ to the fact that in her native country Poland (which at the time was in union with Russia, i.e. was part of the Russian Empire), women were not admitted to universities. She remained nevertheless emotionally deeply attached to her country of birth, naming the first new radioactive element she discovered (and for which she received her second Nobel Prize in 1911) “polonium”. The most famous daughter of Poland and at the same time the most important female scientist in French history always saw herself as a European citizen. Is this maybe not also a sign tothe current government of the birthplace of one of the greatest women and Europeans of the 20th century, which these days is welcoming parades of right-wing fascists and anti-Semites again?

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