Brain Pickings

July 5, 1934 Obituary: Mme. Curie Is Dead; Martyr to Science

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“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.”

“Read obituaries,” Charles Wheelan advised in his wonderful 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said. “Obituaries are just like biographies, only shorter. They remind us that interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly, linear lives.”

On July 4, 1934, legendary Polish-born physicist and chemist Marie Curiesage of science, reconstructionist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to date to win a Nobel in two different sciences — took her last breath. The following day, The New York Times published a lengthy obituary for Curie, which began on the front page and spilled over into the interior of the paper — a rare outlier in mainstream media’s recently bemoaned severe gender bias in notable deaths, amidst the travesty of opening a remembrance for a female rocket scientist with her Beef Stroganoff recipe. Curie’s obituary, however, was a true masterpiece of the genre, celebrating Curie’s spirit and legacy in a beautifully dimensional way:

PARIS, July 4. — Mme. Marie Curie, whose work alone and with her husband on radium and radiology has been one of the greatest glories of modern science, died at 6 o’clock this morning in a sanitarium near Sallanches in Upper Savoy. Her death, which was caused by a form of pernicious anemia, was hastened by what her physicians termed “a long accumulation of radiations” which affected the bones and prevented her from reacting normally to the disease.

Mme. Curie went to Sallanches last Friday after having been for five weeks in a Paris clinic. It was thought at first that she had suffered a lung ailment and for that reason she was sent to the mountains. Her death came as a surprise to all but her family and intimate friends, for the rare modesty of her character never deserted her and she did not allow the public to know how ill she was. Her daughters, Eve, who is a dramatist and pianist of considerable talent, and Mme. Jolliot, who with her husband was carrying on the family tradition at the radium institute over which her mother presided, were at the bedside when the end came.

The text goes on to note the astounding contrast between Curie’s monumental contributions to science and her famous modesty.

Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie. Her epoch-making discoveries of polonium and radium, the subsequent honors that were bestowed upon her — she was the only person to receive two Nobel prizes — and the fortunes that could have been hers had she wanted them did not change her mode of life. She remained a worker in the cause of science, preferring her laboratory to a great social place in the sun. The road which she and her husband had chosen she followed throughout her life, disdaining all pomp. And thus she not only conquered great secrets of science but the hearts of the people the world over.

What New York Times obituaries say about America (Columbia Journalism Review)

For anyone still convinced that the attainment of a Nobel Prize is glorious business, the Times cites Academy of Paris president Paul Appell’s account of the Curies’ version of Patti Smith’s starving artist days:

M. and Mme. Curie, not being able to pursue their chemical experiments in a schoolroom which had been placed at their disposal, arranged for these in a sort of abandoned warehouse opposite their atelier. In this place, with its asphalt floor, its broken and patched glass roof, hot in Summer, heated by a cast-iron stove in Winter, they performed their wonderful work.

The equipment consisted of some old and worn deal tables, upon which Mme. Curie prepared the material for the production of radium. She was laboratory chief assistant and handy boy at the same time. In addition to her intellectual labor it was frequently necessary for her to perform severe manual toil. On many an afternoon she stirred in a great caldron with a heavy iron rod the molten mass of the radioactive products, reaching home at evening exhausted by fatigue but delighted to see that her labors had led to a luminous product of concentration.

The obituary further illustrates the Curies’ humble, dedicated ways:

So devoted were these two to their work that they frequently forgot to eat, and as often ate plain bread and washed it down with coffee in their laboratory.

This humility is also manifested in how, like fellow science hero Richard Feynman, notoriously nonchalant about honors Curie was:

Honors were heaped upon her, but she was indifferent to most. The money she received from her prizes was immediately used for purposes of scientific research. In 1919 one gram of radium, valued at $100,000, was presented to Mme. Curie as the gift of the people of the United States. In 1929 she received the money with which to purchase another gram of the precious substance, the presentation being made by President Hoover.

Marie Curie, reconstructionist

Curie further defied the stereotypes of her field by infusing her scientific pursuits with a genuine humanistic disposition, best bespoken by her tireless efforts during WWI:

When the World War broke out Mme. Curie offered her services to the Government of France. She closed the Institut Curie and with her elder daughter, Irene, and a few students, she went to a hospital behind the front, employing her knowledge of radiography in aiding the wounded. At her suggestion, automobiles equipped with radiographic apparatus were utilized along the front, and by this means bullets and shell splinters were located in the heads of dangerously wounded soldiers.

But Curie’s legacy is perhaps best captured by Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale, one of the many universities that awarded her honorary degrees:

There is one thing rarer than genius. That is radium. Mme. Curie illustrates the combination of both.

At the heart of what made Curie particularly exceptional, however, lies a bittersweet, wistful recognition of how rare women in science have always been — a fact that desperately needs changing if we are to save the future of science for all of humanity.

Pair with artist Lauren Redniss’s magnificent illustrated cyanotype biography of Curie, one of the best art books of 2011.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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