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The Real Marie Curie

Detail from Vanity Fair cartoon of the Curies.

Vanity Fair caricature of the Curies, 1904. CHF Collections. 

During the International Year of Chemistry, Marie Curie is being honored for the 100th anniversary of her 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Arguably the most famous woman in science, Curie is the winner of two Nobel Prizes, and the discoverer of radium and polonium. Yet many people do not know much about her beyond these facts. 

In the current issue of Chemical Heritage are three very different pieces about Curie, which highlight the various aspects of her up for discussion this year. First, the magazine interviews Susan Marie Frontczak about the one-woman historical play where she plays Curie in 1915.  Later the issue showcases a 1904 Vanity Fair cartoon featuring Curie and her husband Pierre shortly after they won the Nobel Prize in Physics. And lastly, staff reviews the illustrated book Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie—A Tale of Love and Fallout

Marie Curie’s legend can be told in countless ways as demonstrated by these three very different pieces. However, the more one becomes acquainted with her legend, the more of one she becomes. Frontczak explains how she is constantly vigilant that her audiences recognize Curie as “a real human being.” Similarly, Dionisio explains that there is always the danger that “too much emphasis on the personal could trivialize Marie and Pierre’s groundbreaking work, render their complex histories into gushy drivel, and demean Marie’s standing as a person of science.” Showcasing Curie as a scientist, a wife, a mother, and overall a woman reflects the struggles and difficulties of a real person and not a stock legend that feels like a flat caricature. 

To the everyday public Curie is the quintessential woman scientist. And while her face is not as recognizable as iconic figures like Darwin and Einstein, she is often the only woman scientist many members of the public can name. However, what she means and represents to people often relies more on stereotypes than truth. The three pieces in the magazine reach beyond the mythological Curie to examine the woman who really lived.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF. 

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Posted In: History

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