The Benefits of Being MRS. Curie

Marie Curie.

Marie Curie.

Marie Curie is deservedly recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century, and one of the goals of the International Year of Chemistry is to celebrate her. But there are many great scientists whose names never circulated beyond the scientific community. It's worth asking if she would have won two Nobel prizes (or even one) if she had not married Pierre Curie. My educated guess says no. 

This is not to say that Pierre Curie single-handedly turned his wife into a great scientist, but is rather a comment on the social structures of the day. Women could receive advanced degrees in science and even find jobs in science, but could not become professors at the Sorbonne or members of the Academy of Sciences (though Curie eventually managed the former).

Curie was not the first woman to make a name for herself in science. Earlier, in the late 18th century, Caroline Herschel was known as an astronomer and comet discover. In the 19th century, Mary Somerville was known as the Queen of Science for her mathematical and broadly synthetic books on science. Yet both lived in an age before science was a profession, and before women were allowed to attend university. Both began their education with the help of sympathetic male family members. The letter from an important British politician requesting Somerville to translate Pierre Simon Laplace’s great mathematical and astronomical work was not addressed to Somerville herself (a social solecism, indeed), but to her husband. In a parallel to Somerville's experience, the letter informing Curie she won a scientific prize was addressed to her husband.

The increasing professionalization of science in the second half of the 19th century should have made life easier for women pursuing science, except that women on the whole were not allowed to join professions. Women could become teachers at girls’ schools, as Curie did, but only men became professors.

Part of what makes Curie to this day such an interesting figure outside the scientific community is what almost destroyed her reputation. In 1906 Pierre Curie died in a street accident. Curie was devastated, though several years later she found some comfort through an affair with scientific compatriot Paul Langevin. Scandal later ensued, to the extent that Curie was warned not to turn up in Stockholm to pick up her 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry. A man would probably not have received the same advice. Luckily times have changed since then.

Posted In: History

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