Scandal and Recovery

Illness and Rebirth

DURING THE PRESS FRENZY Curie received a telegram informing her that she had been given an unprecedented second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry. Although severely shaken by the scandal, she mustered the strength to attend the award ceremony, accompanied by her sister Bronya and her daughter Irène. At the ceremony on December 10, 1911, the president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences explained why Curie's 1898 discovery of two new elements deserved this additional recognition. It had not only revolutionized scientific understanding of the nature of the atom but had also opened up new areas of medicine and even helped measure the age of the earth. In her lecture the following day, Curie reasserted her claim to be the first to see that radioactivity was a property built into atoms.
Svante Arrhenius
Svante Arrhenius, an influential Swedish physicist on the Nobel committee, at first encouraged Curie to accept the award in person, but when the scandal deepened he advised her to decline it until her name was cleared.
She gave credit, however, to Rutherford and other scientists for their contributions in explaining radioactive phenomena. Aware of accusations that she had sullied Pierre's name, she acknowledged the role their joint efforts had played in her work.


“...for her services in the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.”

--1911 Nobel Citation

Hertha Ayrton
Hertha Ayrton, in whose company Curie recuperated during the summer of 1912, had first met the Curies in June 1903, when Pierre addressed the Royal Institution in London. (courtesy IEE)
The stress of the past several months took its toll on Curie. Suffering from severe depression and acute kidney problems, she spent most of January 1912 in a private clinic, registered under an assumed name. In March she underwent a kidney operation. She spent months recuperating in a house near Paris, rented under the name Madame Sklodowska. Feeling unworthy of Pierre's name, she even forbade Irène to address letters to her as Madame Curie.

ELUDING THE PRESS remained her highest priority. In late July, still using the name Sklodowska, she traveled to England, where she spent the rest of the summer with her friend and colleague Hertha Ayrton. Like Curie, Ayrton was not only the widow of a distinguished physicist but also an important practicing physicist herself. The two women were joined in their rented house near the seashore by Curie's daughters and their Polish governess.

In October 1912 Curie returned to France but not to Sceaux, where the angry mob had once threatened her and her children. After further bed rest in the Paris apartment where she would live the rest of her life, she felt well enough to return to the lab. On December 3, 1912, she made her first lab notebook entry in nearly 14 months. The scandal had finally blown over: Madame Langevin had not mentioned Madame Curie by name in the separation agreement. The French academic world was ready to welcome the world's only double Nobel laureate.

“I have been led to think that there is a public service to be organized, which I cannot ignore, and that it could not have been properly established without myself and my laboratory's participation.” --Marie Curie to the dean of the Sorbonne, May, 1913

Curie standing in lab, 1913
Curie in her laboratory in 1913, following the Langevin scandal. (Photo ACJC)
Curie at U. of Birmingham, 1913
When Curie traveled to England in September 1913 to receive an honorary degree from the University of Birmingham, she traveled again under her married name.
NO MORE LOVE AFFAIRS lay in Curie's future. Though there would be no union between Marie Curie and Paul Langevin, her granddaughter Hélène and his grandson Michel would eventually marry. Marie Curie dedicated most of the rest of her life to the Radium Institute, which she considered both a tribute to Pierre's memory and a contribution to the betterment of human society.

Here scientists and technicians would monitor the purity and efficacy of radioactive products for medicine and industry, while conducting research to produce both pure knowledge and further beneficial uses. After long labors of design and construction, Curie saw her building completed on a street in the Latin Quarter, newly named Rue Pierre-Curie. It was August 1914.


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War Duty


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